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Agile Transformation – Achieving Group Flow
Seema Noronha Deputy General Manager, Digital & Analytics | November 11, 2020
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During the lockdown, like many of us, I too decided to focus on my fitness. I came across this fitness movement called animal flow. Animal flow mimics animal movements and focuses on strength, flexibility, mobility, and co-ordination. I had seen videos on animal flow, and believe me, when you see a group of people flowing together in complete synchrony, it is poetry in motion! I was so fascinated; I found a trainer offering online sessions on animal flow workout and my daughter and I enrolled.

As with anything new, what followed is a lot of learning and unlearning. And here is my attempt at synthesizing some of the key takeaways from the experience!

I had this vision in mind from the videos, of a group flowing in perfect synchrony.

But when we started, I found that we were a complete chaos! Forget the group, I could not even flow with my daughter next to me. Each of us were at different levels of fitness, each had our own pace. Our first few sessions of animal flow workout were nothing like what I had pictured.

Parallels between Animal Flow and Product Development Flow in an Agile world.

Lesson 1: Accept the current state. Achieving Flow takes time.

Compare this to our transformation journeys, to agile transformation and scaling agile. We want quick results. We hasten with cookie cutter solutions without taking time to truly understand the current state, the constraints in the system, and what works in the context of each team.

So, my first lesson was on patience. Agreed, we need to work on it. I thought I will at least try and flow with my daughter. So, how do we match pace? I took a shortcut. I compromised on my form for speed. For some time, it all looked fine. But I realized my folly soon enough, through wrist pains, posture issues and difficulty in getting the final pose right! Correcting this was a nightmare, because if you do something 10 times and more, it becomes muscle memory, and go try reversing that!! What helped me work through this, was my trainer who noticed these issues and patiently worked with me to correct these flaws and pushed me to go beyond what I thought was possible!

Lesson 2. Do not compromise on form and quality

Lesson 3. Unlearning is difficult, especially when it has become muscle memory!

Lesson 4. Invest in a coach

In agile teams, do not compromise on quality for speed! What follows inevitably is defects and accumulated technical debt. Achieving flow will become a distant dream if this continues! Focus on core engineering practices and built-in quality.

Unlearning traditional ways and changing the culture in the ecosystem, like reversing muscle memory is a task in itself! Hence requires focused attention from the start.

Invest in an agile coach. On the ground mentoring is essential to change established patterns, bring about culture change, help teams believe that change is possible and doable, especially when things get difficult. Most agile transformation journeys fail because we don’t focus on change management.

Invest in coaches and change management. It may seem like additional cost but is so worth it in the long run!

Here are some things we did to help me increase my pace without compromising on form. My trainer understood I needed additional work. I carried excess weight, I had stiff knees from an earlier accident. So, to work through these constraints, I used some tools and props, e.g. yoga blocks and belt. These helped me to get going while I continued to work on myself. I had to focus on strengthening my core, and this meant some additional work such as weight training (more tools) and focused mobility workouts, etc.

Lesson 5: Tools are essential to drive speed and quality

Lesson 6: Legacy is a drag. We must focus on strengthening and reinventing the core

Let us get this straight right away. True agility is not possible without tools and automation. We have to invest in the right tooling for end-to-end SDLC automation to be able to deliver in quick iterations and with the right rigor in quality. Invest in DevOps tooling.

A legacy portfolio poses additional constraints to agility. We could abstract this with wrappers and build connective tissues around to limit changes to the core and thus achieve speed (aka props). This works in some cases. However, if this is core to the business, we have to focus on technology modernization and re-engineering to stabilize the core.

Now, that I had worked on getting my form in order, I could finally look at the group and see how we could achieve group flow and synchronization. I first focused on getting it right with my daughter, before looking at others in the group, because of various factors, topmost being we were collocated. To synchronize, I had to increase my pace, also, she had to slow down hers! We had to work through together, observe and be mindful of cues from each other, give space, and iron out the differences. We also found it helped to synchronize with shorter durations rather than trying a long flow and struggle with keeping the synchrony throughout.

Lesson 7: Apply limits and manage work in process

Lesson 8: Work with a small batch size and manage variability

Imagine asking a team or a team member to slow down and putting a WIP limit on them! Will it not amount to sacrilege in our efficiency and productivity obsessed world where we focus so much on individual productivity and utilization??

Now try thinking of a highway choked with traffic stretched to its capacity of cars it can hold (Bangalore roads) fully utilized vs a highway with just enough traffic to ensure we have vehicles flowing smoothly? Would you go with flow or utilization?

While our focus should be on flow and throughput, we need to manage optimum utilization for it to be economical. A 70 – 80% utilization is found to be a good benchmark to manage variability. There is a lot of merit and value, focusing on system productivity as a whole, and not on Individual productivity.

Another key aspect is to keep batch sizes small. Working in small batches helps to reduce variability and increase predictability.

Now that we had achieved some success together between us, we could focus on the group. We had some learnings on how we managed, which helped to scale with the team, and with the trainer guiding us we managed to synchronize. The trainer set the pace and cadence. She also recorded our sessions of short flows and played back to us for feedback. This took multiple iterations, but our focus on continuously improving as a team helped us achieve this dream together!

Lesson 9: Pilot first. Use the lessons learnt and best practices to then expand

Lesson 10: Use continuous feedback loops and focus on relentless improvement

A big bang approach to change may not always work. Choose a pilot with factors most conducive to success. The learnings from the pilot will help in accelerating the scaling process and the first success of the pilot will provide the much-needed boost and motivation for the scaling journey ahead!

Frequent retrospectives, ensuring fast feedback loops and focus on improvement with a growth mindset helps in getting to the target state much quicker. This keeps the focus on what matters and what adds value while continuously eliminating the non-value adds. It will take time, but this approach will get us there much quicker than later. A coach can greatly help in facilitating this journey by providing an outside view and bringing in much needed best practices.

One key and interesting observation during this journey, was that each of us trying to better our own moves did not automatically result in our group achieving it together! It helped, yes, but there were so many more elements we had to focus on, as a group, to get to flowing together!

And that brings us to a key lesson on systems thinking and the importance of this when it comes to scaling. That is a separate topic by itself. Part 2 may be!

Optimizing the parts does not optimize the whole

I have here, focused on few aspects of lean product development and some aspects of agile transformation journey and change management.

  • If lean product development has caught your interest, please read the book “The Principles of Product Development FLOW” by Donald G Reinersten.
  • If I have somehow managed to get you interested in animal flow, please check out this awesome group flow on Instagram. And if this poetry in motion inspires you, find a trainer!
  • If you need help with agile transformation, please reach out to us – and you can keep the Contact Us icon which we use for our Digital & Analytics services