Quite a few years ago, while I was working at iContact, a fellow agile coach approached me with a free offer.
It seemed that he had developed an agile maturity assessment (framework, tool, approach, strategy, etc.) and wanted to try it out somewhere. I’d known him for quite some time and he had some solid agile coaching experience under his belt.
I politely told him “thank you” and that I would “think about it” and quickly closed down the discussion. To be honest, I was initially close-minded to the idea. Here I was an internal technical leader and agile coach in my company. And, to be honest, we were kicking-ass when it came to agile performance and delivery. So why in the world would I want an outsider poking about my teams?
But the more I thought about it, the more I started to convince myself that it would be a good idea. Regardless of our performance, we could always get better…couldn’t we?
Here are a few of the reasons I came to in understanding why having an assessment might prove valuable:
- A second set of eyes: it’s the same reason that pair-programming, or pairing of all kinds, is so powerful. Having another set of eyes on a situation is always helpful.
- Another voice: whether I liked to admit it or not, my teams were starting to filter-out my coaching. They’d heard my voice for a solid two years and having another coaching voice might reaffirm some of the advice I was giving.
- Affirmation: it’s always nice to hear that you’re on the right track. That things are going well. You don’t always hear this day-to-day organizationally, so an independent assessment can be quite motivating.
- Independence: often we are too close to things to see our own strengths and weaknesses. It helps to have someone from an entirely different context (an outsider) take a look.
- Sounding board: beyond the assessment itself, I was looking forward to the opportunity to pick his brains. To create a conversation, coach-to-coach, and perhaps discover some new insights.
But the key I realized was having the confidence to invite an outsider in. Sometimes that’s the hardest part – asking for help. It’s much more comfortable to keep everything in-house because it’s private. It’s like inviting someone in to assess the value of your home. On the plus side, you’ll get an independent and honest evaluation. On the minus side, you may be told things that you don’t necessarily want to hear.
However, the net-net is always positive. Particularly if you truly subscribe to a continuous improvement philosophy (or trying to sell your house quickly).
Formal vs. Informal
There are quite a few assessment frameworks on the market, AgilityHealth being one example. This article on the Scrum Alliance site provides a nice overview of quite a few assessment approaches. I’ve also encountered quite a few clients who “roll their own” assessments.
In all of these cases, the maturity level is mostly team or downwardly focused. Rarely do the assessment frameworks tackle leadership and/or organizational dynamics.
I actually prefer a more informal style in my own assessments. In fact, I rarely like to use the term assessment, or grading, or evaluation. Instead what I do is recommend to a client that I come in as an “observer” and simply review their agile maturity at a broad level. I’ll interact with all levels of the organization:
- Team Level
- Management Level
- Leadership Level
And spend time exploring how they’re getting work done (results & outcomes) and what are some of the challenges facing them.
A key to this approach is the conversations you have. I like sitting down with individuals and groups and simply listening. There is no better way to gain a sense of the current state of agility in an organization.
The term analysis does it a disservice. After I’ve collected all of the feedback from an organizational agile review, I simply sit down and think. I like to review my notes. My observations. And most importantly, how they map to similar patterns I’ve seen across my experience.
I usually commit to a client a very short list of actionable improvement recommendations. I like to balance them across all three of the above levels. I try very hard to prioritize things so that my client gets high impact advice. Usually no more than ten recommendations per review.
I’ve found this approach to be relatively quick, lower cost, and quite valuable to my clients. I think the key is the experience level of the coach, which needs to be quite deep and broad to make this effectively work. Point being - I think lesser experienced coaches have a tendency (need) to rely more on canned or formal assessment tools.
As you can tell, I much prefer an informal check-up or from an experienced coach as your primary assessment approach. It allows for more experiential and observational feedback and is less contrived or graded.
I also like the conversations that it creates. Conversations that expose more subtle challenges and impediments.
Now all of that being said, it is useful to have a framework to use in your reviews. I personally like the Agile Journey Index by Bill Krebs. And I’ve talked about it more in this post.
But if I was to give you a recipe for reviewing your agile maturity it would be:
- Drive conversations across all three levels;
- Use a framework to balance your feedback and recommendations;
- Share your observations & recommendations across a broad audience;
- Help you client (or organization) determine and implement improvement changes.
In the end, the effectiveness of any assessment or review are the changes it inspires. The improvement outcomes are the KEY and not the assessment itself.
And finally, please, please, please, don’t use assessment data to grade, compare, incent, or in any other way influence or judge your teams.
Stay agile my friends,