Guardrails

Intermediate

difficulty

Stage 1

Agile IQ® Level

Self-Organisation

Practices

Agile Manifesto

Framework

Introduction

Guardrails are a leadership tool to ensure alignment with the organisation’s goals and objectives and to keep teams on the right path. In essence, they are the foundation of an organisation’s agile operating model.

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What are guardrails?

Guardrails for agile teams form the minimum set of rules established, communicated, and reinforced by leaders. Guardrails are critical for self-organisation and ultimately improve time-to-market by reducing time to make decisions.

Setting guardrails

Guardrails for agile teams form the minimum set of rules established, communicated, and reinforced by leaders.

6 key steps provide the starting point of a team’s guardrails:

1. Team Composition

Establish cross-functional teams over functional or single capability teams. Teams should be no more than 10 people, including the Scrum Master and Product Owner accountabilities.

2. Roles, Events & Artefacts

Establish a minimum set of timeboxes, roles, events and artefacts that all teams are expected to have and use? Scrum provides a good starting point: 2 specialist roles, 5 events, minimum timeboxes, a Sprint Backlog, Product (Team) Backlog, and an Increment of value each Sprint.

3. Planning cycles

Establish a common Sprint cycle. 2-weeks is the most common cycle for teams for planning, review and improvement actions. When teams are aligned in their cadence they are able to be more effective in unifying outcomes to a divisional branch. Program-wide planning is typically 6 Sprints / quarterly.

4. Decision-making

Determine what is within the power of the team to make decisions and change and what isn't. E.g.: can the team make budget decisions on where to focus delivery? The more that is decentralised to teams the faster decisions can be made. Guardrails establish how decisions are made, including what must be escalated to management.

5. Quality

Determine a common standard for delivering work -- the Definition of Done. Must work be peer reviewed by the team before passing it on for approval? What about documentation, security, audit, compliance standards? These form the Definition of Done. Most teams at scale share a common minimum standard.

6. Delivery Frequency

Determine whether there are common release cycles or whether team Product Owners can release on demand when they have sufficient value to give users. Assess whether there is a cadence that management and stakeholders expect? Consistency across teams in a program or Release Train is critical.

What are common guardrails?

According to the State of Agile Survey [1], approximately 80% of leaders use Scrum as their minimal set of guardrails for their teams. Deliberately incomplete, its 2 specialist roles, 3 artefacts, 5 events and 3 areas of comitment provide a minimal framework that can be added to based on the context.

Optional guardrails

Many teams will later add (typically in Stage Three) additional rules to Scrum, such as:

  • DevOps.
  • Design Thinking.
  • Kanban.
  • Extreme Programming.
  • Lean UX.

Within these guardrails, teams are expected to self-organise and self-manage.

Actions for managers: Engage peers and teams to determine:

  • Which sets of practices are mandatory.
  • Which ones are optional and the teams can pick or choose for themselves.
  • When mandatory practices should come into effect.
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When to add additional guardrails

  • Do not add too many guardrails to new teams too quickly.
  • Establish the minimum set as soon as agile teams are created.
  • Wait until teams reach Stage Three maturity before adding additional guardrails.

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Should you pick'n'mix?

Stay aligned to industry standards rather than pick'n'mix parts of different frameworks. Industry frameworks have been proven to work and are scalable and repeatable. Your custom frameworks are unlikely to create this outcome. They are more likely to leave you with a perpetual training legacy.

Communicating Guardrails

While teams are in Stage One, the task of leadership is:

  • Communicate the change required by teams to align to the new operating model.
  • Encourage, promote and support teams to change. If they deliver using the same processes no benefits will be made regarding higher quality or improved productivity.
  • Hold Scrum Masters to account for ensuring guardrails are effective.
  • Hold Product Owners to account for delivery of value.

Managing expectations

If given the choice not to change, most teams and their managers will not change. They are highly likely to simply continue the way they currently work and at most add only "symbols" of change. This anti-pattern is referred to as cargo cult agile.

Promoting self-organistion within the guardrails

Self-organisation isn’t chaos. It requires management to set guardrails that define the boundaries for team-level actions, behaviours, and expected outputs.

The stronger a team’s self-organisation behaviours, and the more managers support and encourage self-management, the stronger the outcomes agile brings: faster to market, higher quality, improved predictability, lower delivery risk and and transparency.

Self-organising teams are more productive and achieve their goals more often than traditionally managed teams.

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Agile Manifesto & Guardrails

"The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organising teams."

The most effective way leaders can communicate change is through modelling the behaviour themselves. If they want to encourage teams to work within the guardrails they should:

  • Form an agile leadership team.
  • Use the same roles, timeboxes, artefacts and events.

RETROSPECTIVE ACTIVITY

Gather Data

  • What guardrails do we currently use?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how effective are our use of them?
  • What guardrails don’t we use? Why?

Generate Insights

  • Take the lowest, least effective guardrail.
  • What factors make this guardrail ineffective and why?
  • Take guardrails not used yet.
  • If we added that guardrail, what impacts would it have – both positive and negative, short term and lon term?

Decide on Actions

  • Dot vote on the factors to identify 2-3 factors to address next Sprint.
  • Brainstorm actions to improve each of the factors.
  • Discuss openly which actions are likely to be most effective.
  • Put the actions for improvement directly into the next Sprint.

 

References

1. Digital.ai (2022) Annual State of Agile Report. 

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