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Why Environmental Change Should Be Embraced To Succeed In Agile

13 March 2017 | Dan Parkes | About a 4 minute read
Tags: Agile, environmental change, Scrum Master, tech


 

In nature, the environment an animal lives in plays a big part in influencing its behaviour. For instance desert animals are often nocturnal to avoid the heat of the day or animals that live in places with harsh winters might hibernate. An animal’s behaviour is also influenced by how safe they feel – prey animals behave differently from predators because they fear being eaten. In the same way we see that the office environment can influence an individual’s or a team’s behaviour. Behaviours can be influenced by how we set up the physical environment in the office and also in the cultural environment individuals operate in, i.e does the culture create fear (hopefully this will not involve being eaten…) or do individuals feel safe. In this blog I will explore how we can set up the environment to influence behaviour that helps teams thrive on their agile journey.

 

The Physical Environment

Agile is underpinned by communication and collaboration, and the way the physical environment is set up in the office can help with this. When I was a tester I was at a company that decided to go agile but they did not really understand what this meant. Sprints were set up and daily scrums were started which were attended by the analysts, developers and testers on the project. However, the analyst team still sat together at one end of the office on the left hand side, whilst the developers sat together in the middle and the at the other end of the office on the right hand side were the testers. If you were a fly on the ceiling and looked down, you would almost be able to see the work flowing down the waterfall from one team to the other. Needless to say things did not go well. Despite sitting on the same floor, the teams were not communicating effectively. Requirements, disguised as user stories, were still thrown over the imaginary wall and interpreted by each team – basically all that had been set up was a mini-waterfall.

 

After a few sprints, the agile methodology was almost abandoned but luckily the Project Manager was persuaded to get an area where the analysts, developers and the testers on the project could sit together. It wasn’t perfect, there was no room for a scrum board and at the time there were no free online scrum tools that could be used. However, by just having the team co-located meant that communication and collaboration improved and the team started working in a way that could now be called agile. After six months they were able to release a product which the business loved and one that they had been previously stuck on for a year in analysis.

 

Just by changing the environment to allow the team to sit together helped the individual’s on the team to change their behaviour as well as communicate and collaborate more. The physical environment can be made even better by giving the team space not only to sit together but also to be able to provide wall space to display important information or have a physical scrum board.

 

Cultural Environment

Even if a team is co-located but the culture it operates in is only set up for waterfall then it will be very difficult for the team to excel. Waterfall projects are often run in ‘command and control’ environments with a number of processes in place to make this possible. Often in these cultures only a few people are trusted to know the whole picture and are tasked to make sure the project succeeds. Furthermore, failure is often penalised which can lead to a culture of fear that affects innovation – why try something new when it might not work! Agile teams working in environments like these will often fail as they will never be able to harness the full power of agile. The processes in place will prohibit the team from making changes quickly and if failure is penalised why would teams risk failing at all?

 

I recently attended a Meetup where Michael Sahota, who runs Agilitrix which specialises in agile coaching and training, was talking about inviting organisational growth – of which a big part of his talk was about culture. He suggested that the two areas that companies should focus on are creating an environment that is safe and where everyone has an equal voice. I feel that a safe environment is one where individuals and teams can experiment, try new ideas, test their hypotheses and fail fast without the fear of reprisal. A safe environment is also one where individuals feel they can speak up and know their voice will be heard and their ideas not shot down in flames. Having an equal voice is very empowering for individuals and can help them really feel like they are adding value, especially when the team run with one of their ideas. When individuals feel they have an equal voice and a safe environment, teams are more likely to come up with innovative and interesting solutions to problems they face as all ideas can be discussed. This also allows trust to build up between the development teams and the stakeholders as they see the value being delivered.

 

Conclusion

Creating the right environment is very important to successfully move to agile ways of working. A great physical environment can foster communication and collaboration while a good cultural environment gives teams and individuals space to experiment and be heard. Agile managers, from C-level executives through to Scrum Masters should strive to create a great environment for their teams to work in to see the real benefit of agile practices.

 

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