Agile isn’t the silver bullet organisations think it is, don’t forget to look in the murky depths and examine the Sludge…
The Agile Manifesto succinctly defines what Agile is:
“Individuals and interactions – over processes and tools
Working software – over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration – over contract negotiation
Responding to change – over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”
What Do I Mean by Sludge?
Whatever makes applying Agile hard. Symptoms that Sludge exists include; teams asking for favours, individuals pressuring other teams to help with their own delivery, and dysfunctioning teams failing to achieve a stable velocity. Some common causes of Sludge are; overbearing reporting and work tracking processes, reluctance to take a holistic view of delivery, misunderstanding of what Agile is, the list goes on…
You may be thinking, teams doing favours for each other is a positive sign of collaboration and focusing on delivery, so how can this be Sludge? In this case the problem that arises is that favours are rarely visible. Visibility of work is key so that tasks can be correctly prioritised. A team member spending time do a favour may mean the genuinely highest priority work is delayed.
Organisations who want to be truly Agile need to address the Sludge. There are many organisations that adopt Agile but are held back never realising the true benefits. Some see it at as a box ticking exercise and are only going through the motions waiting until the next methodology comes along to replace it. But Agile is such a different way of thinking, it needs everyone to accept it and change their outlook.
In an Agile environment, the Sludge should always be looked at. The best time is at the start of adoption, but at every retrospective it should be discussed in some manner. Simple questions will suffice:
- Do I do favours for any other team?
- When I turn up to work do I have a clear idea of what I need to do?
- Is all my work visible to everyone?
- Are there any tasks or processes I can’t see the point of?
These sorts of questions may bring up emotive discussions, debates, even arguments but that’s OK. It’s important to make everything visible so the true landscape can be seen. Sometimes individuals and teams may struggle to see the wider picture, phrases like ‘stuck in the trenches’, ‘working on the coal face’, ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ are common. Sessions that show the entire process (whether valid or redundant) are helpful in showing the individual the part they play, and a chance to remove wasteful activities.
A common source of Sludge is lack of trust in an organisation. It is normally safe to assume employees aren’t out to sabotage the business and want the business to do well (after all a performing business usually rewards its employees). However, a lack of trust leads to micromanagement and overly complicated processes within teams, between teams, between departments and with suppliers. Moving to a trusting culture can be the hardest thing for an organisation when adopting Agile. It’s important to stress to every individual the responsibility they have and how they contribute to delivering business value. Giving everyone responsibility irrespective of their seniority will maintain motivation and produce higher performing teams.
If you find that your organisation is not seeing the benefits from Agile, search for the Sludge to find out what is holding you back.
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