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Set Free the Caged Cheetah: stagnated agile and productization as a way out

Updated: Sep 25, 2023



We've noticed this post by Al Shalloway with a key quote from it:

"I don’t see Agile as dead, or even dying. But it has stagnated"

In our understanding, agile has stagnated because it is either being


  • used locally at a team-level

  • abused at scale by different enterprise frameworks.


We can attribute the industry-wide failure of agile to many different reasons: like Scrum not being clear on its applicability at scale, SAFe promoting anti-agile practices, certification-focused business models creating an illusion of ease of change, 'framework thinking' as a false belief that a third-party solution can solve your complex internal problems...


Yet, we think the deeper reasoning of stagnated agile is that true change is hard. And true change at scale is even harder. That can be attributed to social and organizational psychology: we human beings can be easily anchored by local-scope short-term gains at the cost of long-term broader success. It is the human nature. This is us. And this manifests in the world around us as wars, climate crises, racism, etc. And of course, it is seen at the organizational level.


As organizations get older and bigger, they lose their initial entrepreneurial mojo, increase hierarchies of middlemen responsible for sustaining the status quo by minimizing risks and costs. Over time, organizations grow islands of local optimization and narrow thinking. Those departments and smaller structures surround themselves with fences, avoid and fake change at a larger scale, and keep doing stuff that is vastly wasteful from the viewpoint of the customers and stakeholders.


Around 20 years ago, we've discovered the cheetah. Lightweight, fast, flexible, agile, adaptive... Those values and principles all looked so simple and made so much sense! But it required slow thinking, thorough leadership, and meticulous continuous daily practice to stay on the cheetah's path towards true agility.


Being agile requires constant effort. Keeping the organization free from narrow short-term thinking requires a continuous flux of energy and slow deep thinking. Otherwise, the entropy will do its job - break the unity apart, let grow fences and let the locally-optimizing human beings create all kinds of organizational dysfunctions.


The antidote to getting older and slower?


Consolidation is the answer.


  1. Skill consolidation at lower-level org units (typically, cross-functional teams).

  2. Value consolidation at higher-level org units (typically, value domains or the whole company).


We're going to skip the skill consolidation for now, also because improving team capabilities is known territory for most of us. The practices offered by the original eXtreme Programming and now the more modern viewpoint of the DevOps movement have countless good ideas on this.


Value consolidation, on the other hand, is less of a known territory for most organizations that are still managing value by separation, segmentation, and segregation. A common belief is that managing something big and complex requires splitting it into parts. But does it?

Dividing an Elephant in Half does not Produce Two Small Elephants (one of the system thinking laws).

Value consolidation requires systems thinking: seeing and working with the whole. It is hard because it is counter-intuitive. We tend to focus on the most obvious: the parts of the whole and tend to ignore the less visible: their interactions. Seeing and working with the whole means treating the parts and their interactions as one.


That is why applying the agile ideas at the team level only (the parts) won't likely yield all the expected benefits. We need to apply the agile ideas to the group of teams interacting with each other on a common goal - e.g. learning and delivering a broader understanding of customer/stakeholder value. Instead of taking products apart, we need to find what binds them to benefit from logical, synchronous dependencies as they are opportunities for collaboration. That is what we call value consolidation.


What makes it harder for managers of a given organization to consolidate value is the noise that the dysfunctions of the existing organization create. Being a part of the system, managers are anchored with an inward view. Having in mind the existing structures and the given software architectural elements will prevent them from figuring out how to rethink and consolidate value. The value, in most organizations, is already disseminated and is hard to grasp. That's why the simple question: "What is your product?" becomes so hard for many organizations to answer.


Value consolidation requires an outside-in customer-centric and stakeholder-oriented view. You need to step out and look broader. Usually much broader than you tend to do.


Productize!


An organization of any size needs just 90 days to prepare and execute its first productization - a thoughtful process of consolidating on both: team skills and customer/stakeholder value.


Why just 90 days? You don't need to be perfect to start. And you will never be. All you need is a good-enough starting setup and its improved future version that can be worked towards as you go.


Here's our seven-step approach of introducing productization:

  1. FINDING VALUE DOMAIN.

  2. FORMING TEAMS FOR THE DOMAIN.

  3. FORMING LEADERSHIP TEAM.

  4. AGREEING ON THE IMMEDIATE AND IMPROVED ORG STRUCTURE.

  5. APPLYING PRODUCT-LEVEL SCRUM.

  6. STRIVING FOR ZERO DISTANCE.

  7. STRIVING FOR BROAD SPECIALIZATION.

More details on the seven steps to come next.



© 2023 Roland Flemm and Alexey Krivitsky for Org Topologies™.




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