Experienced CIO, executive coach and author, Joe Topinka, writes that "moving quickly" with Agile and DevOps before clear strategic goals are established will lead to confusion.

For the past year I’ve been asking CIOs and business leaders how their worlds are changing in this era of unprecedented digital transformation. They unanimously indicate that their businesses are evolving from what made these companies successful in the past to new ways of competing and engaging with customers. Most state that they are trying to become more agile and move faster.

However, these same business and technology leaders are frustrated that new ways of working haven’t produced the results they had hoped for. I consistently hear them talk about scaled agile, DevOps, and change management – all in the same breath. I hear their anxiousness and concern as they tackle how their teams and companies can succeed in a fast-changing landscape.

Strategic Fuzziness

Delving more deeply, one theme consistently emerged: Lack of strategic clarity. Their company strategy isn’t clear in that it doesn’t help clarify the initiatives that teams should be working on. For many, “move more quickly” seems to be the only strategy. Adopting agile or implementing DevOps is the primary focus. Many feel they need to move more quickly, but at the same time, still aren’t certain where they were heading!

Don’t misunderstand me: reacting more quickly in the digital transformation era is certainly necessary. But I think the crucial question to be asking is where is your organization going? It is one thing to become agile and move smaller, bite-sized projects through new agile processes. But what is the point if you don’t know the end goals? Too often, companies focus on new processes when the company strategy itself isn’t clear.

Process Frustration

One company I know recently implemented the Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe. Their thinking was that it would create a better link between company strategy and the work their IT organization undertook. Overnight, the focus became about rolling out the process and identifying people in roles they didn’t understand, and in many cases, didn’t ask for. One team member declared “I already have a full-time job!” Teams became preoccupied with conversation about the new roles and were asking, “How is this better than what we did in the past?”

This company’s move to SAFe and the resulting conversations both highlight the real problem – unclear company strategy. Every new program increment brought all new requests from business owners attempting to secure approval for largely tactical projects. More important strategic projects weren’t even brought into the process. No clear owners stepped up to drive bigger investments, especially those involving large cross-sections of the company.

To course correct, a savvy team of leaders in the company recognized the confusion and began to refocus the organization on clarifying their strategic goals. They understood that the scaled agile process was only as good as the investments that flowed through it.


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Refine Strategic Goals

The company leaders’ approach was simple. They worked with other executives to clarify company-wide strategic goals. They made sure that the strategy was clear enough to guide the work that needed to be undertaken across the organization. They made sure that the refined goals were measurable, addressed customer pain-points, and that teams understood what success looked like for each initiative right from the beginning.

It is easy to get pulled into the new process vortex, especially when company strategy isn’t clear, but team members want to make an impact. The takeaway here is that while we all need to become more agile to help drive successful initiatives, we cannot forget about company strategy and how what we are doing ties back to it.

This reminds me of a simple formula a long-time friend in the agile coaching space espoused that underscores this idea. David Hussman left this earth too soon. He was an agile expert, a moniker he disliked. Friends said he looked the like Jeff Bridges' character in the film, The Big Lebowski, so references to “the dude” were many. His rule is known as “Dudes Law”. The formula is V=W/H, which simply states that the “Value” is equal to “Why” divided by “How”.  Put too much focus on How work gets done, and not enough time on Why you are doing something, and value goes down.

Just as in our personal lives, where being constantly busy doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness and fulfillment, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest wave of agile processes, DevOps, and digital transformation, confusing processes for strategy. Be sure that you stop and reflect on the work your teams are doing. Ask if these initiatives connect to the company strategy. If the answers aren’t clear, I encourage you to work with your leadership teams to redefine company goals and objectives. Having your teams know that they are working on projects that drive company strategy and value is more important than how they get the work done. Dude’s Law is a simple reminder for all of us.

Agile process vortex

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