The sharper your plan is, the bigger your disappointment will be.
Are we ready for Agile frameworks?
I’ve been asking myself this question for some time now. Wherever I go, I keep hearing terms related to predictability and plans. For example, stakeholders want a commitment to deadlines, top management insists on a clear product roadmap, and Scrum teams end up with massive Product Backlogs. This scenario makes me skeptical of whether we’re ready to be Agile.
I thought the beauty of Agile was about embracing the unknown and uncovering hidden opportunities to create value sooner. However, almost everything I see is about reducing risks and increasing predictability. That doesn’t sound like embracing the unknown; it sounds like avoiding it at all costs. Either I am dead wrong, or we’re screwing up with Agile. Let me ask you some questions:
- How does your product strategy empower you to make daily decisions?
- Does your product roadmap foster or limit your creativity?
- How often do you renew your Product Goals?
- Are your Product Backlog items constantly adapted according to your learnings, or do they reflect past promises?
Answering these questions can be revealing. If I’m being honest with you, most times I would say that product strategy is absent or useless for daily decisions. The product roadmap is generally a prescriptive plan that forces teams to divide and conquer. Product Goals are often ignored, and the Product Backlog is a disaster. This scenario doesn’t seem Agile at all, and I believe all of these happen because we fail to overcome our fear of the unknown.
Please stick with me. I will walk you through a way out of these traps. By the end of this post, you should have applicable insights on how to step into the unknown.
Trapped by the Status Quo
“This is how we do it here. We’ve been doing that for a while, and it works for us.”
No matter where I worked, I stumbled upon this statement time and time again. Initially, I thought that was a cultural aspect in Brazil, but then I got the same in Colombia, Dominican Republic, and Germany. My takeaway is that people are afraid of change. But that doesn’t mean you’ve got to perceive the status quo as unchangeable.
I perceive the status quo as one of the company’s most limiting and dangerous traps. When teams fall prey to the status quo, they will:
- Stay locked in their comfort zone
- Mechanically preform their activities without questioning
- Stop evolving and stagnate
- Be afraid of doing anything that goes slightly against the status quo
You may read this and wonder, “If we’re successful and getting great results, why should we challenge how we work?” I used to think that way. In Brazil, we commonly say that one should never change a winning team. Although that makes sense, we must accept the world is constantly evolving, and change is our only certainty.
No matter how successful you are right now, you have no guarantee that you will remain successful. We have plenty of examples in the industry—Nokia, Kodak, Blackberry, and many others. Whatever got a company to be successful may not get them any further. We should challenge ourselves continuously and gain the courage to embrace the unknown.
Falling prey to the status quo will block you from embracing the unknown.
No, You’re Not Powerless
It’s not because people have been working in a certain way for a while that they cannot change. Inspection and adaptation are pillars of Scrum, and this should go beyond the Scrum team. Resisting change won’t result in anything good.
How you deal with the status quo will define how innovative you can be. When you perceive the status quo as the ultimate status, your chances of innovation slowly disappear. But when you remain curious and question why you do what you do, you may uncover great opportunities.
Many teams feel trapped. They complain about receiving predefined plans to follow while feeling ignored because nobody listens to them. At some point, they give up, stop challenging, and start blindly following. Eventually, the team reaches stagnation and doesn’t grow beyond that. It doesn’t have to be like that. You’re not powerless. You can influence companies to change. Let me tell you how.
First, you need to understand how the status quo limits your actions. Here’s a checklist I’d recommend Scrum teams to look into:
- Product Vision: Do you have a Product Vision defined? How does that empower you in your day to day?
- Product Strategy: How does your product strategy facilitate decision-making?
- Product Roadmap: Do roadmaps help you focus on goals, or do they limit you to delivering features?
- Product Goals: If you have Product Goals defined, how are they used, and how often are they refined?
- Product Backlog: Does your Product Backlog evolve according to your discoveries, or does it reflect a set of unrelated promises to different stakeholders?
- Sprint Goals: How do you use Sprint Goals during your Sprint? Does it empower teams to adapt their work during Sprints, or do they ignore it?
Doing this analysis may seem painful. You may look at the results and realize everything you do is related to known areas, and you barely have a chance to embrace the unknown. Take that as an opportunity because now you’ll know where to act.
Use the results to influence key stakeholders to change how you work. Aim for frequent small improvements instead of overwhelming them with too many changes.
Questions Over Answers
You will face resistance once you try to change something. That’s unavoidable, and it doesn’t mean you have to give up after hearing a no. Many times no doesn’t really mean no. It often means “I don’t understand why.” Strive to help people understand how changing something will help them as well.
For example, say you’ve realized your Product Backlog is a mess and provides no direction. You decide to gain support from key stakeholders in setting Product Goals. You want to adapt your Product Backlog to help the team focus on achieving the Product Goal instead of trying to deliver everything at once. Probably, almost no stakeholder will support you on that because they will be afraid of missing out on important features. The fear of the unknown is knocking on their door. You can help them move away from it by asking powerful questions. Here are some examples:
- Do you want us to work on outdated requests?
- How are we supposed to work as a team if we cannot set goals?
- Our Product Backlog has items created years ago that are unrelated to our current challenges. Should we focus on the past while ignoring the future?
- So far, we’ve been planning by capacity and barely discussed solving valuable problems to differentiate from our competitors. Should we do what’s easy or what’s right?
To embrace the unknown, you need to help stakeholders see what they’re missing and help them take one step at a time to move from a fixed mindset to a growth one.
Embracing the unknown is mandatory if you want to succeed with any Agile framework. Still, it’s challenging to do because, as human beings, we are afraid of stepping into unexplored paths. We feel threatened and do everything to avoid it. As a result, we kill our chances of innovating.
The secret of agility is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Here is my key learning from a decade of hitting the wall:
- Don’t take no as a final answer. Sometimes it just means “I don’t understand” or “I’m afraid of that.”
- Don’t try to convince people to step into the unknown. Try getting them to step after step with you on a journey.
- Learn how to ask questions that make people step back and reflect.
- Opt for small incremental improvements instead of overwhelming people.
- Don’t let teams fall into a powerless atmosphere, help them influence key stakeholders to enable valuable changes.