Agility in Practice – Establishing Guardrails

When I hear teams are “doing scrum” or that an organization has “adopted agile” I like to dig deeper and understand the practices that are most impactful in delivering value. Over the years, different teams, leaders, and even coaches have interpreted and implemented dozens of methods to increase agility. This open interpretation aspect of the Agile Manifesto and Scrum Guide are intentional to allow space for each team or organization to adapt their processes and consequently skips over providing traditional structured guardrails.

….Or does it?

“Scrum’s roles, events, artifacts, values and rules are immutable and although implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, the result is not Scrum. Scrum exists only in its entirety and functions well as a container for other techniques, methodologies, and practices.”


Asphalt highway passing through the city above in Shanghai at sunsetIt’s true that the Scrum Guides don’t define guardrails, but it does provide them in the form of values. The Scrum Values of Openness, Commitment, Respect, Focus, and Courage are just as vital to the success of a scrum team as the ceremonies and roles and should be monitored to ensure the success of Scrum teams. Let’s take a look at a Scrum value and an Agile Value and how we might leverage them to establish process guardrails, and consequently, understand our processes’ efficacy and health:

  • Scrum Value: Focus – When evaluating a team’s focus, I start with the breadth of work in their sprints – Are they working across multiple unrelated features sprint after sprint? If so, we’re in direct conflict of a key Scrum tenant – limiting the WIP so that individual initiatives can be delivered and iterated on. If your teams are not able to focus on the highest value items, or there are too many high value items to focus on, it could result in a late or lackluster delivery of value to the customers.
  • Agile Value: Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation – Often, this is interpreted as you don’t need documentation in Agile but that’s not the case. Think of the architecture or design documents for your last 5 projects – did they align teams and expedite delivery or did your key resources spend as much time writing and rewriting the documentation as they spent building the features? The former is what we’d all like to see. If the latter sounds more like your organization then your process might be keeping your key resources from delivering the most value to your customers.

It’s crucial to establish what your process health metrics are – how you gauge the health of teams or determine if your process needs an update – to ensure that you aren’t losing value at any step of your process. If you’re only tracking the outcomes of your process (story points, defects, etc.), you’re missing part of the story and likely practicing a variant of SQUAT (Status Quo Using Agile Terminology), Dark Scrum, or Water-scrum-fall. If your teams aren’t providing the Agile benefits you expected, try the following:

  1. Make a list of metrics tracked today and categorize them as either “Process Health” or “Product Delivery”.
  2. Determine gaps in your Process Health and Product Delivery metrics
  3. Ask teams, Scrum Master, Agile Coaches, and leaders to add any gaps they see and brainstorm metrics that should be tracked
  4. Establish new metrics and track trends to determine systemic obstacles and areas of opportunity
  5. Improve processes accordingly and analyze changes in trends
  6. Rinse and Repeat #3-5

For some, this should be done quarterly, others may benefit from analyzing process health more or less frequently based on their agile maturity, size, process needs, etc. At the end of the day, it’s important for every organization to have a process that consistently and sustainably provides the most value to its customers – a gap analysis of your process is the first step to ensuring this.


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