2018 agile predictions – The year of the customer

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To quote Thomas Friedman in his book Thank-you for being late, “We are in the Age of Accelerations.” Whether it is voice activated speakers or self-driving cars, the confluence of technology, environment and business accelerated change is creating large amounts of uncertainty and disruption. In response, everyone wants to be more ‘digital’ and ‘agile’.  Digital being the way organisations use digital technology to respond to the environment, agile being the way people work to respond to the unknown. Agile and digital are the yin and yang for 21st century organisations.

It is ironic that my main prediction for 2018 is that this confluence of change will make it harder and harder to predict. At the macro level, Brexit, North Korea and US foreign and domestic policy will drive uncertainty into the landscapes of many businesses. That change will affect capital investment, which in turn will determine changes to investments in technology, training and discretionary spend by large companies. So, rather than providing predictions about; if everyone will be doing Story Mapping, or what sort of new tool everyone will be using, I will instead layout a few forecasts of the macro themes for 2018.

1. Scaling Agility will continue with a new focus on teams and agility instead of organisations and planning

It is funny to me that most agile scaling initiatives are in fact run in a waterfall fashion. There is an assessment, followed by a design which in turns creates a plan. That plan is then executed with regular reports against milestones. Milestones such as ‘introduce JIRA’, or ‘train department X’. These milestones are great for managing against, but are not very good for ensuring that progress is being made against a desire to be more responsive or agile.

I predict in 2018 that instead of these ‘waterfall’ agile implementations we will see a growing number of customer – team – environment oriented approaches. In these models, the focus is in helping the team or group of teams first, then incrementally evolving the surrounding groups / departments… And, yes to take a leaf out of design thinking the best teams to start with are the ones that have a clear definition of their customer. By getting good at the team level and using their challenges to drive other work you ensure that ‘incrementally’ you move to agile, driven by value and focus. Of course, you still need support from executives and planning, release management needs to change, but by starting with the team you provide clarity about who is important to the change. By starting with teams that are aligned to the customer you also get a business validation that can prove useful in setting priorities and supporting the investment.

2. Digital + Scrum + Lean UX will emerge as a great combination for delivering value in the unknown

It is clear that organisations are focused on gaining better insights on their customers with an increased focus on analytics and data science, but without an effective way to integrate that information into action, that data just becomes noise. Agile Development is all about delivering value for complex problems. And there is nothing more complex than the digital landscape. Thus, the combination of Digital+Scrum+Lean UX provides organisations with an effective toolbox for delivering value and managing the unknown. But these disciplines do not always play well together. Digital with its focus on innovation and technology, Lean UX which encourages holistic experiences and Agile with its background in software delivery all use their own concepts and values. Though the concepts of empirical process plus empowered teams are consistent the words, events and artifacts are not. I see 2018 as a year of integration and synergy around these concepts where all three communities drop their need for a separate approach to one where they concentrate on an integrated pragmatic focus on delivering customer value.

That means that we will increasingly focus on the customer rather than the process and tools. Agile initiatives will be replaced with Customer Centric agile initiatives.

3. The product owner be empowered

The confluence of business needs and technical opportunities are the corner stone of building any successful product. The relationship between these two things is complex. For example; the customer has a need, if a solution is possible and viable, that drives a solution, but that in turn often finds different needs, which in turn drives different business opportunities. Each stage of that cycle has different, changing parameters ultimately leading to a complex problem that everyone involved has an opinion on. The Product Owner is empowered to deal with this mess by deciding what is valuable and what to focus on. But for many organisations the individual in this role is neither empowered or equipped to make the right decisions. Decision making is made by consensus and data to draw conclusions from is out of reach.

In 2018 Product Owners will be empowered to make decisions and will have the tools do that. Organisations will increasingly focus on customers and the products that serve them, moving away from a project only view of the world to a combination of Product and Project. Product Owners will also take advantage of improved techniques in Design Thinking, Lean Startup and Analytics to provide them with the tools to make better decisions.

4. Communities of talent / practice will grow in strength

Scaling skills within an organisation is difficult. After all, building products is getting more, not less complex. The number of different technologies, platforms, environments and partners involved in even the simplest product make building a cross functional team that can get work done difficult. Dependencies kill agile teams, but it is hard not to have them when dealing with complex problems. How does a 21st century organisation marry the need to be agile with the skills necessary to deliver complex products?

Part of the answer is going to be communities of practice, or as Spotify calls them Guilds and Chapters. Currently most organisations have these skills based communities of practice. But for many, they are a nice to have, or an after-thought. The real power exists in teams and departments. In 2018 this will change and HR will take a stronger role within these communities using them to acquire and extend the talent of an organisation. They will have a formal role in hiring, developing, promoting and supporting people doing their jobs. Imagine if you will: A Test Chapter being responsible for hiring new testers, promoting existing testers and spreading the skills of testing to the whole broad community.

5. Measurement will get simpler 

As we wrestle with empirical process, complex problems and self-organising teams the question of what is important becomes crucial. Traditional project management approaches focused on measuring motion/activity with metrics such as task completion, and percentage complete. But, when dealing with unknown work those metrics do not make sense. In response, the agile community has described many different measures focused on velocity, planned value, earned value, normalised story points, etc. Many of these metrics are great, but knowing when they can add value to the team is difficult. Also, many of those metrics are inward looking because traditionally delivery teams have always focused on the work instead of the value they are delivering.

In 2018 the community will double down on metrics, but with a focus on customer value and simplicity. That does not mean that the other metrics are not important, but instead of using them to judge, manage and motivate the team, they will be used to better enable the team to improve the way they work. Instead the measures that will focus the work and allow the empirical process to thrive will be based on customer value. And because you are dealing with super busy, focused business people those metrics need to be simple.

All five of these themes in some way talk about a change in focus for the agile community from process and teams, to customers and outcomes. By changing the focus of the conversation from agile to customer, the agile/Scrum community will be better equipped to demonstrate value and prioritise change. For instance, the desire to ‘go agile’ will not be a question, instead it will be how do we become more agile for our customers/user.

Dave West, product owner and CEO, Scrum.org
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