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Starting Your Agile Process Engine

Reading: Starting Your Agile Process Engine

agile process

I read an interesting exchange on Google+ about Agile process transformation successes and failures. Here is one of the comments. Tell me if it sounds familiar.

QuoteMarks-ClosedMy previous employers had big problems with Agile. Attempted to use it multiple times and had a nice failure rate of 100%. As far as I know, they are trying again. I’m rather curious. Would be interesting to know how it turns out this time.

It’s hard to say this but I believe it’s ok if they’ve failed a few times, if they understand why and what needs to change this time around to be successful. Usually, they first need to become better planners and more predictable. The recommendation usually catches people off guard.  I’ve interacted with Agile zealots who believe that doesn’t sound like Agile. Personally, I don’t care if it sounds like Agile or not, if we’re able to get teams to deliver consistently over time when others can not.

If you like it or not, I can pretty much guarantee that company mentioned above will fail again, if they don’t have the proper organizational structure, governance, and clearly defined criteria for progress and success.  In other words, their agile process engine is going to stall.

Priming the Agile Process Engine

Beginning an agile process transformation is like trying to start an old vehicle on a cold day.  To add complexity, that vehicle has a carburetor and manual choke knob.  If you’re old enough to remember carburetors and chokes, you’re either going to smile or wince thinking about starting a “cold” engine. The important thing to remember is if you don’t do the proper sequence of events, given the current environment, you’re going to stall.  It could take an experienced driver only a few seconds of asking you questions to figure out what you did wrong and tell you what you need to do. Still, being told what you need to do is just treating a symptom. You, as the proverbial inexperienced driver, will need to learn new skills given the environment.  It takes time, persistence, and finesse.

Carburetors and Manual Chokes

When it comes to running gas powered engines, the only things old vehicles have in common with new ones is they all need a spark and fuel delivery. Getting a new one started is much easier, thanks to a complicated series of electronics, while starting an old one is dependent on what the temperature is and how well tuned the ignition might be.

If you’ve never started a car built before 1990, you need to realize that just turning the key won’t get the engine running. All it will do, especially if it’s cold, is crank away until the battery is dead as a door nail. Instead, you need to set the choke to allow the engine to suck in lots of raw gas so some of the vapor will ignite.

If your old car had a choke knob, you pulled it out to close the “butterfly” valve on the carburetor (this limits air intake, thus allowing a far greater fuel-to-air ratio).

I know this may be way too mechanically nostalgic or geeky for some but bear with me.

Now it’s time to start her up. With your foot pushing the gas pedal down about half of the way, crank the engine until it fires. It will usually start running, but rather rough. As you give it some gas you can slowly push in the choke knob until the engine smoothes out. 

If you do it wrong, you’re going to flood the engine and you’re going to stall.  The same goes for an Agile process transformation.

The Agile Process Transformation

When you decide you’re going to transform your organization, don’t just jump into the driver seat, crank on the starter, and put your foot to the floor. It’s not that simple.  For a car, you should be thinking about how long it’s been sitting or how cold it is outside.  What is the current environment and state of affairs?  For a transformation, you want to do some form of Agile adoption assessment.  Understanding the current environment allows an experienced coach to know what the next crucial steps will be to ensure you don’t stall.  Next, you’re going to want the proper organizational structure and governance in place.  That’s right, you need to know the rules of the road.  Lastly, you’ll need a system of measurements (metrics) in place to provide feedback and know when your transformation engine is warm enough or if your fuel to air ratio is still off.  Are you giving it too much gas?  Are you going to stall?  Do you have both hands on the steering wheel at all times?

As an experience driver, you’d listen very closely to the sound of the engine as she tries to turn over. You’re prepared to either pump the gas pedal or adjust the choke knob. If you smell gas, you know it’s time to curse and let the engine sit a while because you just flooded the engine.  More often then not, the experienced driver can react quickly because they’ve been through this before. It’s easier for an experienced driver to do it, then describe how to do it. Enterprise Agile coaches are experienced drivers.

Agile Process Test Drive

When I was in high school, I took Drivers Ed.  I sat in a classroom, reading book about cars and driving.  Regardless of how much classroom training I got, it was really just teaching me the basics. Once I jumped into a simulator, I realized how complicated things could be.  Here’s the kicker.  The simulator was a controlled environment.  Everything I learned up to that point got shelved, as soon as I got behind the wheel of a real car.  There were so many variables!  Not only did I have to figure out how to start the thing, I had to figure out how to accelerate and shift gears.  I had to learn how to avoid that old person in the left lane who’s had the right blinker on for the last mile.  And yes, in my youth, I crashed the car more than once.

Working with Agile teams is no different for the coach or the client.  It doesn’t matter how many certification classes you take, it doesn’t matter how many workshops or conferences you go to, nothing can compare to being on the ground with a team and having a client who is insisting on results.

Some Free Advice

When you were a kid, trying to start that 1979 AMC Pacer for the first time in 45 degree weather, you listened to your Dad or whoever when they warned you about the manual choke and what to be mindful of when you were ready to turn that key.


  1. If you think you’re ready for an Agile process transformation, get an Agile adoption assessment.
  2. Be prepared to change your organizational structure.
  3. Get ready to harden up your ALM governance.
  4. Identify metrics that are going to provide you feedback as to conditions on the ground.
  5. Don’t text and drive!
Next Agile At Home: Should You Use Agile To Build Your Next Home?

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