Agile is for everyone, even executives
Every executive knows that an enterprise agile methodology can make big differences in an organisation’s ability to pivot to disruptive change.
Where staff work in networks of teams and focus on delivery in short work cycles called Sprints, agile executives are looking to change their big upfront 3-5 year plans and instead set goals with the flexibility to pivot their whole organisation within as little as 4 weeks. These new practices, though, need an experienced hand to guide and mentor senior decision-makers, and the learning of new management skills and techniques.
What skills do you need to learn to pivot a whole organisation quickly?
Traditional executives manage through their organisational hierarchy. They make decisions and then delegate, watching their orders transfer down through the management layers to finally arrive at teams for execution.
Agile executives learn to lead through optimising the system of work itself. This frees them up from traditional management tasks and meetings and focusses them on understanding their organisation’s ecosystem, how the pieces work together, and how to tune those pieces so that value flows faster.
Key learning: Agile executives are obsessed with delivering value to customers. Where organisational processes, red tape, and approval gates, slow down delivery of value (or don’t add value to the customer) they focus on improving the system of work.
People tend to run into three problems when they think about their priorities:
- They have too many priorities.
- They do not or cannot differentiate the truly important priorities.
- For any number of reasons, they let other less-important things get in the way of focusing on what really matters.
Traditional prioritisation techniques result in pairwise priorities – a number of items that are all equally important. Agile techniques for executives instead, though, create a ranked order. This provides clarity to everyone regarding what is the true priority. Once that priority has been delivered, there is no doubt what item should be next.
Key learning: Effective prioritisation creates a single rank ordered list and the ability to compare items that are very different.
Prioritising through Cost of Delay
Cost of Delay is a way of understanding the impact of time on the value we hope to deliver to customers. Created by Don Reinertsen in his book Product Development Flow, Cost of Delay creates transparency about the total expected value with respect to time. Cost of Delay combines urgency and value – two things that humans are not very good at distinguishing between.
The power of Cost of Delay is in its ability to compare different types of initiatives, comparing apples with oranges, because it focuses on the impact not on the type of work involved.
Prioritisation reduces the need to context switch
Context switching is a silent killer for organisational productivity. A cumulative 20% is lost for each simultaneous project done by the same team. Ultimately, this is because teams become spread too thin because of pairwise priorities – everything is priority number one.
Creating a single list of priorities based on Cost of Delay creates clarity regarding which project adds the most value and should be done now.
Once a project is done, teams simply pull from the prioritised list of priorities, often called a Portfolio Backlog. Teams will keep “pulling” as soon as they have capacity.
Set big goals. Learn to plan iteratively in cycles.
Executives are used to setting long term goals that achieve outcomes realised in 3-5 year plans. Managers and their teams can then spend up to a year planning. These are the Big Rocks.
Simply put, your Big Rocks are your priorities. They are the impacts and outcomes you absolutely accomplish. They are your mission-critical objectives — not tasks and deliverables on a messy, sprawling to-do list. Spending a year only planning and seeing no results is too slow in the 21st century. A year with no result doesn’t build trust in your stakeholders.
Learn to break Big Rocks into Smaller Rocks every Quarter
Every 3-months, Executives should be gathering to get answers to the following questions:
- What do you want to see in at the end of the first 3-months?
- What Small Rocks will contribute a step toward the Big Rocks?
- What Small Rocks will have the biggest impact on our Big Rocks?
The Smaller Rocks are the ones that Agile Release Trains or other similar scaled agile team structures take into their planning cycles.
Measure Small Rocks by their impact, not as a milestone deliverable
When you deliver a Small Rock, what impact will it make against the Big Rock? This shifts everyone’s focus to evidence of the outcome instead of deliverables and activities that don’t contribute or align.
Evidence Based Management (EBM) from Scrum.org outlines important areas for leaders to learn in the shift to the agile enterprise. EBM helps executives to identify the investments they need to make every quarter:
- What investments do you want to make to sustain the value you deliver to customers today?
- What investments do you want to make to meet needs currently unmet by your organisation?
- What capabilities do you need to invest in to be more agile?
- What do you need to do be faster to market while not compromising on quality?
EBM is a core component of ZXM’s Agile Leadership Essentials course.
A relentless focus on the customer comes with a different way of thinking about organisational priorities. Value to customers can change rapidly, so learning how to keep a focus on value, metrics defined by value, and prioritising by value, ensures that executives will always drive value.
Linders, B. (2015) Using Cost of Delay to Quantify Value and Urgency
Reinertsen, D. (2009). The Principles of Product Development Flow. ISBN 1-935401-00-9.