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Structure 1st: Why You Should Not Start With Practices

Reading: Structure 1st: Why You Should Not Start With Practices

Starting your agile transformation with a focus on practices is not an entirely bad idea, but with the wrong culture and structure, agile practices will be superficial. People will go through the motions. People will do agile things like have standups, demos, and planning meetings. You’ll have stories. It will look agile on the surface. But that’s all it will be — looks. There will be no substantive change, no stable teams, no control over Work-In-Process, no empowerment, and no predictability. You’ll have shallow collaboration, fault-finding and blame, and an unstable velocity. You’ll have no real support for agile or for improvement. You’ll get limited value out of your agile adoption efforts.

This isn’t the 1st time I’ve written negatively about mechanical agile and about how the agile values and culture are more important than the practices. While that is what I know to be true, there is more to the story.

So if starting with practices isn’t the best, where should we start? It’s not wise to start with culture either. Why not? CSM courses talk about practices and agile culture but when people go back to work they hit a structure that doesn’t support it, or they hit a command and control environment that doesn’t allow it. Attempts to change their culture are met with the realities of their organizational structure. Their structure is built around a different set of cultural expectations. The existing structure reinforces the old culture. Changing culture is hard, which is why many organizations start an agile transformation with practices.

Fortunately, deciding between culture and practices as the starting point is a false dichotomy. The place to start is with the structure.

Starting change with structure creates space and safety for practices to be put in place. At this point, we still can’t tackle culture head-on, and the practices will still be superficial at the start, but now there is support for the practices. You’ll have a shot at stable teams, at self-organization within the team, and enough empowerment for making reasonable commitments, leading to predictability. In this way, you can act your way into a new culture. Yes, I’m saying a new culture will emerge, but at this point, some intentional attention to shaping the culture is wise.

When I say structure, I have a few ideas in mind. The first is choosing between feature teams, component teams, services teams, or a mix. There is a great discussion on this topic on the LeadingAgile blog. Feature teams are great when you can have them, but an organization of size and complexity at some scale needs services or component teams added to the mix. Often, large organizations are already structured around component teams. We have to consider whether that is the best structure for their agile implementation.

Another idea I have in mind is just the stability of the team and whether it’s really a team, as opposed to a workgroup or project-group. For agile to work, we must have stable teams. Teams don’t work if management is often moving people around or if people are on multiple “teams”. Teams need to bond, to learn how to work together. Colocation is a huge help. Cross-functional is assumed.

Structure is among the most important concepts to nail for anyone scaling agile. At LeadingAgile we’ve been developing shared understanding on our approach. During this time, I’ve come to appreciate how much you can achieve with structure, along with practices, to create a team-based iterative and incremental delivery setup that is a precursor to agile. Once that is in place and we have some personal safety and delivery capability, some of the other things can begin to emerge, toward anĀ agile culture. At a high level, that is our strategy for how to walk through the structure–practices–culture loop.

Next What allows agile to succeed in an organization?

Comments (6)

  1. Cp2

    A good point made, in large corporations often project teams form and evaporate, sustaining agile around the teams is often a challenge. good advice to incubate practices

  2. Andrew Fuqua

    Thanks Carl. ‘Incubate’ is an interesting word to apply. I think I’ll use that.

  3. John V

    And sometimes a physical relocation of team members is needed too. Just to emphasize to the surrounding culture and to the team members that “Things are different” and “We shall be different”. Changing culture is a hard thing to do, and must be both bottom-up and top-down.

  4. Andrew Fuqua

    Good comment, John. Sometimes relocation is possible especially if it’s just to another area of the building or maybe across town. Sometimes taking care of structure means having someone high up enough to say we aren’t going to have facilities turf wars and we’re going to sit the teams together.


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