Tick-Tock of the Agile Clock

I often think about where large transformations go wrong in organizations. I’ve been through several “agile” flavored ones, and at this point, I think they’re mostly doomed to fail. That doesn’t mean that pursuing agility is a waste of time, but there are a lot of things working against transformations, and I want to bring up one of the issues I see everywhere.

It’s business o’clock

Alright, let’s think about a clock for a moment. In particular, it has seconds, minutes, and hours. If I’m running a short race, I care much more about the seconds than I do minutes. If I’m holding my breath, I care about minutes the most, and hours tend to be the biggest concern when I’m planning my day.

Well, this same focus on different scales of time is the same way business works. People closest to the work focus on seconds, the people in the middle of the organization focus on minutes, and the top folks think in hours.

The problem with most approaches to agility is that they focus on seconds disproportionally to minutes and hours. SAFe stands apart because it has a way of looking at minutes.

So what happens is that we have disconnects everywhere. Teams are sprinting, talking in sprints, and are told to think in sprints. They are working with managers who need to look further out, but agilists tell them that sprints are it, and senior leaders suddenly have nothing to base their multi-year strategies on.

Am I Advocating for MORE Planning?

Not really. Companies won’t stop looking ahead regardless of how tightly anyone clutches their team-based agile pearls. They aren’t going to stop worrying where they’ll be be next week, next month, or in a year either. This concern isn’t a bad thing either. For starters, a company’s ability to hit longer-term goals and targets creates financial stability.

Can you imagine having a job where everyone treated every decision like a sprint, including your employment and benefits?

So, while looking ahead is fine, I am not advocating for creating hills to die on, huge investments in traditional scope-based planning, or insisting that business-as-an-indicator-of-progress metrics are required.

No, we need to do a lot better helping folks work with minutes and hours a lot better than they currently do and stop accusing them of being the problem.

Okay, smart guy, how?

I’m a fan of doing a lot of intentional work with leaders to unravel their scope-based plans into more result-based goals. I don’t particularly care if this means OKRs, True North, or any other framework.

The point is that we know what we’re aiming for and how to detect if we will hit the target. Creating goals and signals is really challenging work for most leaders who have usually relied on simply judging business as a proxy for everything else.

Want an example? Velocity. Velocity cannot tell you if you’ll be in business tomorrow. Yet, what metric does everyone rely on for almost any measure of success? Velocity.

So what we want instead is a set of goals that we have meaningful measures to tell us if we’re on target. Revenue, cost, customer churn, and things like that. When we have these signals, we can ask a very open question, “Okay, what options exist to get us closer?”

It turns out there are always several ways to go.

Then we can ask, “Okay, how will we be sure this is working or worth more investment?” Now, this question forces us to get really specific about what our attempt will impact and what it won’t. I don’t accept hand-waiving about how things should get better. I want to know what specifically will get better and by how much.

Finally, I ask, “When can we check?” That’s a doozy. It sounds like I’m asking for a commitment to a plan, but that’s not where this is going. We have to look at our signals if we want to understand what to do. So when we check, we look at our measures and signals. It doesn’t mean you did everything you planned.

Scale it up, Scale it down

This idea of goals, signals, and options can work at a rapid cycle like the tick-tock of seconds. The information from those seconds turns into signals that are getting checked on by the minute and whose larger points of data are telling folks what the next hour should be like.

My bottom line here is that we need to respect that different aspects of business move and think at different paces. So, we have to bring different ways to help everyone at each of the different scales if we want to make a real impact.