by Luke Hohmann (Founder and CEO, Conteneo)
Agile companies embrace the notion that collaborating teams are the core unit of work, something I first explored in 1996 in my book Journey of the Software Professional. In the past year, we’ve had a number of books build on this thesis, from Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organisations (Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone) to Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell).
This article explores how we can move beyond the ‘third wave’ of Agile, from Agile teams to a ‘fourth wave’ of Agile societies.
Individual teams enhance performance through collaborative frameworks:
- Sail Boat and Speed Boat help teams to identify impediments during retrospectives.
- Product Box and Vision Box help teams to establish a vision for their project or product, improving project inception or Liftoff.
- Prune the Product Tree helps teams to establish Agile roadmaps.
- Buy a Feature helps teams to prioritise epics, features and projects.
Co-located Agile teams typically use in-person frameworks. For example, an Oracle product team used Prune the Product Tree to help them develop a roadmap in a planning meeting. (1)
Fortunately, our industry is growing up, and we’re now recognising that even small Agile teams can be high-performance when some team members are distributed.
Agility at Scale: Team of Teams Collaboration
Agility at scale is the natural and straightforward extension of team-based agility. Instead of one team using a framework to improve their performance, multiple teams are engaged to improve the performance of the enterprise.
Let’s consider retrospectives. We can scale retrospectives by having each team conduct an online Sail Boat retrospective, generating the data needed to identify patterns across teams that can improve the performance of the enterprise. (2)
Inwardly facing organisations can’t sustain themselves, and many frameworks help Agile teams to scale collaboration with customers, stakeholders, partners and other entities outside the company walls. For example, the Scrum Alliance used Prune the Product Tree online to enable five different teams of Certified Scrum Trainers to share ideas on how the Scrum Alliance could improve its offerings. These ideas were then analysed, shaped into projects, prioritised by Scrum Alliance members through Buy a Feature online and the most highly desired projects were implemented!
Communication, Coordination and Collaboration
One of the four values of the Agile Manifesto is: Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation.
While Agile teams embrace this value they struggle mightily to reify it within their workplaces because they confuse communication, coordination and collaboration. This confusion creates a weak and shifting foundation for building true agility.
Communication is the means of or the act of exchanging information. If you’re standing faceto-face you don’t need a tool, per se. But since most large Agile teams are distributed, we need communication tools (like phones, instant messaging clients, and video conferencing) to help us communicate. Communication ranges from intimacy (1 to 1 ) to team (1 to n, where n is small) to broadcast (1 to many thousands or even millions).
Coordination is a complex sequence of activities that involves such things as decomposing a problem into smaller problems (e.g. identifying tasks for Product Backlog Item in Sprint planning), distributing tasks to works, coordinating tasks, and so forth. Small collocated Agile teams might use physical task or Kanban boards; larger teams use project management or “Application Lifecycle Management” (ALM) software. Coordination is both enabled and governed by factors such as system architecture and dependency patterns.
Collaboration, paraphrasing Wikipedia, is a recursive process where two or more people or organisations work together in an intersection of common goals by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Collaboration is powered by frameworks that enable a group to pursue a goal or outcome through clearly defined rules of engagement, an understanding of available resources, a means to manage resources, a means to keep track of progress towards the goal, and voluntary participation. Collaboration is based on a small number of actors, typically two to eight, which means that scaling collaboration is scaling the means by which teams accomplish goals.
Collaboration subsumes communication and coordination, in that we have to coordinate and communicate while we are collaborating. The converse isn’t true; a broadcast model in which the CTO announces their intention to move to a new architecture isn’t a collaboration – it is a communication.
Third Wave Agile Decision Making
In addition to leadership practices, the Third Wave of Agile includes expanding the decision-making focus of the organisation from the more technical problems of the first two waves (e.g., how to create roadmaps, improve planning, prioritise budgets) to include more complex kinds of problems: wicked problems.
Technical problems tend to be clearly defined, and have shorter, often repeating time horizons. “Failure” is not catastrophic (because we can often take the decision over) and the decision-making process is dominated by knowledge and economics. Prioritising a backlog, creating a roadmap, and even Remembering the Future are all examples of frameworks that are leveraged for technical problems.
Wicked problems, on the other hand, tend to have long time horizons and involve multiple actors with different value systems. Unlike technical problems, this leads to inertia and catastrophic outcomes, because many times the only thing we know will happen is that things will get worse through inaction (even when we’re not sure of a better action). Urban planning, childhood obesity, and key aspects of corporate strategy, such as how to deal with massive technical debt, are all examples of wicked problems.
A key distinction in the third wave of Agility is how the organisation tackles wicked problems. Historically, organisations have failed as often as 50% of the time in strategic decision-making because they lacked the decision-making processes and collaborative platforms that enable deliberation at scale. A better process is Deliberative Decision Making, a process embodied in Conteneo’s Strategy Engine.
The Next Agile Wave – The Agile Country
I propose that the fourth wave is societal agility: the ability for communities, at multiple levels, to create more vibrant and dynamic ecosystems. Like the first three waves, this wave will be powered by small teams leveraging multidimensional collaborative frameworks. Instead of prioritising features, cities will expand Participatory Budgeting so that every citizen has a greater voice in their budget. Instead of building alignment on corporate goals like cutting costs or increasing market share in growing economies, we’ll use Alignment Engine with our neighbours and discover that we share priorities for our communities. And instead of avoiding wicked problems, we’ll find Common Ground for Action, a topic I will explore extensively in my Agile Australia keynote in June 2016.
(1) Josh Lannin, ‘Growing your product tree’, https://pmblog.lannin.net/2010/06/28/ growing-your-product-tree/.
(2) Luke Hohmann, ‘How to run huge retrospectives across dozens of teams in multiple time zones’, www.innovationgames.com/2014/06/how-to-run-hugeretrospectives/.