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How to use culture change to build sustainable agility

In Part 1 of this series we explained why you shouldn’t apply agile frameworks and industry best practices blindly in your organization.

There are serious downsides to prescribing agile practices

It is because they generally come with what, why, and how but the how doesn’t always work in your company’s or team’s context. When the standard approach jams up against your current way of working it actually reduces productivity, and increases frustration and resistance. Not only that – but asking teams to specifically implement certain ways of working (the how) actually sends a strong signal that they must continue working this way and continuous improvement isn’t important. The teams you work with will either become frustrated, stagnate, may never really improve and may even slide backwards when experienced coaches step away. It’s all because the team members didn’t really understand why what they were doing was important and why it was designed that way to begin with. 

I once was coaching a scrum master that was running retrospectives after sprint planning. I decided to educate him on what order the scrum guide said retrospectives should be in. Immediately, after realizing that it was in the wrong order he agreed to switch the order so that retrospectives happened before planning. He didn’t ask WHY scrum had it in this order and so I told him not to do it because Scrum said to do it in this order. Instead I asked him to first understands WHY those who designed scrum put it in this order and then decide if that was a valuable reason for this team.

This team recently started running planning before retrospective because they felt that it was better to use their peak energy on planning first instead of on retrospective first and then planning. Swapping these for the sake of meeting the industry standard wouldn’t have made the team happy because they wouldn’t have understood the intended benefits, and they would have only seen the downsides; that planning would be harder because they would be tired by then.

The act of knowing and understanding why and giving them choice allows them to weigh the pros and cons and make the best choice for themselves. If they choose to swap the order of the events, at least they understand why this is important to them. The alternative, swapping it for them, and asking them to do it because it’s the ‘correct order’ would certainly have demoralized them and caused them to disengage if they didn’t understand why or have a choice.¬†¬†This also means that if they are armed with why, and choose the best way for their context, they are much less likely to slide backwards.

Sustainable agility via creating a continuous improvement culture

In the above example, we see the core principle of building a continuous improvement culture emerge. Teams that clearly understand WHY and choose to improve themselves because of the WHY are more likely to sustain the improvements they make.  

Fantastic. Now you’re probably thinking education is what I’m proposing, but we all know education is time consuming and it comes with no guarantees that it is actually used or implemented.  Once we understand the above core principle we have to do everything we can to ensure that both education to create awareness of new improvement opportunities and choice to improve is harnessed and maximized continuously. If we can do this, then we can build a continuous improvement culture. 

We have to find a way to give the team (and leaders) an ongoing platform for which they are expected to stand up and demonstrate what they are doing to continuously improve. This should not just be when a problem happens, but all the time, hence continuous improvement. What I’m about to share with you will show you just one tool in my tool belt that I have found extremely valuable when used to create this platform and if used correctly will jump start your culture towards one that is designed to continuously improve.

A culture that demands everyone to transparently demonstrate what they are doing to continuously improve enables much more value than one that demands specific agile practices to be implemented. 

Enable sustainable agility by promoting a continuous improvement culture using these techniques


Leaders and teams both have Improvement Backlogs

An improvement backlog is a public place for us to log improvements that we want to do because we think they will be valuable. These improvements should impact the way we work together in process and with people. If you are tracking metrics that generate improvement conversation you should find those improvements being added to this backlog and this backlog should exist for teams, and leaders. This is the holy grail that will serve to tell you how your organization is actually doing at improvement. If there is nothing on these backlogs, then you’re likely not where you want to be yet.

If we want to promote a continuously improving culture than we need this mechanism in place to ensure that we are transparently able to demonstrate how we are trying to improve.

Regularly track a base set of metrics that are designed to elicit improvement conversations in critical outcome areas  

Metrics on speed and quality alone don’t help you to improve. They don’t help people identify areas of opportunity that they could improve next. For this reason I recommend a focus on a variety of other metrics.  

Here are some metrics I use for leaders and teams to both rate how teams are doing. This opens the door for a different kind of feedback to teams and leaders that they haven’t had in the past. 

  • Suitable Process
  • Sustainable Pace
  • Team Size
  • Ease of Collaboration
  • Safety

Here are some metrics that leaders and teams both rate on how leaders are doing. Yes, I get teams to rate leaders because it’s only fair and gives two-way feedback to help leaders improve as well.

  • Leadership Support
  • Team purpose and goal
  • Product purpose and goal

Here are some metrics that each team and their coaches both rate on how well the team is doing in certain outcomes. This enables education when big gaps are identified

  • Release forecasting
  • Planning
  • Estimation Methodology
  • Progress Checking
  • Improvement Backlog
  • Improvement Generation

Here are some metrics that leaders and their coaches both rate on how leaders are doing in certain outcomes. We need leaders to achieve continuous improvement behavior too and shouldn’t expect it only from teams.

  • Improvement Idea Progress / Impediment Removal Progress
  • Improvement Idea Generation
  • Budget for teams to use at their discretion
  • Transparent Product Intake Workflow
  • New member On-boarding workflow

Here are some objective metrics that teams are tracking at minimum

  • Improvements Ideas raised / month (on the improvement backlog)
  • Improvements Implemented / month (on the improvement backlog)
  • Quality Metrics (e.g. Escaped Defects)
  • Value Predictability Metric (e.g. velocity or lead time)

Here are some objective metrics that leaders are tracking at a minimum

  • Improvement ideas raised / month (on the improvement backlog)
  • Improvements Implemented / month (on the improvement backlog)

It sounds like a lot, but I’ve got probably around 20 of these metrics per team and leaders It usually takes them about 30 minutes to do this quarterly and the outcome is usually highly engaging and valuable. If implemented the right way, the team’s understand that these metrics are used for improvement and not for performance and they are shared transparently between perspectives (leaders, teams and coaches). This especially helps with coaching because teams can rate how well they perceive they are doing and coaches can correct a perception where there is a lot more opportunity for improvement (a classic example where there is always a gap is estimation methodology). The biggest gap between perceptions is where the biggest learning opportunity is.

The underlying idea is to track outcomes that you think will help spawn improvements to be put into the improvement backlog, but never prescribe how to achieve these outcomes. Coaches can give options and teams and leaders can choose the best option for their context.

Used correctly these can have a profound effect on culture

There are likely a number of outcomes that are so basic, it’s safe to say that every team and leader should try to achieve them. You should ensure that you track these outcomes as metrics that leverage the three different perspectives (team/coach/leaders) and regularly get organization leaders to inspect them to ensure that improvement is happening. The goal is to ensure that improvements are being raised onto the improvement backlog now that it’s very transparent that improvement opportunity is available and perspective sharing starts to increase. 

When everybody starts to learn what the improvement opportunities are, why they will help them, and improvement progress tracking becomes an expected norm then you are well on your way to creating the culture of continuous improvement where teams actually improve, and ideas stick for good. 

Just don’t prescribe how. Let them decide as they try to achieve and improve the outcomes you’ve put in place. 



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