Capture More Agility by Tailoring Practices


[This post is a sneak preview of Jesse Fewell’s talk at IIL’s Agile & Scrum 2020 Online Conference, and is based on his upcoming book Untapped Agility]


We’ve been told that to achieve more innovation, more collaboration, or more agility, we need to adopt modern practices. Unfortunately, many of those practices seem fundamentally incompatible a team’s reality on the ground. If the experts say we have to use stable teams, product-based funding, but our current state won’t allow for it, what do we do? Short answer: We adapt. The path forward is to be agile with your agile, to transform your transformation.

Be Agile with your Agile
Transform your Transformation

 

Tailoring is management common sense


Much has been written in the project and product worlds about “tailoring” processes and practices, based on the work being done. Let’s pause for a moment to take a look at some key points. The idea of the PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition officially defines tailoring as follows:

 

Determining the appropriate combination of processes, inputs, tools, techniques, outputs, and the life cycle phases to manage a project is referred to as “tailoring” the application of the knowledge [of project management].


That’s a fancy way of saying that each organization should customize its approach to delivering work based on the specific dynamics and demands of the environment.


Moreover, these adjustments are not optional. The guide goes on to say:

 

Tailoring is necessary because each project is unique; not every process, tool, input, or output identified is necessary.


Ironically, if your PMO, Center of Excellence, or other standards group has defined their process playbook by merely copy-pasting a textbook approach from PMI, from Google, or from Spotify… they are violating the ASNI standard for project management.

 

Tailoring was always core to Agility


Now if you think that point is only for traditional project management and has nothing to do with Agility, then you would be mistaken. The original Agile Manifesto closes out its declaration of values and principles with this very topic, saying:

 

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.


That’s the conclusion, the climax, the final word. Kind of important.


So whether you come from a formal standards perspective (project management) or a more informal values-based perspective (Agile Manifesto), the expectation is the same: modify how you do your work, based on the situation at hand.


Put another way, if you believe in continuous improvement, then by definition whatever practices you are using are not optimal. If you are still using that fancy new devops method strictly out of the box, then you are simultaneously neither compliant with international standards nor consistent with the spirit of agility. Not adjusting your practices is a double-fail.

 

Okay, but HOW do we Adjust?


Unfortunately, there is almost zero guidance on how to go about tailoring effectively. Much of the literature in place today strongly advises that you do it but offers no filters, guardrails, or tips for doing so. That’s a problem, because if we don’t make the right adjustments we can get some very unwelcome side effects, such as:

 

  • If we don’t adjust enough, we still struggle unnecessarily.
  • If we adjust it too much, we lose all the benefit we’re trying to get.


How do we customize our practices without diluting their potency or even making things worse? We need to offer people a viable alternative beyond all-or-nothing.

 

The 3P Tailoring Technique


To do that, we can walk through a simple set of questions to figure out some degree of doing things better:

 

  1. Listen to their PAIN. Ask the team what is the specific frustration, difficulty, challenge they would face if we were to use a given technique.
  2. Explain the PURPOSE. Share the underlying principle of why we recommend that technique. What is the in- tended benefit?
  3. Design a PIVOT. Ask the team how might we adjust the technique so that we could get at least some of that benefit.


Here is how the process works in real life.

 

 

Tailoring Example for Documentation


Let’s say Maria the Manager wrestles with the excessive documentation generated in regulated, life-critical environments. Here’s how her team might approach that topic in their transformation.

 

  1. Maria’s Pain. “Experts say documents are wasteful. But we build medical devices. Those documents are how we pass compliance audits, never mind the rigor they foster to prevent tragic mistakes. ”
  2. A colleague explains the Purpose. “Remember, the emphasis of ‘working product over comprehensive documentation’ is to avoid distractions that waste time. I’m sure you can think of how to adjust your documentation practices to save time, without compromising the safety of the work you do.”
  3. Maria’s Pivot. “Well, much of our time is spent using our specifications to convey designs to the builders. But talking is faster than typing. We could accelerate knowledge sharing by including the designers and auditors in our meetings more frequently. Then writing the compliance documents will be more focused on the final product, rather than directing intermediate work. That might improve quality and speed, without losing any of the documentation the government requires. Let’s try this as an experiment for one subset of the overall product.”


That’s how it works. When moving on a journey towards new ways of working, leaders often get confused on how to adopt things like automation, stable teams, or prototyping. By making appropriate adjustments to established practices, you can help your transformation move forward, rather than getting stuck in the false choice of all-or-nothing.

 

[To learn more on this topic, click here to register for IIL’s Agile & Scrum 2020 Online Conference]

Jesse Fewell’s latest book, Untapped Agility, is a balanced guide to agility that gets past the hype and frustration to help frustrated leaders transform their agile transformations. Pre-order Untapped Agility today to join the movement of this groundbreaking book. After preordering, email taylor@jessefewell.com to receive the following benefits:

  • A FREE digital copy of the book
  • Exclusive Q&As with Jesse about the book
  • Autograph bookplate for your physical book copy

About the Author Jesse Fewell is an author, coach, and trainer who helps senior leaders from Boston to Beijing transform their organizations to achieve more innovation, collaboration, and business agility. A management pioneer, he founded and grew the original Agile Community of Practice within the Project Management Institute (PMI), has served on leadership subcommittees for the Scrum Alliance, and written publications reaching over a half-million readers in eleven languages. Jesse has taught, keynoted, or coached thousands of leaders and practitioners across thirteen countries on 5 continents. His industry contributions earned him a 2013 IEEE Computer Society Golden Core Award.

 


Stephen Denning on Business Agility

Stephen Denning is a former director of the World Bank, renowned speaker and author (his most recent book, The Age of Agile, has 4.5 stars on Amazon). As a keynote speaker at IIL’s Leadership & Innovation 2019 Online Conference, he gave a fascinating take on how to adopt an Agile Mindset through what he calls the “Three Laws of Business Agility.”

We received so many great questions during the 15-minute Q&A that we didn’t have time to get to them all. Thank you to Stephen for taking the time to answer each and every question. This blog post is a compilation of some of our favorites.

The recording of Stephen’s keynote, and all other speaker presentations, are available to watch on demand through June 9. Log in or register here.

To implement the Agile mindset seems to require change in processes etc. How to overcome the “fear of change”?

In general, the fear of change is fear of being changed, not change itself. If the change is good, and well communicated, and introduced in an inspiring way, change isn’t difficult. Most people want to make things better.

What is your advice for people/organizations that are reluctant to share knowledge?

In general, it’s an issue of distrust, which must be solved at an institutional level.

Can you elaborate more about customer focus vs. customer obsession? What should be the goal for organization: focus or obsession? 

There was much talk of customer focus in the 20th Century but it was mainly talk. The customer’s needs were secondary to the firm’s. Obsession means putting the customer as the real #1.

Please explain the concept of network team in more detail? Are these teams able to function independently as well as a together if need be? 

Yes. They must be able to do both.

Agile is necessary, but not sufficient: what would be, if to choose, one key ingredient besides Agile, to change the culture of the organization into a human-centered one?

Leadership storytelling is an important change tool. Human values like honesty and integrity are obviously also important. Being a good citizen must also come into the picture.

Do you know if there is a relation between human-centered organizations and revenue? 

You can certainly go broke focusing only on being human-centered. What is now possible though is to be both profitable and human-centered.

How do mid to senior-level managers get the agile buy-in from the top if it is not there?

They need to become leaders with their own inner compass and values.

Construction comes to mind as another field to apply agile. Not too much word on the success of this yet. 

I know of one construction firm that is on an Agile journey. Agile will happen in every sector.

Given cultural differences, is Agile as effective in countries where perhaps the customer is not the center of focus?

Agile is an inexorable global movement that will eventually reach all countries. You can embrace it now or embrace it later. It’s when, not whether.

What is the main characteristic of “fake” agile?

It’s parroting the words of agile without the belief, the values or the actions.

Is Agile applicable for small teams working online from different places?

Separating teams physically has obvious problems, but it has been done. Co-location is much easier.

Since leaving the World Bank, have they managed to stay agile?

They were not Agile in my day. They were very bureaucratic. There is a movement now to introduce Agile, and it has quite a bit of energy, but it is still early days. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

How would you handle the reliability-assurance of knowledge in an era of fake news and artificial intelligence?

Honesty, intellectual rigor, examining the evidence, doing the analysis—none of this is new. The Ancient Greeks spelled it out very clearly. It’s just with technology, there’s more of it to deal with.

Is storytelling like lessons learned?

Storytelling is a vast subject. You can find out more in my book, The Leader’s Guide To Storytelling.

I am not a natural storyteller. But I have heard twice today that is perhaps a skill I should develop. Any tips?

You can find out more in my book, The Leader’s Guide To Storytelling. Or for a more lighthearted look at it, my book, Squirrel Inc.

You mention agile is NOT a methodology but there are a lot of institutes giving certification training. How do you measure agile “mindset” in people and in organizations?

(This question was answered during the live Q&A.) Well, mindset is in one sense an ethereal thing and it can be hard to grasp but at the same time when you see it you can recognize it. When you see managers who are focused on enabling their staff to do things rather than controlling them, when there is trust in organizations vs. distrust. And you can sense immediately there is a difference; a different way of thinking and feeling and acting in the workplace. The measurement is more on the consequence or the result of the mindset and you see that in the way the teams flourish and the benefits for customers and the way the organization flourishes. It is one of the more difficult aspects of the whole transition is for people to realize that it is a mindset and to understand the elements of the mindset and to learn to embrace them and live them. It becomes second nature to you.

Because of the popularity of Stephen’s keynote, it will also be featured at our upcoming Agile & Scrum Online Conference. Learn more and see the speaker lineup here.