Relationships: a foundation for effecting change

Some friends and I were talking about how well-organised a company might be, things like a clear hierarchy, well-defined processes, job satisfaction and so on. One thing that struck me was that some companies succeed despite their poor organisation, for instance (de facto) monopolies, but also disruptive companies that use IT to rapidly transform an industry. These companies are able to make so much money that they can operate very inefficiently and still make a profit. Competition is what drives companies to be more efficient as customers can shop around for the best prices and so companies can be forced to streamline their organisations to stay profitable.

Lean production is one way to streamline an organisation and is a core concept in the Agile way of working. Lean is so critical to Agile because it provides the flexibility needed by software development companies to adapt products continuously, especially in today’s web- and app-based product landscape. The threshold for a product reaching the market is now lower than ever, but competition is also never far behind, so the company that can adapt the fastest and keep their customers happy will win.

The essence of Agile is captured in the Agile manifesto and its underlying principles, and there are many tools and techniques that can be applied to support an Agile way of working. Often though an Agile coach will focus entirely on the tools and techniques as this is a tangible, measurable way to see Agile in action. And if the team can see the benefits of working in an Agile way then they will continue to do so long after the Agile coach has gone. But, this is rarely the case. Why? To understand the problem, I return to the first statement in the manifesto:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

What I interpret this to mean is that it is paramount to build relationships with your stakeholders, your boss, your team and anyone else that can impact the success of your mission. This is good advice in any company, but it is absolutely essential for sustaining an Agile way of working in the long term. Let me explain why this is so.

Every software product is a one-off, unique, therefore the success of a product cannot be guaranteed in advance since it has never been built before. This is why iterative development and the resulting customer feedback are so important, so we can adapt the product to as we go, using customer happiness as a measure of success. What is often missed is that customer feedback may also be telling us that we need to adapt our organisation too.

Adapting the organisation is really about changing the processes used to create and deliver value. This kind of change will affect multiple teams or even departments and requires coordination across domains of responsibility. It is also not uncommon for these domains to be jealously guarded territorial domains. In traditional organisations that exercise a command and control management style, change can be effected by issuing the necessary directives, restructuring and retasking teams and departments to improve efficiency. However, command and control structures respond too slowly to the rate of change needed in a rapidly evolving software ecosystem.

A powerful alternative to this is to create empowered teams, delegating responsibility to the people that can respond the quickest to the customers’ feedback. However, if a team identifies improvements that impact the way other teams work, they do not have the mandate to force those teams to make any changes. This is where the need for good relationships with your stakeholders comes into play. What I mean here is the existence of personal relationships between the team leads, and that can and usually does take time to cultivate. Ideally, you want to start developing these types of relationships from Day 1, because being Agile is about being able to continuously adapt to your customers’ needs, and you will need to work closely with other teams to make that happen on a continuous basis.

This then is the reason then why Agile tools and processes are gradually abandoned, not because the are not useful, but because teams become disillusioned when all of the efforts to improve their team’s velocity, lead time and quality are erased by another team’s inefficiency. Improving the efficiency of another team can only be done when a good relationship exists between the teams — there must be a sense of trust between the teams because changing how they work requires that they trust that the changes are for the good of the company and not only for the good of another team. Failing that, it is good to have a fallback plan: escalation. And if you hope that your manager can help solve the problem instead then you should also work to have a good relationship with them too.

In summary, software organisations must continuously adapt to their customer’s needs in order to win, and I have shown that managers must foster a culture that focuses on individuals and interactions to do so. Agile tools and processes will help individual teams improve their efficiency, but personal relationships will allow organisations with empowered teams to effect even greater improvements across domains of responsibility. Or to put it more concisely:

Individuals and interactions over Agile processes and tools

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