Michael Koh, VP - Enterprise Agile Coach, Transformation Group, DBS Bank
Have you ever cleaned a fish tank only to find that the water has turned cloudier than before? As a novice hobbyist then, it used to baffle me. ‘New Tank Syndrome’ as I quickly learnt from aquarium enthusiasts, arises when the tank’s ecosystem has been upset from thorough cleaning. I had unwittingly purged the proper bacteria that breaks down waste from the fish.
Drawing a parallel, I cannot help but wonder if we are in a similar catch-22 situation in the world of Agile transformation today.
In the software delivery world since 2001, a new ‘revolution’ bears witness to many chanting the Agile Manifesto with gusto, sending a death knell to the once trusted waterfall development. Teams across business and technology functions code-switch to adrenalin-charged buzzwords like ‘scrum’, ‘sprint’ and ‘tribe’, seemingly ushering a new era. In true domino fashion, non-technical organizations such as HR and Finance propagate and scale Agile enthusiastically with new toolsets and practices. Even in the war room, business agility has become a strategic driver to stay ahead of market disruption. Invariably, Agile has gained its reputation as the lynchpin of digital success in the modern business world.
While Agile has left its indelible mark in almost every facet of work, could it have morphed into a monolithic culture that creates more fragility than agility? Agile advocates fight tooth and nail over the purity of varying Agile practices. Productivity plunges as aspiring teams struggle tirelessly practising Agile instead of being agile. For as many corporations which embrace Agile for delivering tangible transformational success, there have been others which eschew Agile or reduced it to mere lip service, as they opined it reaps innovation stagnation and confusion.
Barring polarising views, the market has largely hailed Agile as the new way of working and for good reason. In today's disruptive age, the ability to embrace change and deliver value faster than competitors double down on the need for Agile. In the spirit of continuous improvement, new trends that make transformation stick are emerging, as more companies mature in their Agile way of working.
Drive towards Customer centricity
“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”
While the first principle of the Agile Manifesto deserves an update to reflect an early and continuous delivery that surpasses the merits of software, it certainly underscores the criticality of being customer focused. As we have learned, technology is not the main disruptor, gaps in customer centricity is. Case in point, it was not Netflix’s cloud migration that disrupted the movie rental industry. The incurred late fees did. Neither was the music industry disrupted by Apple iTunes. It was the lack of option to purchase single tracks in an album that afforded Apple the breakthrough. If at all, listening to the voice of the customer paid off for these companies. Quoting HP’s rules of the garage, ‘it is the customer who defines a job well done’.
In today's highly disruptive market where customer insights are key to understand consumer behaviour, cross-functional teams with unique competencies must collaborate to deliver value faster and better than their competitors. As companies realize the significance of Agile, Enterprise Agile frameworks including Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Large-scale Scrum (LeSS) and Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) are gradually being implemented to drive a faster and more organized value delivery. Regardless of the delivery framework choice, the secret ultimately lies in collaboration of teams towards customer success.
Agile goes Digital
Teams who are new to Agile often find themselves inundated with Agile cadence and practices. Quality and delivery cycle times are often compromised as they spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting processes. With the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a “human partner” in Agile practices, the work of the delivery teams can be augmented with significant productivity gain. Smart bots can be integrated in Sprints to assist the scrum master in scheduling and monitoring work progress. New insights and data assets can be unlocked to help companies scale their Agile uplift enterprise wide. New and more sophisticated service virtualization solutions driven by Agile development and DevOps will continue to sharpen technical excellence. As Jack Ma wisely concluded at the World Economic Forum in 2017, “machines should only do what humans cannot”. In the pursuit of continuous value delivery, Agile will go Digital in the foreseeable horizon.
Back to basics
While Agile is widely perceived as a ‘process change agent’ today, the heart of Agile belies a ‘cultural transformation’. In a more contextual definition, Agile refers to a mindset or culture that is guided by a set of values, principles and practices to deliver solutions faster, better and happier. It would be a misnomer to pin practice excellence as the sole litmus test of success. With Agile being progressively accepted and adopted holistically beyond the origin of software development, the adage of servant leadership still reigns.
To surmise Agile as a new way of working is being simplistic. It is a way of living that has been forgotten. Ironically, through this gambit of transformation, this disruption is bringing us full circle back to the basics. That is simply to be human again, to re-connect with the long-lost kindred spirit in this digital voyage.
I used to dread cleaning the fish tank in those days. The countless attempts at patch fixes always posed a mortality risk to my fish. Ultimately, it was the cycle of iterative experimentation and constant adaptation that led to a stable and thriving aquatic ecosystem. This somewhat accidental stumble on the triviality of life could be a microcosm of what successful agile transformation is in a fragile world.