Agile is the process digital technology needs

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In my presentation at Agile on the Beach last week I continued my discussion of Agile and Digital. It is increasingly clear that digital and agile are intrinsically linked. Specifically, business need agile processes to get the most out of digital technology. My “Agile, Digital & the new management paradigms” presentation is online but let me give you the argument here.

There is a long standing model of technology change – so widespread I can’t find the original source – which says change comes in three steps:

  1. First new technology allows the same processes and activities to be done better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently. In this stage new technology is used to do the same things, the processes and practices change little.
  2. Next new technology allows process and practices to be reconsidered and changed to make the most of new technology. Work becomes even better – whether that be faster, cheaper, higher efficiency, superior products, whatever.
  3. Finally new innovations appear because of the technology and new processes. One can see opportunities for new businesses, new business models, the next round of technology innovation and more.

So the whole thing repeats.

Look at the photo above. According to WikiCommons this is a picture of a factory at Woolwich Arsenal sometime in the 1800s. Notice the belts stretching from the ceiling to the workstations. These carried power, or to be more precise motion. Above the workers is the line shaft which turns. The shaft is driven by a central power (motion) source somewhere, probably a water wheel or a steam engine.

This is before electricity. The line shaft and the belts carry the power the factory needs to work. And they break, the longer they are the more prone to breaking they are. Factory design is constrained by the need to have straight lines for the line shaft and short distances between the shaft and the workstation. And factory design dictates layout and processes.

Then came electricity.

Electricity allowed each workstation to have its own motion generator. At first factory owners used electricity to do the same things faster and more reliably. They could dispense with the steam engine and thus the stokers and coal it needed. But at first they didn’t seize all the advantages electricity brought.

It took time to understand how a factory could be laid out more efficiently and how processes could be changed. When they did factories got even more efficient and faster. Some might argue that it took the coming of Lean manufacturing to complete these process changes.

The same story has played out in industry after industry with technology after technology. Think of Word processors: first they helped secretaries do their job faster, then processes changed and everyone wrote themselves, goodbye secretaries. Containerisation in the shipping industry is another. First ships loaded and unloaded faster. Then the shipping companies innovated but more importantly world trade innovated. Some observers claim containerisation was a more significant factor in trade globalisation than free-trade agreements.

Digital technology is like electricity. It changes business, it creates new opportunities for doing things differently. To get the most from digital technology you need new processes. Right now most companies are stuck – even happy – doing things faster. Only when they change processes will they get the full benefits.

Agile processes are that change.

Agile ways of working help companies get more from digital technologies. Without Agile companies using digital technologies are just doing the same old thing faster.

Agile started in software development for two reasons. First software developers had a lot of problems, they had the need to change. Second, programmers had the first access to digital technologies.

Ray Tomlinson, a programmer, was the first person with e-mail. Tim Berners-Lee, a programmer, had the first web-browser. Ward Cunningham, a programmer, had the first Wiki. I could continue.

Software developers created Agile because they needed to and they could.

This is why Agile is taking off in marketing.

Outside of technology itself marketing has probably been more exposed to digital technology than any other part of business. First with digital publishing then with social media. At first digital helped marketing departments do the same work faster. Next it changed what you could do entirely. Marketing is adopting agile because those processes allow marketeers to do a better job when working with new digital technology.

So forget all those arguments about agile being a better way of working (it is but never mind).

Forget all those stories of agile like processes and practices before 1998 (yes they existed but that doesn’t change things).

Forget the debate about waterfall and upfront planning versus agile and just-in-time (that is history).

All you need to know is:

  1. Digital technology is helping you do things faster/better/cheaper.
  2. Agile ways of working allow you to get more from digital tools.
  3. More innovation is coming.

Agile is the process for digital businesses.

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Image of Woolwich Arsenal factory taken from WikiCommons, no known copyright.

Organizational structure in the Digital and Agile age

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Someone asked the other day: how should an organisation be designed?

There are two potential answers, which actually aren’t as contradictory as they look at first sight.

The first is very simple: Don’t.

That is, don’t design your organization, don’t set out an organizational chart, don’t set out a plan and aim to restructure your organization to that plan. Rather create the conditions to let a structure emerge.

I suppose its the difference between “design” meaning “create a plan for the way you want things to be” and “design” meaning “the way things are arranged.” To differentiate them the first might be called “intentional design” and the latter “emergent design.”

That does not necessarily imply all emergent structures are good. As we see in code sometimes emergent designs are not always the best and over time they need refactoring. Which implies at some point there needs to be intentional design.

Put it like this: I’d rather your organization pulls the design rather than you push a design on the organization.

Organizational structure is itself a function of business strategy. And both need to be part emergent and part intentional. Although you might have noticed I tend towards emergent while most of the world tends towards intentional!

Thus it helps to have a reference model of how you think the organization should be, maybe something to steer the organization towards.

So the second answer to the question would be longer:

  • Create standing delivery teams which are embedded in the business line itself. This is sometimes call stream teams, or stream based development, or “teams aligned to the value stream”, or several other names I can’t think of just now.
  • Each business line is itself a stream of work and digital delivery teams support that work.
  • Teams contain all the skills and authority to do the work that is required for that business stream.
  • The team is part of the stream so the business/technical divide should dissolve. Something I call BusTech.
  • Teams are value seeking and value creating: the team seeks opportunities to create value for the business and delivers on the most valuable ones.
  • Devolve authority to the teams whenever you can. Teams are mini-businesses. (Notice I deliberately don’t use the word empowerment.)
  • Teams grow when the business is successful and more digital capability is needed. And teams shrink when money is tight or less capability is needed.
  • Teams may split (Amoeba style) from time to time. New teams may be in the same business line (addressing another question) or part of another, possibly new, business line.
  • Active – or Agile – Portfolio Management sits on top to monitor progress, provide extra resources, remove resources, etc. There may even be multiple portfolio processes, one at the business line level and perhaps one above multiple business lines.
  • Minimally Viable Teams are started to explore new initiatives, sometimes these go on to be full standing teams but they may also be dissolved if the idea doesn’t validate.
  • Seek to minimise common services between teams because these create bottlenecks, conflicts and delays. Each team should stand alone. This may mean some duplication, and therefore some extra costs, but accept that. Once you have your model working you can fine tune such things later.
  • Don’t worry about planning and synchronisation between teams to much, worry more about getting the teams to release more often and deal with synchronisation issues when they become a problem.

They are the main points at any rate. If you’d like to know more Continuous Digital contains a longer discussion of the topic. (Continuous Digital actually builds on Xanpan in this regard, and the (never finished) Xanpan Appendix discusses the same idea.)

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#NoProject #NoEstimates workshop

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In August I’m running a 1-day workshop in Zurich with Vasco Duarte on the bleeding edge of Agile: #NoProjects and #NoEstimates for Digital First companies.

This is a pre-conference event for the ALE 2018 conference which is happening the same week in Zurich. Everyone is welcome, you don’t need to attend the conference.

If you book in the next two weeks you get it for cheap, after July 20 the price goes up – although its still only a few hundred euros.

Book now, save money and secure your place – places are limited!

For those ho can’t get to Zurich in August I’ve got a Continuous Digital workshop of my own and a half-day management briefing. Right now you can book either of these for private in-house delivery. I’m looking at offering these as public courses here in London, if you are interested get in touch and help me fix a date.

(I have a love hate relationship with #NoProjects, I’d love to retire the name but it resonates with so many people. So I tend to use #NoProjects when I’m discussing my critique of the project model and Continuous Digital when I’m setting out my preferred alternative.)