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Agile in a downturn: Big Visible Value or die.

What’s it like trying to implement, hone or expand agile practices in difficult economic times? Many seasoned agile coaches and practitioners will have horror stories and tales of unexpected triumph from previous rough spells, going back to Y2K times, when hominids roamed the plains and savannahs (and towns and cities) without smart phones and broadband and AI of any kind.

Next on the historic list would probably be the Global Financial Crisis that carried through to 2010 or so, followed by blips and hiccups until COVID times, which either wrecked or boomed whole industries.

Today’s downturn, in early 2023, is different in a few key ways.

  1. Agile is not new, and is seen in some circles as old or of uncertain usefulness
  2. Agile in the form of Scrum and SAFe may have semi-expensive to very expensive certifications at their core. Costs with uncertain benefit, and quality training in general gets hit hard in rough times.
  3. There is a profusion (one might say glut ) of asynchronous learning opportunities that allow an eternal sampling of agile-related content. This is fantastic for the self-motivated learner, and may yield some wonderful breakthrough moments on teams that figure things out on their own (we’ll have more on that later). The downside is that bottom-up implementations often stall, and training that takes people away from their day to day work will be hard to differentiate from ad hoc tips and anecdotes.
  4. New technologies like ChatGPT, of course, which didn’t participate at all in this post, by the way, but also an ever-widening array of tools and platforms and promises are drowning senior leaders and engineers in choices and decisions and potential paths forward. Until the pay off starts “agile,” including the manifesto, doesn’t directly help with that.
  5. In all candor, the age of the truly cross-functional team as a primary organizing principle is probably coming to a close, or at least becoming a niche and guide post to help simplify organizational structures.
  6. Team-based best efforts architecture that accounts for UI/UX, security, performance, cloud architecture & spend, personalization, analytics, data strategy, opportunities for AI and automation as a standard way of working, a goal, rather than an option or template to start from is increasingly unrealistic and potentially dangerous.
  7. The problem that agile solves can become blurry. This entire site is about the manifestation of Agile in the real-world, so there is little doubt here that the problems that agile helps solve are, to some extent, evergreen. But in the olden days, with eighteen month long development cycles and clean lines between design, development, test, and release, the pickings were easy. That way of working was broken and inane. But partially because of the proliferation of agile terms and half-measures, the foundational problems of connection to customers, collaboration on the teams, and sloppy handoffs can be more obscured. Unpacking complicated problems can be an activity with fewer enthusiastic sponsors in lean times.

This is just a partial list of the challenges of implementing agile in a downturn. There will be more to come, but along with that solutions or thoughts to consider, as well as toolkits and references.

As a parting thought for this post, consider this: who are the sponsors (or the potential sponsors) of your agile initiatives? Is your communication with them primarily around the rote practices or the outcomes and impacts to the organization, to the business, to the engagement of the teams? How healthy is the core business or organization doing the sponsoring?

Approaches to kicking off or evolving agile practices must be as relevant and as connected to the momentum trends of the organization as possible. If you’re leading or coaching transformation, it’s strongly recommended that you don’t wait to be told whether it is. Go see.

Agile transformations that have inadvertently fallen into the tempo and value delivery cadence of Old School Waterfall software development, potentially mirroring their host organizations, can model the kind of focus on cumulative short-term outcomes for which they are presumably advocating.

Big Visible Charts show activity. They promote transparency of work in progress and help reinforce the idea of limiting and focusing that work. How visible is that visibility? How valuable is that visibility? Is it helping keep projects on track and aligning team members, but perhaps not bridging a communication gap back to product managers if the organization is siloed? Big Visible Value happens when that chart, or some version of it, is part of an overall communication strategy that highlights the bottom line (or top line) value of accelerating or de-risking strategic initiatives.