Your Agile Transformation Doesn't Need A Better Plan, It Needs a Better GPS

Article Agile

Redirecting your Agile Transformation.

There I was, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, headed south from San Francisco and exploring the beautiful California scenery. Although my confidence behind the wheel implied I was a native, in reality, I had never been to this part of the country. However, I had no fears as to where I was headed. I knew I couldn’t get lost. Did I have a colorful map with a detailed plan of where to go? No! In fact, there was no map in my car. For the first time in my life, I was navigating with a GPS device, and I never felt so confident.

The year was 2002, and my wife and I were exploring the Bay area - wine country, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Silicon Valley, and the Monterrey Peninsula. It was a spontaneous trip, as we were considering a move should my post-graduate school job take us out West. As we exited the plane at SFO and approached the rental car counter, the tall woman from Hertz asked if I wanted to upgrade to Never Losttm, their in-car GPS system. Now, I am not one who splurges for add-ons and up-charges, but something about this particular gadget intrigued me. “Never Lost”, the rep explained, “is guaranteed to take you to your destination quickly and you will never get lost.” Skeptical but interested, I dove in.

After typing in my destination - Cakebread Vineyard in Napa Valley - I watched my Never Lost calculate the optimal route. Pretty cool, I thought, but not a game-changer yet. I mean, I could plot out a route on a map! An hour later, after exiting the city, my wife requested that we stop for food. I hesitated, not sure how Never Lost would react, but decided it was time to diverge from the original path. And that is when this tiny device showed itself to be an agilist at heart. In the nicest voice possible, and using a British accent if my memory holds, the gadget spoke a word I will never forget - recalculating. Instantly I was staring at a revised plan to the vineyard based on my new location. The further I drove from the highway, the more Never Lost “recalculated”. I left like my new gadget expected me to stray from its advice, and welcomed the opportunity to give me feedback. Instantly, my decision at the rental counter had been validated. I was hooked!

GPS and Uncertainty

18 years have passed since my first experience with GPS, and now so many people are comfortable navigating the roads with a satellite-enabled device in their pockets or purses. Apps like Waze and Google Maps are so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember life without them. But why are GPS tools so popular in our modern society? Why do people use them to navigate their own hometowns? In my opinion, the answer lies with uncertainty. GPS solves two types of uncertainty that many people have. First, it helps determine the optimal route to an unknown destination by offering precise turn-by-turn instructions. Second, when the route is known, GPS offers valuable information on road conditions, traffic patterns, and hidden police cars. People may have uncertainly about how to find a location, or they may have uncertainty about the conditions along the way, but GPS seamlessly handles both.

GPS and Scrum

GPS reduces uncertainty by providing real-time feedback based on the same principles as Scrum, the most popular agile framework. Scrum relies on a theory called Empirical Process Control, or empiricism. Empiricism asserts that true knowledge comes from real-world experience and from making decisions based on observable facts. A detailed and extensive project plan may look good on paper, but the important requirements of a project will emerge over time and with observation.

Empiricism relies on the three pillars of Transparency, Inspection, and Adaption, which are:

  • Transparency: All the information needed for decision making is open and visible
  • Inspection: Ruthless, unemotional examination of the facts
  • Adaption: Adjusting the plan to reflect our new understanding

While navigating the winding roads of Northern California, I came to realize that GPS devices, like Scrum, rely on Empiricism too. First, GPS devices are transparent - they are open about where they source map and traffic data. Second, GPS devices use inspection - they make routing decisions based on transparent map and traffic data, and they are aware of their exact location often down to a few feet. Third, GPS devices adapt their plan. Based on the constant inspection of the data, they adapt and continuously offer feedback on the best path forward. The challenge that Enterprise leaders face is getting their agile teams, and their entire organizations, to adapt as quickly as their GPS devices!

The Challenge of Agile in the Enterprise

As a consultant, I spend most of my time coaching executives to implement agile across the enterprise. The pattern I see in most organizations is, while they use agile practices during project execution, they fail to adopt agile throughout their entire value stream. The early phases of projects – like discovery and analysis, remain firmly rooted in traditional waterfall mentality. When I help assess new clients, I first ask leaders how long it takes their organization to get a new idea from its inception all the way through the organization and out to the customer. While that question alone often incites a passionate debate, a typical response is “our large projects take about 12 months from beginning to completion”. Skeptical based on my experience, I probe further to uncover the reality that most Enterprise projects take three years to complete. While the project execution phase may take 12 months, the first two years are spent battling for an idea to be approved. New ideas bounce around the corporate bureaucracy to receive analysis from subject matter experts, funding from the Finance department, staffing from the Project Management Office (PMO), and ultimate approval from the project steering committee. Once that red tape has been cleared, the original idea is now two years old and likely to have lost its relevance in today’s fast-moving marketplace. 

“The purpose of agile practices is straightforward: to quickly deliver iterative value to customers in order to collect meaningful feedback so that the plan can be adapted.”

Optimize for Fast Feedback

What the GPS analogy teaches is that big, upfront plans and slow-moving value streams are no longer effective in today’s competitive landscape. The purpose of agile practices is straightforward: to quickly deliver iterative value to customers in order to collect meaningful feedback so that the plan can be adapted. Teams do not need more time to gather better customer requirements. Instead, empiricism teaches that they need better feedback. Unfortunately, most Enterprises designed their value streams to optimize for efficiency rather than to optimize for fast feedback. In these traditional environments, agile practices are barely utilized for their full power and effectiveness. To unleash agile, each stage of the value stream must contain its own feedback loops to continuously ensure that the current plan is still valid. Enterprises that are threatened by fast feedback are doomed to die a slow death like Blockbuster, Kodak, and Borders. Enterprises that welcome feedback have the opportunity to serve new customers and open new markets that they didn’t know existed.

The next time you are driving with the aid of a GPS app, be bold and intentionally take a detour from the prescribed route. Watch how gracefully your device adapts to your change and provides you with instantaneous feedback. Ask yourself, how can I transform my organization to act more like my GPS? Once you do, you will lead your teams and organization with the confidence that I had exploring California for the first time.