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Understanding the State of Agile

In a few days it will be exactly 20 years since a group of software engineering practitioners met in Snowbird, Colorado to define a set of new principles for software delivery that came to be called the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”. Concerned by the growing bureaucratic delays and complex management structures of many software projects, they proposed an alternative focus shaped by 12 principles that celebrate the needs for flexibility, collaboration, and creative in the how to solve problems and adapt to changing environments.

In the subsequent 2 decades, agile approaches have become dominant in software-intensive projects. Through an evolving set of methods and techniques, agile ways of working have become essential to every software delivery domain. Moving far beyond the original focus of small-scale software delivery teams, now large parts of an organization are adopting the use of short delivery sprints, standup reviews, retrospective meetings, and more to learn quickly and build delivery confidence in times of uncertainty.

Charting this journey has been a series of usage surveys known as the “State of Agile” reports. Over the past 14 years these annual surveys have offered important insight into the maturity of agile adoption and the impact of its use. These reports have been essential reading when planning an agile adoption strategy.

The 15th State of Agile Survey is now open for you to take part. And it is quite likely that this latest review will be more important than ever. The volatile nature of the past year has put huge pressure on organizations to adapt quickly to the on-going changing conditions being faced. As a result, there is great need to improve understanding and enhance skills in the use of agile practices. Such approaches are seen to be effective as they increase the adoption of techniques that deliver fast cycles of actionable change using shorter time-boxed activities. Becoming a more agile organization is essential to survive and thrive in the current environment. But it is also far from easy.

Today’s organizations are increasingly under pressure to respond ever more quickly to the needs of their customers and broader stakeholders. Not only is the drive for increased flexibility resulting in more new products being brought to market faster, it is also accelerating the evolution of existing solutions and services. Handling such change is critical for business success, driven by external factors such as market fluctuations, new technologies, competitive offerings, and new laws.

Much has been learned over the past two decades to offer a clear direction in agile delivery. The rapid evolution of digital technology and resulting digital transformation activities have forced organizations to invest in techniques that remove friction and increase flexibility in their delivery approaches, without abandoning all forms of control. They face pressure in balancing their delivery capabilities across four key dimensions:

  • Productivity of individuals and teams. Traditional productivity approaches are based on the quantity of units of capability (i.e., new features, lines of code, or function points) delivered over time. Producing more in a shorter amount of time may, however, not be the most effective metric for productivity in highly volatile environments. Other metrics have begun to emerge, such as those based on rapid learning through adoption of experimental techniques.
  • Time-to-market for projects to complete and deliver a meaningful result to the business. Long planning cycles and multiple levels of sign-off may be appropriate in well-understood environments. However, their value diminishes where speed of delivery and early feedback with customers is necessary. In such cases, rather than focus on overall project completion, it is more effective to optimize the delivery of usable capabilities in short bursts into the hands of product and service users.
  • Process maturity in the consistency, uniformity and standardization of practices. External auditing and internal corporate mandates often require procedures to conform to rigorous scrutiny. Often it is not just the quality of the outputs that are assessed, but also the way in which those outputs are produced and maintained. Various industry frameworks can help, but usually bring with them a heavy overhead in documentation, sign-off, and management.
  • Quality in delivered product and services, errors handled, and turnaround of requests. A focus on high-quality products and services is essential. However, for the viability of many solutions the risk of product error (and the impact of that error) must be aligned with the resources needed to achieve specific levels of quality. Traditional measures of success are typically combinations of defect density rates and errors fixed per unit time. These must be balanced with a broader view of quality, one that focuses on how efficiently products and services better able to achieve the outcomes that matter to consumers are put into their hands.

The biggest challenge of transforming into an agile organization is to achieve a shift in thinking, from which agile actions must flow. For many organizations this change is simple in theory, but very difficult to execute in practice due to a variety of scaling issues. As a result, moving to an agile organization mindset requires focus on practical areas where demonstrable, measured progress can be made: technology, process and people.

The State of Agile reports are a critical tool for organizations seeking to improve their agility. The 15th State of Agile survey will offer essential insights into impact these techniques are having as we adapt to the current crisis. Now is your time to contribute.

Source: AWB Digital Economy Discourse #21

Alan Brown

Alan W. Brown is Professor in Digital Economy at the University of Exeter Business School where he co-leads the Initiative in Digital Economy at Exeter (INDEX). Alan’s research is focused on agile approaches to business transformation, and the relationship between technology innovation and business innovation in today’s rapidly-evolving digital economy. After receiving a PhD in Computational Science at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Alan spent almost 2 decades in the USA in commercial high-tech companies leading R&D teams, building leading-edge solutions, and driving innovation in software product delivery. He then spent 5 years in Madrid leading enterprise strategy as European CTO for IBM’s Software group. Most recently Alan co-founded the Surrey Centre for the Digital Economy (CoDE) at the University of Surrey where he led research initiatives in 4 EPSRC-funded research projects.

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