If you designed a tool to help measure agile, what would it look like?

Agile is a complex thing to describe. Over the past 25 to 30 years its alternative approach to work has greatly increased delivery success rates, improved quality, and speed to market, customer satisfaction, and boosted the motivation and productivity of teams. This shift in approach is outlined in a set of principles, known as the Agile Manifesto, describing the foundation mindset, actions and behaviours of agile in four simple statements supported by 12 principles. But is this all that agile is? Do we just ask people if they adhere to these principles?

Truly agile organisations are able to cope sustainably with today’s rapidly changing marketplace, changing technology, changing stakeholder needs, and changing customer expectations. The easiest way to tell that these organisations are agile is by looking at the way they operate.

The journey to being agile, starts with a dramatically different framework for managing organisations and guiding and directing its people. 

Culture is where an agile focus beings

Agile promotes an ability to pivot rapidly to change, to make an impact with customers and the market faster, deliver outcomes in a sustainable and repeatable way. Importantly, its operating structures are optimised for these outcomes, not for managing the optimisation the utilisation of its people.

An agile culture is defined by how people inside the organisation interact with each other. While people will often talk of culture as “how we do things around here”, more precisely, it’s created by the actions people take and their learned behaviours at work (Whitehurst, 2016).  Moreover, culture is described through many factors encompassing symbols, behaviours, attitudes, rituals and routines, and beliefs (Wasfisz, 2015). An agile culture, therefore, is described beyond the scope of post-it notes, happy teams, and “ceremonies” and seek to understand the behaviours, attitudes, customs and beliefs that create the well documented outcomes that agile brings – faster to market, improved ability to pivot, and reduced costs.

Measuring agile culture

For many years now, Zen Ex Machina has been examining agile culture, actions, and behaviours, of agile leaders and their teams in the support of growing and strengthening of both large-scale agile programs and whole of enterprise agile transformation across more than 20 different organisations. The actions and behaviours assessed over this period of time were derived from the actions and behaviours described in:

  • Agile Manifesto and its 12 principles.
  • The Official Scrum Guide (Sutherland & Schwaber, 2017).
  • Practices from Lean and Kanban.

Zen Ex Machina then tracked these behaviours and collected behavioural observation data over time across hundreds of teams and the improvements associated with agile product management.

Agile IQ is designed to measure agile culture

In the analysis of this longitudinal data, four primary factors emerged that described the evolving agile cultures across these organisations:

  • Self-organisation – Supporting teams to self-organise rather than being management led reduces time to decision-making and empowers teams to solve problems for themselves and deliver value for high quality customer outcomes.
  • Agile values – To improve speed to market, to improve ability to innovate and pivot, a culture must embrace a focus on the customer and what is of value to them, collaboration, transparency, and empiricism.
  • Sprinting – Rapid, incremental delivery in short work cycles is key to improving speed to market, ability to learn, pivot and innovate.
  • Continuous improvement – Ability to innovate requires acknowledging there is always room to improve and to be active in learning and taking time out for experimentation.

These four factors breakdown into a total of 23 subfactors, each providing deeper insight into the behaviours and actions that create a strong agile culture.

Many organisations use a number of metrics to indicate whether their teams and their organisation are agile. Team happiness, velocity, throughput, visualisation of work by using post-it notes, and attendance at agile events or “town hall” presentations on agile are all easily recognisable and measurable signs of agile teams. While these symbols have their uses, they don’t tell the real story of agility. Moreover, when organisations focus on symbols alone, they run the risk of being “agile in name only” – a term sometimes applied to organisations that are implementing the practices of “agile” but without an understanding of what cultural change is needed to create a truly agile mindset. Many use these symbols to claim they’re agile even though they are not being managed any differently from a traditional bureaucracy and management-led culture. To understand whether an organisation is agile, one has to look beyond what organisations are saying and look at how the culture influences how they are operating.

Agile IQ® is an effective way to measure agile culture. The measure, its factors and subfactors, assess all of the facets of an agile culture – from its actions to behaviours and values – and provides a leading indicator of a growing agile culture. Overall, it’s an effective leading indicator of the changes to mindset, behaviour and culture that’s needed to ensure that your investment in your agile enterprise is on track to deliver the results you need.

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