What Problems Are Executives Trying To Solve With Agile?

More than a few years ago, an agile coaching colleague of mine shared the following experience he had regarding leaders and agile –

If empowering teams, inspecting and adapting, and handling emerging requirements isn’t the problem execs are trying to solve, what exactly *is* the problem they are trying to solve? Rather than guess, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking them.  Most senior leadership teams will say something like this:

  • We are constantly blowing past commitments; we need a way to fix that and do what we say we are going to do.
  • We are putting poor quality products into market and think agile can help.
  • We need more transparency into what is going on.
  • We need more visibility into the progress we are really making on the product
  • We need to get products into market faster.
  • We don’t communicate very well, I hear agile can help us fix that.
  • It costs too much to deliver software. We want to use agile as a way to lower the cost to product the product.
  • We have way too much to do and not enough resources to get all the work done.
  • Support work is constantly interrupting new product development

I’m actually not surprised that we’re hearing this list. Of course, that’s what the majority of leaders are looking for and I’m empathetic that they are searching for solutions to these challenges. When I was leading technology teams, from the late 1980’s thru 2012, I personally experienced all of them in a variety of forms and frankly, it drove me crazy at times.

What disappoints me a bit is the impression that they’re looking at “Agile” as a “Silver Bullet” that will address what are complex, organizational, and systemic problems. These are problems that no mere framework or methodology will have a chance of resolving on its own. It’s this desire, and I may be overreaching a bit here, for a quick fix that disappoints me.

Why?

Because there are no Silver Bullets or quick fixes to hard problems and any “fix” will require the engagement of this same leadership because most likely, they are a “part of the problem”.

I remember when I took my Certified Scrum Master certification with Ken Schwaber and he said something along the following lines towards the end of the course:

People get frustrated with an introduction of Scrum thinking that it’s creating all of their problems. Scrum, or any of the agile methods, doesn’t create anything, but what it does do is show you your problems— often every day.

  • As a leader, it will expose to you organizational issues and other more systemic challenges.
  • As a team member, it will expose the impediments and realities of how well you’re delivering your software.
  • As a project manager, it will expose the faultiness of your planning and estimates, etc.

Then it’s up to you to do something about it. Reflect, examine root cause, and make a change. If you do, you’ll improve. If you don’t, Scrum will bring it to your attention again tomorrow. It can be very frustrating—particularly if you’re looking for others to fix things for you.

Instead of creating problems, agility creates an environment where the problems are exposed and almost demand resolution, but these are not simply “team problems”. It will expose challenges that all levels of the organization need to face and resolve—including the leaders who gave this feedback.

Wrapping up

Today’s technology leaders need to move from Silver Bullet thinking to truly Partnering with their teams. They also need to take some personal responsibility to learn about the methods and the mindset of agility and to engage with it and their teams.

Additionally, I’d ask them to look at the problems that they identified as more holistic and systemic in nature and equally as much their problems as their teams. Finally, wouldn’t it be great if they rolled up their sleeves, with their teams, and got to work on continuously improving things?