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A creative and pragmatic approach to business agility – to what extent is the Agile Coach able to deviate from, yet still remain loyal to the Agile Manifesto and agile practices?

Paul Boekhout, Principal Consultant / Enterprise Agile Coach

Bringing a standard agile framework into a business environment leads to a lot of discussions about the usability of Scrum. Allocated to one team full time? Daily Standups? Continuous Integration? Moreover, a number of agile practices simply do not work in all companies and in all business settings. Although an Agile Coach strives to stay close to agile practices, there is a different reality in every organization that cannot always comply with these practices. It is the job of the Agile Coach to find the right balance between principles and pragmatism. The question is how far the Agile Coach is able to deviate from, while remaining loyal to the Agile Manifesto and  Lean and Agile Practices.

This article provides an example of how a custom agile framework can be implemented in a business organization without breaking the Agile principles.

EWZ (Elektrizitätswerk der Stadt Zürich) recently launched CUSOLL, a program to design a new Single Point of Contact customer experience. The goals are to ensure higher customer satisfaction and loyalty, lower internal costs and provide a more flexible approach to manage future extensions. The main challenge was to convert the program’s vision into concrete backlog items for the agile teams.

To avoid a large and time-consuming upfront requirements phase, the teams started by describing the two most important epics to get the program started quickly. Soon after, new epics were created to make possible discussion about the direction of the program. The Program Board decides which epics will make it to realization, but not how they will be implemented.

The CUSOLL program is the first of its kind that has been adapted to an agile framework at EWZ. During the first discussions with the Program Management team, it was obvious that implementing an existing agile framework would not do the trick as a couple of agile practices could not be met. The agile teams are not co-located and the team members are not working exclusively for this program. The teams are not designing or building any software and are not able to integrate solutions each sprint. Moreover, the team setup will not remain constant through the course of the program. For each new epic, a different combination of skills and knowledge are required and therefore the teams are subject to change. The implementation of the agile practices has been adapted to suit the business context.

What this program needed was a custom designed agile framework: a pragmatic setup, maintaining the Lean Agile Mindset. Starting with the teams, a physical program room was set up where teams can meet and post stuff on the walls. Each team has its own “Team days” where the team comes together and works jointly on the items instead of everyone working at their own desks scattered throughout the company’s various locations in Zürich. As all program members are part-time allocated to this program, this approach works quite well so far. On fixed days in the week, the teams work on their Stories, almost without being interrupted. This way the team members can focus strongly on the work to be done. The teams work very efficiently, reducing context-switching to an absolute minimum. A daily standup meeting is therefore not in place.

Because of its size and importance, this program attracts major management attention. To prevent the old school command & control mechanisms from taking over, the Program Board members are actively involved in discussions on program level. They are able to steer program content in close cooperation with the Program Manager, but do not decide on how the content will be created and/or delivered. By separating Program and Team level set ups, the “What” and the “How” have been clearly separated.

To ensure that the goals of the business and the teams are aligned, the Program Board is part of the planning and execution cycles, the so-called CUSOLL increments, and joins the teams for direct discussions every three months. Through this approach, the vision and goals of the plan are clearly defined for both teams and Program Board members.

In a perfect world, the agile framework could be implemented one to one. However, in the real world, the agile framework needs to be adapted to meet the needs of the target organization.

Hopefully with this real-world example, possibilities have been shown that enable business organizations to work agile.

The Lean Agile Mindset is more important than following the scrum rules to the letter. In a business environment, it is obvious that not all Agile principles can be followed to their full extent. Creative solutions are needed to make the setup workable. Happy and motivated team members who are highly engaged deliver great value each Sprint. One of the comments heard in the teams from employees working at EWZ for over 10 years, “We never achieved so much in such a short time.” Working in cross-functional teams has proven to be highly efficient. Other programs and projects which are about to start are eager to learn from CUSOLL and adapt the new way of working for their own programs and projects.

Creativity and pragmatism are the ingredients to make the solution fit for purpose. In the end, the program’s main interest is to minimize waste and create value!

The scalable Agile Set-up for the CUSOLL Program:

2 thoughts on “A creative and pragmatic approach to business agility – to what extent is the Agile Coach able to deviate from, yet still remain loyal to the Agile Manifesto and agile practices?”

  • simon.berg@swisscom.com' Simon Berg sagt:

    Thanks for sharing. Transitory steps like these might help to show a path towards agility. Taking less disruptive approaches like his will make new ways of working less painful. It’s great to hear that you are getting good results from „starting small“.
    Yet, I am impatient to see more organizations to try an aggressive agile approach. Instead of starting some small initiatives where the majority of the organization does not have to move out of their comfort zone, I’d love to see tremendous improvements of business value from those who are brave enough to fundamentally change the organization to become agile to the core. I am convinced that the latter group will perform much, much better, with happier people creating and consuming business value.
    But for this, we as leaders have to deeply understand and intuitively apply agile principles. We need to make sure that those principles are deeply understood and acted upon in every aspect of our businesses. It’s going to be worth it.

  • Paul Boekhout sagt:

    Hi Simon, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you: it would be great to see bolder moves. However, I am convinced that this will only happen when Management starts to apply the agile principles on their level instead of only watching the Teams lower in the organisation becoming „agile“. There is still some work to be done here!

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