Agile Maturity – Getting past “Shu”

Why am I writing this? I read this post a little while ago and I wanted to revisit what I thought about Shu-Ha-Ri.

Context

My current employer (very large IT Consultancy) has gone through a significant sheep-dipping exercise. It’s an extremely large organisation (employee headcount isn’t that far away from the population of Edinburgh) and has placed an organisational big bet on “Agile”. So pretty much everyone is being trained by a combination of classroom and online learning modules, backed up by an internal certification scheme, with employee targets and financially significant objectives (e.g. a small part of the performance related pay element is only accessible with certification).

It’s had a degree of success. It’s certainly helped provide an air of confidence for the sales teams and a degree of comfort for potential clients (especially those categorised as Late Majority or Laggards, who are by nature sceptical of new things. And yes do have to stifle the odd smile or two whenever I use the word “new” to describe “Agile”).

The Problem

My problem with this, is it sort of misses the point of “agile” (this in itself is a poorly worded sentence, as agile was never really the point, but it’ll do for now).

What this sheep-dipping exercise seems to have done (from what I’ve been able to observe), is install a new set of practices to be employed religiously. Some of these new practices appear to be little more than a branded re-skin (my “favourite” example of this is the use of the User Story to contain all the requirements documentation, and must be written and signed off before it’s given to a development team to deliver).

If I’m being optimistic, the installation of new techniques (mostly the visible ones such as a stand-up) have increased the overall delivery quality by a small amount (I vaguely recall one presentation by Mark Lines that quoted a 6% improvement for teams that only adopted the mechanical aspects of Scrum, but I’m happy to be corrected).

If I’m being cynical, it’s the fight back of a hierarchical command and control culture against the invading collaborative and flat and open culture.

Not all bad news though

There are glimmers of hope though. There is more recognition of the need for greater levels of autonomy and empowerment, however limited the concessions may be. That is what the rest of this post will focus on.

Why “Shu Ha Ri”?

Simply because I found the “Learning to cook” analogy along with a catchy (ok, catchy is pushing it) slogan to be one of the more effective memory aids I’ve experienced. It also gave me an extremely lightweight structure on which I could help a “continuous learning” mentality to take hold.

Shu

This was clearly our starting position. As “Trainee Chefs”, the most favourable outcome from an intensive training programme, was the awareness of a lot of pieces of jargon, with perhaps the basic knowledge required to use a “standard configuration” of rules and practices.

One of the big “shorter term” goals for new recruits is to develop the equivalent of muscle memory – the imprinting of the basic rules and practices such that they can be performed without a great deal of cognitive effort (the cognitive effort would be reserved for the actual work being done). In food terms, these folk can now make a respectable standard lasagne.

In theory, as teams become more comfortable with the set of practices, they’ll begin to experiment, and vary some of the specifics, in an attempt to test the boundaries of their practices. In theory.

So what prevents nature from taking it’s course?

I think a big contributing factor is a belief, reinforced by authority (e.g. the hierarchy) thinking that the agile stuff is all about the work. Better quality software, more aligned with user needs etc. In other words, it’s about what you do.

That perspective misses (IMHO) a more valuable element of this agile culture. I think the stuff about the quality and alignment is valuable, but for me it’s a side effect of having an entity (i.e. the team) that is very adaptable and can adjust itself to be able to cope with any scenario it finds itself in. I think a key trait needed for adaptability is to always be curious about why you do something. And then do something with that insight.

At least, that what seems to be happening in pockets at my employer. Newly formed teams are given runbooks to operate (the what), but little in the way of support to help nurture the curiosity about why those techniques work, or even what the tradeoffs associated with those techniques are (all practices have tradeoffs, even the “blindingly obvious everyone should be doing this” sort). The vast majority of the coaching support accessible to the team is optimised to roll out the runbook and maintain compliance to said runbook.

Why? I think it’s a return-on-investment calculation made by authority figures. The biggest percentage gain per unit coaching effort is the gain that takes you from zero to non-zero. Installing some basic agile practices into a low maturity team will have a significant effect on their Velocity (story points per iteration) in a fairly small timeframe. A few coaching interventions later and their Velocity is likely to have improved significantly. But then the gains become harder to find. Improvements become more marginal. Sometimes a seismic shift is needed, but that would have short term detrimental effects on Velocity. And for environments that believe that output is the important thing, then getting less stuff per iteration is a BAD THING and must be avoided.

It’s also a pattern that can be reinforced by the having a revolving door policy on your agile coaches (IMHO. I think I’ll have a go at blogging about this, if nothing else to help me crystallise my thoughts on the topic).

Is there anything we can do?

Assuming there’s enough truth in the hypothesis to be worth doing something about it, what can/should we do about it?

The aim of whatever-we-do-to-improve-matters has got to be to increase the ability of a team to question why-it-does-something along with an intrinsic confidence to be able to invent a change to their process. The ability to invent will dramatically increase the self sufficiency of a team.

Both of these elements – asking “why” and being able to invent, require a team to have a significant degree of psychological safety. Creating the conditions for the degree of psychological safety to improve is a core function of leadership.

With sufficient psychological safety (a subjective term), comes the capability for changing. What it doesn’t guarantee, is whether or not change will occur, or whether the direction of change is a “viable” one or not. This is where additional support is helpful, potentially using some form of expert. Agile coaches can be helpful here, especially if they’re working in the open (e.g. via using some variation of a guided continuous improvement strategy).

Ha

Something a good Agile Coach is well placed to do, is help their team understand the underlying models that underpin the team’s ways of working. That would help the teams get to that deeper understanding of why their techniques work, the pros and cons etc. That can create the conditions for much more interesting process changes to be created by the team. These highly context specific and tailored techniques are likely to be more effective than more “generic” equivalents.

To me, that sounds like the beginnings of Ha.

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