Creating a smooth agile journey with organizational assessments

By Les Grove

From learning to adoption to practice, agile is a journey rather than a destination. Along this journey, your organization paves the foundation, or “road,” along which multiple teams travel.

However, not all journeys are smooth, as organizations tend to have many “potholes” that impede success. Teams need to navigate around these potholes, but this is difficult because it’s hard for organizations to identify and prioritize issues they have created for their teams.

These organizational potholes can include:

  • Lack of knowledge/training
  • Inadequate tools
  • Not using or incorrectly leveraging an agile framework
  • No cross-team learning
  • Non-transparency
  • Over-management preventing self-direction
  • Non-involvement of stakeholders

The problem only gets worse as an organization grows and the number of teams increases. As organizational structure becomes more intricate and layered, it becomes exponentially more complex to resolve issues at the organizational level.

Limitations of agile frameworks

An agile coach can reinforce agile values and key practices while working at both the team and organizational levels. However, any coach is handcuffed as most agile frameworks, like Scrum, are aimed at the team level and do not uncover and resolve organizational impediments.

For example:

  • Daily standups help identify team impediments so that they can be quickly removed
  • Retrospectives are vital for improving team performance and product quality
  • Sprint reviews ensure the team is moving the product in the right direction

Without organizational oversight, attention to impediments is prioritized based on the loudest teams or the most recent complaints.

Scaled agile frameworks have some mechanisms in place to help identify and remove organizational impediments. But these frameworks are primarily for multiple teams working on a single large product. These mechanisms don’t help organizations that have multiple teams working for multiple products or in different domains.

Agile coaches can try to identify organizational impediments by observing and interviewing multiple teams for several sprints looking for anti-patterns that teams cannot resolve on their own. But this can take months depending on the size of the organization.

Benefits of organizational assessments

Fortunately, there is a better way for coaches to quickly gather the information needed to identify common anti-patterns: an assessment. By assessing each team, analyzing the findings and looking for opportunities to improve multiple teams simultaneously, an organization can save time and money while improving agility.

There are three types of assessments that can be used to determine an organization’s agility. First, a checklist assessment compares an organization’s basic practices against an oracle. For each item not checked, the organization should start doing that activity.

Second, framework assessments give direction by providing progressions along multiple paths. For example, a less agile organization might still be using more traditional-based tools, then progress into looking at agile tools, to acquiring tools, to using tools, to configuring and then optimizing the tools for the organization.

The third type, which we use at Catalyte, is a Likert Scale-based multi-team survey. Here, multiple team results are merged together to identify practices that all or most teams are not doing, indicating possible organizational-level impediments.

Assessments for every level of agile

For organizations early in their agile journey, assessments can be like test-driven development. The initial assessment is expected to fail but improvements are expected in subsequent assessments. For mid-journey organizations, assessments provide the initial snapshot of the strengths and opportunities that a coach can use to advise teams and organizations. For truly agile organizations, assessments provide better visibility of the agile road and can quickly find and fix potholes and help its teams accelerate in their journey to agility.