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Does Agile Really Make You Faster?

If you ask an executive why they want to adopt an agile approach, the chances are they will say they want to deliver things faster…

Written by David Daly

If you ask an executive why they want to adopt an agile approach, the chances are they will say they want to deliver things faster. Dig a little deeper, and you might find out that their goal is to reduce lead times (from asking for something to getting it). Or they may want to deliver more “stuff” in the same amount of time. This “need for speed” may be driven by having to keep up with (or overtake) competitors, or to respond more quickly to changing market demands.

You rarely find someone turning to agile to get “control” of their product development. After all, that sounds more like the goal of those old-fashioned waterfall approaches doesn’t it? But, more and more, I think that agile is about controlling your work (rather than the work controlling you), even when circumstances are changing quickly. And, actually, doing this is not the opposite of speeding up your delivery; rather, it is what enables you to go faster.

This thought hit me shortly after I wrote the first draft of my latest book, “Better Agile: How every software team can spend less time firefighting and have more fun building great software”. I didn’t set out to write this book to help teams switch from reactively firefighting issues to proactively delivering valuable features. Rather, I set out to write a book that would help people get the most out of agile by understanding the essential principles behind any agile method.

But, when I read through the first draft, I realised that much of the essence of agile is precisely about avoiding being in a permanent state of “emergency” where you have to constantly handle production issues, urgent new requests and a multitude of other interruptions. Because firefighting like this damages your agility in several ways:

Reducing Your Flow Efficiency

Every interruption means that another task gets put on-hold and takes longer to get done.

Reducing Your Productivity

Every interruption means an overhead from task-switching and a higher likelihood of making mistakes.

Reducing Your Predictability

If you make commitments based on being able to work on something uninterrupted, then every interruption means you have to break those promises.

Wreaking Havoc with Your Work Allocation

Getting the right people working on the right things becomes almost impossible if you are constantly having to find people to work on the latest emergency.

When discussing this with Elizabeth Harrin, she asked me why I thought teams find themselves having to operate in this firefighting mode? And that led me to think about four different types of fires (because once you understand the causes, it’s easier to prevent and/or manage them):

Fake Fires

Where someone thinks something is an emergency, but it isn’t.

Inside Fires

Where the team itself creates an emergency, for example by introducing a bug or ignoring low-priority work until it becomes urgent.

Outside Fires

Emergencies that are a result of someone outside of the team forgetting to plan ahead.

Genuine Fires

The relatively rare emergencies that are triggered by genuinely unpredictable external events.

In my talk at the upcoming Agile and Scrum Conference 2022, I explain each of these in a bit more detail, before going on to share five strategies you can use to either prevent these fires or deal with them more effectively if they do occur. I then share some tips for actually implementing these strategies (as I know it can be very hard for stretched, busy teams to make time for these kinds of improvements). And I finish off with a quick overview of the Product Development Firefighting Canvas which I have created to help teams identify and tackle the issues that are causing them the most pain.

As you can see, if you are seeking benefits from agile like pace, responsiveness and increased productivity, then stopping firefighting and taking back control is often the best place to start.

David will dive deeper into these ideas and more in his session at Agile & Scrum 2022, titled, “Stop Firefighting: How to Take Control of Your Product Development”. To learn more and register, click here.

About the Author

With over 20 years of experience in tech, David’s passion is how innovative technology solutions can enable new experiences, business models and operational efficiencies.

He has implemented Agile/DevOps within traditional, fixed-price environments and coached other teams to do the same. He is a Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Chartered IT Professional and a regular public speaker who has a passion for showing how new approaches can produce better results.

As well as writing, “Better Agile: How every software team can spend less time firefighting and have more fun building great software,” he has also co-authored the book, “Deliberately Digital: Rewriting enterprise DNA for enduring success” – a handbook for enterprise-wide digital transformation. He has also written numerous thought leadership papers and blog posts.

He is based in Nottingham, UK, with his better half and two young daughters. Beyond his passion for innovation and technology, he also loves running and playing piano in a 60s covers band.

Learn more and register for Agile and Scrum 2023 Online Conference

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