What do Leaders Want from Agile?

I’ve just returned from a busy 4-week trip to Germany and Australia, and then Chicago. In shaking off the jet-lag cobwebs I took some time to reflect on this trip and others over the last 6-8 months (UK, Brazil, and the Agile Executive Summit). On these trips I’ve talked with many, many executives and managers who are attempting to transform their organizations in one way or another. Issues that keep coming up appear to be somewhat universal across the world. Leaders and managers:

  • Are eager to understand their role beyond delivery
  • Want to explore how to expand Agile concepts outside IT
  • Are figuring out ways to be more responsive to business and technology opportunities
  • Are eager to connect with other leaders and managers.

First, the Agile community has been focused, and rightfully so, on delivery issues—the principles and practices that have improved software delivery in many organizations. From small projects in the early years, Agile teams have expanded their repertoire to include large projects, distributed projects, projects in regulated industries, business intelligence projects, and much more. However, less emphasis has been given to what managers and leaders need to do in order to further the goal of delivering a continuous stream of value from their development organizations. The Agile, and the Lean, communities are beginning to address these issues in a more substantive way, but there is a long way to go and many managers would like more ideas and direction.

Second, leaders and managers are increasingly asking how to influence their organizations in an Agile/Lean manner beyond the boundaries of IT. These individuals recognize that to take full advantage of Agile IT—the enterprise outside of IT needs to be more fully engaged in responding rapidly to environmental opportunities. Furthermore, this movement towards enterprise agility is being driven not just from internal IT, but from other management trends such as Radical Management (Steven Denning), Beyond Budgeting (Jeremy Hope, Bjarte Bogsnes), and Lean Startup (Eric Ries).

Third, leaders and managers are looking for integrated ways to improve their responsiveness to business and technology opportunities. This actually involves the integration of enhanced delivery practices (from issue one) and wider use of agile practices in enterprises (issue two) to dramatically reduce cycle times using practices like those found in Continuous Delivery. Cycle time reductions that enable better business responsiveness come in two flavors—feature delivery cycle time and release frequency. The former is the time it takes for a feature to traverse the delivery pipeline from initiation to release and the latter is the frequency of actual release (daily, weekly, etc.). IT executives are searching for ways to increase responsiveness in areas such as mobility, cloud, and big data, while maintaining efficiency in their core applications operations.

Forth, we are finding that managers and leaders are eager to connect with their counterparts in other companies to discuss this range of issues. Too often the venues for managers and leaders to get together and discuss Agile issues are too focused on delivery and technical topics, or they are so heavily presentation oriented that little connection time remains. At the Agile Executive Forum last August (in conjunction with Agile 2011) we found that significant blocks of time for just talking were appreciated. We kept presentations short and interspersed them with lots of time for talking. Just as developers and testers want to connect with peers to discuss issues of importance to them, so do leaders and managers what to discuss topics in a peer-to-peer fashion.

I don’t profess that these four topics are the total of those considered important by managers and leaders. I don’t even profess that they are the most important four. However, they do arise from my experience in a number of different types of venues, in many locations, with a variety of leaders and managers over the last 6-8 months. I hope these observations are useful.