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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to the State of Agile Survey , 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.
"Build [your products] around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."
Many teams will later add (typically in Stage Three) additional rules to Scrum, such as:
Within these guardrails, teams are expected to self-organise and self-manage.
Actions for managers: Engage peers and teams to determine:
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.
While teams are in Stage One, the task of leadership is:
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.
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.
"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:
Decide on Actions
1. Digital.ai (2022) Annual State of Agile Report.
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