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Holistic Agile: Creating the Future of Agile Companies

It has been commonly used as shaving cream, a means for distributing medication, a leather cleaner, ant bait, squeak eliminator, gum remover, windshield cleaner, wood-scratch repairer, popcorn flavoring and even hair moisturizer. By the way...I hear it makes a great sandwich with a little jelly.

Holistic Agile: Creating the Future of Agile Companies

Yes, in 1895, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Kellogg's cereal) patented a process for creating peanut butter from raw peanuts. Why you ask?? He marketed it as a healthy protein substitute for patients without teeth. Years later, though, this healthy protein substitute for the dentally impaired has become a modern day household food staple. It’s the creamy-dreamy thing of smoothies, martinis, culinary masterpieces of all sorts; plus it can stop hiccups!

In February of 2001, 17 people came up with the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. In doing so, they launched an evolution of how organizations approach and develop software. But, like the wonderful world of peanut butter, we are finding ways to apply these concepts well outside of purely software development circles. As organizations start seeing increased business and IT alignment and the successes of applying the values and principles of Agile methods in their technology circles, more non-IT leadership is reaching out to see how they can benefit from the same mindset that has bred successful IT-based solution delivery.

Through working with various large organizations in healthcare, retail, finance, travel and transportation, we have seen a surprising trend of purely business-focused departments reaching out to see improvements in how they deliver the solutions specific to their areas of expertise.

Now, you might say that it makes sense for marketing, sales, even HR to consider reaching out since they are often directly aligned with the technology teams who have been utilizing Agile methods and have had to adjust as a result. But where we are seeing the most interest (and most surprising) is coming from teams like Organizational Tax, Internal Audit, Information Security, Legal and the like. At first glance, it might seem like the fit for displaying agility in these areas is a far reach. But, consider the demand for those exact departments to display more agile qualities.

Your typical Marketing, Sales and HR departments are used to having to reach out and adjust to ever-changing customer demands and instantly see a fit with Agile concepts like personas and customer feedback. Human Resources often finds they have to change their overall approach to hiring. But as these groups seamlessly apply Agile ways, the spotlight shines brightly on the areas of the organization which traditionally are harder to change. It’s important to note that the needs for these groups are different. We aren’t talking software anymore. We aren’t talking products necessarily. Any team makeup becomes drastically different. The frameworks that support the Agile software development environment don’t translate as well into non-IT focused groups.

What this all means is that, while the original purpose of Agile values, principles and frameworks has shown to be widely successful with technology solutions, modern Agile now is experiencing an increased demand for a holistic approach that takes the organization in its entirety into consideration.

Does this change how we approach our typical Agile adoption? Does this change the skill sets required from an Agile coaching and consultation perspective? Does this force us to rethink what a “framework” is in order for it to be more adaptable and horizontally scalable? The answer is ‘Yes’ in all cases.

With a typical Agile adoption, we will start with technology solutions that Company A wants to have in production faster. So, a common approach is to take Team A, who is going to develop said product, train them in Agile methods, let them try and learn, see successes and failures, iterate, gather feedback and ultimately deliver value (38,000 ft view). We learn from that team and start grooming other teams and “scaling” it accordingly. While this isn’t the only way, it is pretty typical. Hopefully, the senior level execs (generally the CIO) have allowed us the ability to show them the value of Agile within their company and provide the support needed.

With a Holistic Agile approach, this could easily change. Holistic Agile can be defined in much the same way Holistic Health can. It takes the entire body into consideration as opposed to focusing on a select few trouble spots. While holistic health means embracing that the body is multi-dimensional in nature, so too is your typical organization. We are beginning to see more CFO, CEO, COO and VPs get involved who understand the benefits of being able to deliver ideas, concepts and projects of non-IT nature faster, with greater adaptability and with higher quality. We have to be able to speak directly to the needs of those individuals. An initial organizational adoption of Agile that has no bearing on technology solutions is no longer out of the realm of possibility. As a matter of fact, as a coaching organization, we are seeing a rise in the number of people who reach out to begin those non-IT discussions but want to know how their approach differs from software development. The use and value of peanut butter is growing well outside of its original purpose.

From a skill set perspective, for those championing Agile methods, there is a need to have a more keen education, understanding and sensitivity to overall business processes and unique solution delivery. It’s not enough to simply find out and assess how an organization delivers its software. How a tax or audit department goes about lining up internal projects for IRS or HIPAA compliance is going to be different than standing up a web portal. If you attempt to tackle those projects with methods designed for software delivery, it will very quickly feel like shoving a square peg into a round hole. You could even risk losing the enthusiasm surrounding Agile methods by those groups simply in the name of forcing a known framework. Many (not all) of the current Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, Team Facilitators and industry leaders who find themselves reaching out to help lead the way with Agile methods all stem from a technology-based background. A learning curve could be in the works in order to have the ability to lead Agile transformational efforts using a more holistic approach. Those who aren’t willing to adapt accordingly could quickly find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to modern Agile.

What about the frameworks which we have used to support IT-based Agile methods for the last decade and a half? The makeup of what we consider a “team” from a business perspective can look considerably different. While concepts and principles may take a similar approach, there is going to have to be an adaptability to the frameworks as a whole or a complete revamp based on a unique set of needs. Holistic Agile will require the framework experts to put their thinking caps on and find ways to take previous concepts and adapt them to new needs. Otherwise…how could we call them “Agile Frameworks”? Simply thinking we can take a popular Agile framework like Scrum and seamlessly apply it to non-IT based solution delivery without any sort of adaptation is both naïve and dangerous.

It only makes sense that, over time and with widespread use, an evolution would take place that includes finding other ways to take advantage of a great thing. A future Agile business framework may actually require a ‘next-level’ agility and adaptability we have yet to experience in software development circles. It very well may change the very nature of the founding Agile manifesto itself. But, make no mistake, the evolution has started.

We thank you, Dr. Kellogg, as peanut butter is a great invention with all its many benefits in use. You might even call it...Agile.

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