🧐 agile monocle S01E07: Experiments

Season 1 of agile monocle comes to a conclusion and today we talk about experiments.

The kind of experiments I’m talking about happens all the time on three levels:

  • Experiments on the way of working

  • Experiments at the organizational level

  • Experiments at the strategic level

Way of working experiments

Despite “WoW” becoming an omnipresent three-letter buzzword, I do like the term “way of working” over anything that has the “Agile” word before any term.

Way of working can be anything from doing a regular facilitated meeting to adopting a framework like Scrum in one or multiple teams. Way of working might also be teams saying “they’re agile” because they don’t plan anything, ever.

Sometime adopting a tool forces a change in the way of working, agile or otherwise: if you use Jira you are automatically part of the agile club, right?

I think one of the most useful thing someone in might position can help with is supporting teams in reading “cues” about the experiments that they are running, or transforming something they do in a

“Think cues, not Measures with a capital M. When you lose weight, you may track your weight with a scale. That’s a measurement. You may also notice your clothes fit better (or less well), or pull ups at the gym feel just a tiny bit easier—signaling a difference. Probably not part of a Measurement program, but very useful indicators of change. And you may notice them before you see significant progress on the outcome measure.”
Esther Derby —
Steering Signals

I don’t get the chance to coach every team I do training with, so after meeting them in the safe environment of the training course, they are on their own. Sometimes I somehow keep in touch with people telling me how they are trying to experiment some for of new way of working.

The daily/scrum standup is one of the most frequent experiment people feel like they can do on their own. I do love when people tell me that it’s hard, because it is. Beware of anyone telling you that doing the daily scrum is easy.

There is another way of working experiment that it’s being taken lightly and it is the about the Scrum roles.

I’m seeing more and more frequently people that have been told that they are now a “Product Owner” or a “Scrum Masters” by people who have no idea what a Product Owner and a Scrum Master are. And then your own friendly agile coach find himself in the position of having to tell them “Well, we’ll see about that…”.

Assigning new roles to people creates expectation, so you should thread carefully this topic because roles are not part of the “way of working” experiment, they are part of broader organizational experiment.

Organizational experiments

Organizational experiments are trickier because of:

  • sunk costs fallacies

  • scaling issues

For most companies it takes a lot of time and effort to run an organizational experiment: because of existing roles, policies, processes, departments, teams gaining the necessary buy-in to re-arrange even a little part of a company is an exhausting task.

That’s one of the main reason why companies go with a Big-Bang approach to organizational change: it is somehow harder to experiment with 3 teams than it is to announce a 15-teams “transformation”.

But collecting “cues” from 15 teams and steering direction is several orders of magniture harder than doing it for 3 teams.

Even in the land of agile re-organization, we are still treating a company like a deterministic, mechanistic system.

“[…] forcing an experiment to work when it’s not meant to loses valuable information that tells us why it’s not working in the first place. Spotify’s Squad structure doesn’t work for your company because your company isn’t Spotify. Great! Let the experiment fail, so that you can identify what exactly isn’t working and design a different experiment to solve that.”

Tim Casasola — Internal experiments are a product problem, not an engineering problem

Strategic experiments

Even trickier than ways of working and organizational experiments: our strategies are still stuck at the level of a MBA student’s homework while everything around us changes constantly.

I have yet to see a company running proper strategic experiments. How many companies you know embraced Beyond Budgeting, for example?

I’m sure that what happened this year with the pandemic has probably sped up the adoption process for lighter strategic framework, but most of the companies right now entering Q4 are setting yearly budget for 2021 based on 2020 budget.

We need to start treating strategy as a continuous process, and not just as some words on a PowerPoint slide.

Ways of working, organizational and strategic experiments must go hand in hand.

Strategy is a loaded word, I think we need better tools — like Wardley Mapping — in order to unravel the components, movements, patterns that define a strategy process. Otherwise it’s really just words on a slide. Strategy should and can be broken down and be accessible to anyone in the company — let’s get rid of the monolithic strategy.

Define good experiments

We take experiments lightly, and we shouldn’t. Experiment should be run according to the scientific method: that doesn’t mean having formulas or equations, but we have at least take into account a well defined outcome, some constraints and a time-box.

Too many experiments at work are not even called “experiments”: we jump into action, doing changes according to a plan, copy&pasting ways of working, organizational structure and strategic guidelines, only to find out that, well, it didn’t work.

🧐 Now try this: I think this simple workshop by John Cutler might be an invaluable tool to help teams define their own experiments on good terms. If you work with managers or executives, this other workshop might help finding better questions.

It’s a wrap

agile monocle Season 1 comes to and end. It’s been a good ride. And an experiment in and on itself, whose terms and constraints have been:

  • English language (can and will improve)

  • Weekly issues (harder than expected)

  • Forced deadline (each Monday at 9 AM)

  • Limited to seven episodes (it helped with focus)

  • Time-boxed writing (90’ per article, it emerged along the way)

The mission will stay: “agile as a lens and not as a hammer” is strong enough to keep me looking for good questions that go beyond Agile with the capital “A”. Expect more diversions.

I somewhat accrued an audience of 34 people (thank you!), and mostly all of them are Italians, which doesn’t really validate my resolution of writing in English but you gotta start from somewhere, I guess.

While I’ll take a pause before working on Season 2, I’ll be more than glad to keep it alive with your questions and topics I might explore in the future.

You can reach agile monocle on Twitter, or you can connect with me personally on Twitter or on LinkedIn. See you soon.

(header image: Alex Kondratiev)