Agility Is About Discipline

To be fast you need to have discipline. Take the fire department for instance. They have courage and discipline, which is why they can be fast.

Discipline can mean that there is a joint understanding on how we exchange information. Personally I don’t like when people are taking up airtime in meetings by thinking out loud. That thinking should have been done before the meeting. From time to time my colleagues can hear me say very bluntly to someone to stop babbling and get to the point.

“Have courage to say ‘no’. ”

Discipline can also mean that meetings start and end on time. I can get a bit theatrical if people are late for meetings, especially if they take up airtime by explaining how leprechauns ate their valet parking tickets, preventing them getting into their car and subsequently to the meeting.

But the key to agile organisation is to understand that you win by controlling the process and lose by controlling the people.

Small Rules Lead to Great Results

I connect discipline and agility with these rules:

  • The work is not done until the paperwork is finished – just like in the toilet.
  • Process documentation has no value in itself. It is only valuable when you can show evidence that you follow the process. Therefore, we can answer any question about how we operate with "here is the documentation and here is the evidence".
  • Routines are the only safety measure in a chaotic business environment. We strive for less complexity by having reoccurring events and meetings, and if there are nothing to report or handle, the meeting will be kept very short.
  • There is no need to invent everything yourself – use known frameworks. Our way of working is Scrum, Kanban and PDCA (Plan–Do–Check–Act). Not-Invented-Here is a disease.
  • Have courage to say “no”. No is a token of honesty while too many “yes” lead to impossible workload.
  • "Touch and hold" the problems until there is a new problem owner or a solution. We think that “we won’t fix it” is a valid solution.

Time Estimation from Hell

We are aware of the student syndrome: regardless of the time available you always start to read for the exam the night before. In combination with the Parkinson’s Law – work expands so it fills the time available for its completion – you will have a busy organisation working in full speed and still being always late.

We avoid being late by removing time from the equation. Instead of estimating time we estimate complexity. In short, we estimate how many complexity points we can complete in a fixed time.

In our company there is only one backlog. This has been the right choice for us. One backlog helps us prioritise projects and focus on value adding work.

Of course, we were not like this from the very start. In the beginning our problem was the daily shifting of priorities, but department by department we structured the work according to the backlog. Naturally everything did not fall into place right away, but after a while – meaning after too long and loads of coffee and ulcers later – we were on the right track. What I learned from this is that you need to be present every day to make it work.

Fix Mental Obstacles to Become Agile

In my experience the main obstacles of applying a new operations strategy in an organisation are mostly mental:

  • “Yes, agile is good but it does not fit for us because…” How can you be sure if you have not tried? Just start implementing and learn by doing. Keywords: iteration, managerial commitment, feedback.
  • “Work outside priorities is done because…” Are you honest now – or just want to get things done without thinking of the consequences? Keywords: transparency, leadership, focus.
  • “We need longer time box because…” Was the item too complex? By planning the work item you can help in managing it. Keywords: planning, eat your elephant one bite at a time.
  • “I will not show it until it is ready because…” Have you even started or are you afraid of failure? Keywords: fail fast, transparency, guiding.

The Biggest Challenge

In general, the biggest challenge in an organisation is communication, specifically correct communication at the right time. The easiest start is to have some structure and discipline in the communication, and then see what is left to solve.

“...but after a while – meaning after too long and loads of coffee and ulcers later – we were on the right track.”

If you think that “...because communication always fails and might get it right only by accident”, you should stop it altogether. But you know, though they say the honey badger doesn’t care, he does actually give a shit.