Agile Adoption and Team Productivity

A common question that people ask is how does the adoption of agile within a team affect its productivity?  The answer to this question will vary by team, but there are several common patterns that we’ve seen over time.  In this blog we explore:

  1. What does increased productivity mean to you?
  2. Agile adoption patterns
  3. What milestones to look out for as a team adopts agile
  4. What you can do to increase your chance of success
  5. How do you know productivity improved?
  6. Agile is about more than productivity improvement

What Does Increased Productivity Mean to You?

Productivity is defines various measures of the efficiency of production, and is calculated as

Value of Output divided by Cost of Input

The implication of this calculation is that there is flexibility in the way that we can increase the productivity of a team:

  • Produce the same output with less cost (i.e. with fewer people).
  • Create greater value with the same number of people.
  • Deliver value incrementally more often, thereby earning value sooner for a longer period of time (this is called decreasing the cost of delay)

Remember that context counts – each team will choose the most appropriate way for them to increase their productivity. Having said that, a common result of a team adopting agile is to incrementally deliver value more often.

Agile Adoption Patterns

The following diagram overviews three common patterns when it comes to productivity change when teams adopt agile.  You’ve likely seen simpler versions of this diagram elsewhere that only show the dark green line, but our experience is that’s only part of the story. You can see in all three cases that the adoption of agile results in an initial productivity loss on a team – this reflects the reality that with any type of change it will take time for a team to learn the new strategy, to identify how it fits into their environment, and to learn the new requisite skills and behaviours. Agile adoption productivity

The three patterns, from least desirable to most desirable, are:

  1. A failed agile adoption (red line). Teams fail to adopt agile for several reasons, usually because the team doesn’t want to adopt agile ways of working, the organization doesn’t properly support their adoption efforts, or the rest of the organization continues to drag them down with traditional ways of working.
  2. A successful agile adoption (green line). Luckily most teams succeed in their agile adoption efforts, and numerous studies have shown a wide range of benefits including faster time to delivery, increased quality, increased stakeholder satisfaction with the delivered solution, and improve team morale to name a few.  Every team is different, but overall on average adopting agile is a positive experience.  You’ll land on this curve when you treat agile adoption as a project, something you do for a few months to help make the team more effective, if you’re successful.
  3. A successful agile adoption evolving into continuous improvement (green dashed line). The most successful teams realize that process improvement isn’t a short-term project but instead is a long-term journey that you undertake.  This is reflected in the dashed line in the diagram below.  You typically start by following a transformation strategy with the team – you get them some initial training, some coaching, help them change their work environment and tooling to be more collaborative.  Then at some point an improvement mindset begins to take hold within the team, one of the fundamental aspects of agility.  The team reflects on a regular basis, identifying potential ways that they can improve and then they experiment with those strategies to see which ones work in practice for them. It’s at this point that they’ve shifted out of the transformation strategy into more of a continuous improvement strategy, which is what enables them to reach higher levels of productivity than what is typically achieved with just a transformation strategy.

What Are the Key Milestones to Look For?

There are three key milestone points on the successful paths that you should watch out for:

  1. Productivity trough (4-8 weeks). With anything new there is always a learning curve, and agile is no exception.  When a team begins to move towards agile their productivity will drop for several reasons: they will likely invest some time taking training, it will take people time to learn new techniques and adopt new ways of working, and it will take time for the team to determine how they will work together following these new agile strategies.  Your productivity levels tend to bottom out after four to eight weeks and then after that will start to improve.  The amount of time varies by team, depending on whether any team members have previous agile experience that they can leverage, how much team members want to change, how effective the training is, and whether you have the support of an experienced and effective coach.
  2. Productivity recovers (2-4 months).  For most teams, the ones who are successful at becoming agile, their productivity levels will recover back to the level they were before they started on their agile improvement journey, within two to four months of starting.  This amount of time depends on the same issues mentioned before.
  3. Improvement culture takes hold (3-6 months). This is the point where the improvement mindset really kicks in and the team starts to explicitly work together to improve the way that they work. This is a reflection that the team is actually “being agile” and not just doing agile ceremonies. Sadly not all teams reach this point and move up onto the dashed green line in the diagram above.  Whether they do so or not is primarily dependent on the willingness of team members to become agile, the quality of the coaching that they receive, and whether your organizational environment allows them to own their process.

How Can You Improve Your Chance of Success?

There are several strategies that you can employ to increase your chance of successfully adopting agile and shifting to a continuous improvement culture within your team:

  1. Invest in training. Get the team started on the right foot with training that not only goes into the fundamental concepts behind agile (“being agile” training) but also works through from beginning to end how agile works in practice (“doing agile” training).  Being agile training is incredibly easy to find, but good “doing agile” training that is comprehensive is much harder to find.  Luckily there are several very good Disciplined Agile training offerings that focus on how to “do agile” in enterprise-class settings.
  2. Hire an experienced coach. A good coach will help your team to avoid common learning pitfalls, and better yet quickly guide you through “learning experiences”, working through with you how to improve the way the team works. Hiring a coach can be a challenge because as we show in Why is it so hard to find qualified coaches? it is possible for anyone, and unfortunately they often do, to claim that they are an agile coach.  Effective coaches have deep experience in what they are coaching as well as skills in the act of coaching itself.  The majority of “agile coaches” tend to to be short on both of these things, and the few coaches that are qualified are in high demand.  There are several Certified Disciplined Agile Partners that you may want to reach out to for Certified Disciplined Agile Coaches (CDACs).
  3. Give the team an “organizational pass.” It’s incredibly difficult for a team to become agile when they are still surrounded by other groups that are actively working in a non-agile manner.  Agile teams need to collaborate with others to achieve their goals (in fact, the 2016 Agility at Scale study found that 96% of people indicated that their team needs to interact with at least one other team).  So, if you want to enable a team to become more agile and improve then you also need to motivate these other teams they rely on – such as the data team, the enterprise architects, and even the governance team – to be sufficiently flexible to work with the agile team in an agile manner.  In some cases the agile team may need to be “given a pass” from creating the mandated artifacts, or having to jump through the mandated “quality gates”, required by these teams.
  4. Help the teams that they collaborate with to become more agile.  The next step after giving an agile team an organizational pass it to recognize that this is an opportunity to experiment with improving other areas within your organization.  Help the enterprise architects to learn about agile and to try a few agile strategies themselves.  Similarly the data team can experiment with agile data management strategies and certainly your IT governance team can also take the opportunity to up their game as well.

How Do You Know That Your Productivity Actually Improved?

Although the chart above intuitively makes sense, how do you know that your productivity has actually increased?  To definitively answer this question you need to determine what productivity means to you, what the productivity level of the team currently is, and then continue to measure the level of productivity over time. This strategy tends to fall apart because few organizations know how they want to measure team productivity and fewer yet have actual measures in place. This of course is particularly vexing when senior management still requires you to prove that your productivity has increased as the result of your agile adoption efforts.  Luckily there are ways to measure the change in productivity even when you don’t know what the baseline productivity level currently is.  We’ll address this topic in a future blog.

Agile is About More Than Productivity Improvement

There are many benefits to agile, improving team productivity being just one of them. Potential benefits, some of which lead to greater productivity, include:

  • Improving the quality of the delivered solution
  • Improved stakeholder satisfaction
  • Greater adaptability to market changes
  • Increased team morale
  • Quicker time to market
  • Greater frequency of delivery
  • and many more

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