Benefits of the SDLC
A couple of the SDLC board members recently discussed the benefits of the SDLC. Here’s their conversation.
Seeing is believing
Vanessa Adams (CH Robinson): You really have to participate in the site visits to get the point. I think if you had asked me before going on the first site visit, on a scale of zero to 10, “How likely is that you would recommend the Learning Consortium to a friend or colleague?” I would have said: “Perhaps a 4.” After the first site visits, I said, “A sure 10.” That is why CH Robinson has sent participants to all the site visits, including our CIO. It’s been hugely helpful in accelerating our Agile journey—far more than any coaching or training. For us, the Learning Consortium has made Agile into something real.
Paul Madden (Ericsson): What I have found is that we’re discovering different things in the different organizations on the site visits. That is something that you can’t get any other way. Each organization has something to offer. What we discovered at Barclays you can’t discover at Riot Games. Barclays is going through this enormous transformation. Riot started out in an Agile way and now has different issues. Barclays started its Agile journey in yet another way and they are learning different things. Then there is the Ericsson approach. We can find pieces of the solution to Agile transformation in our own organization in each of the different companies that we have visited. So we can say: here’s what Barclays is doing. And here’s a bit that Riot Games is doing and here’s how we can adapt that—or not—to our situation. It’s not like any one company is doing things in a way that would work in every respect for all of us. You can only get these nuances on site visits.
Discoverers and explorers
Ahmed Sidky (Riot Games): It’s important to recognize that we are exploring the future of organizations that is already here. We’re not inventing anything. We are discoverers and explorers. We identify what’s already there, evaluate it, and synthesize and disseminate it. That is very powerful. We are not just facilitators: if we were just introducing companies to each other, that would be a very limited role. Instead, we are uncovering the future that is already here and uncovering it together. And then capturing it and sending it out so that the whole world can learn. It’s a public service that we perform. It defines who we are and what we are trying to do. In the process of performing that service, we also learn a great deal ourselves. It’s a very powerful process.
Steve Denning: As Agile itself continues to evolve, it’s as if we are like those medieval map makers, whose maps enabled the discovery of the New World. We are discovering the New World of organizations. We present what we have learned not as the final word but as a first approximation of emergent realities.
We do our best to say everything we have learned in our reports. But the reality is that we will have learned more than we can ever write down in any report. There is a huge difference between reading about something, and actually being there, hearing it, seeing it, touching it, observing the looks in people’s eyes, hearing the excitement—or lack of it—is something you can’t get from a report.
For instance, I was personally somewhat skeptical about how far Agile could operate at scale, until I saw it at Microsoft and Ericsson and Riot Games. Then I thought to myself wow! This is really possible! The thing is: if you’re not part of the consortium, you’re not one of the discoverers.
Ahmed Sidky: Another benefit is that the SDLC acts as a dissemination mechanism for the members themselves. We at Riot are doing some unique things. We are not writing about it and telling the world about it. Why? Because we don’t have time and it’s not our function. The SDLC helps get the word out that we are actually a very Agile, innovative company.
Paul Madden: We disseminate what we have learned in the report that we publish. But the learning you get from the site visits is not the same thing. The example that brought this home to me was when we went to Menlo Innovations. I saw pair programming in action. Now intellectually, I knew all about pair programming. I had read about it since 1999 when XP came out. So I thought I knew all about it. But it wasn’t until I actually saw pair programming in action and experienced the feel of it and talked to the people actually doing it at Menlo Innovations that I really “got it.” That was when it really sank in for me and I saw what it meant. When I left Menlo, I said to myself: “I’m going to do this at Ericsson.” That was something that could have never happened just by reading a book or a report. And so pair programming has become a reality at Ericsson in Athlone and it’s a real success. That couldn’t have happened without the site visit to Menlo Innovations.
Ahmed Sidky: The metaphor I like is an expedition. We’re on an expedition. Sure, we can find a fossil and put it in a museum. But that’s nothing compared to the experience of the people on the expedition. That’s the point: do you want to be part of the expedition? Or do you just want to visit the museum? The museum is for free: you can visit it any time. But the reality is that people on the expedition have a much richer experience—the experience of a lifetime.
The benefits of dissemination
Steve Denning: Everything that is discussed within the SDLC is confidential. So members don’t have to worry about hiding any of their secrets.
At the same time, some of the members want to share their practices and their discoveries. For them, the dissemination is a big benefit. For instance, Microsoft has been very interested in disseminating what it’s doing in Agile. What we saw there in 2015 was news to us and so, with Microsoft’s blessing, we shared that news with the rest of the world in two articles in Forbes here and here. The articles were very popular and have changed the way many people think about Microsoft. It also helped establish Microsoft as a cool place to work and help them to win some battles in the ongoing war for talent. See here and here.
By contrast, some members are at a different stage in their Agile journey and they are there mainly for the learning from others, not for disseminating what they are doing. It’s a choice that each organization can make. It’s not “one size fits all.”
The community dimension
Ahmed Sidky: Another important aspect is the fact that we are discovering together. As part of that, we build connections. We build relationships.
Steve Denning: Discovering together is very important. Discovering alone is one thing: you sometimes wonder whether what you have seen is real. Discovering together is different. You have multiple sets of eyes and ears. The questions that you didn’t think of asking of get asked by someone else. And you also have the reassurance that, yes, we really did see that and this is what it meant.
It’s also interesting that I find myself getting a lot of learning from discussions on the bus or over a glass of wine. It’s those reflections and insights and interpretations flowing from what we saw that really ring true for me. You suddenly see the point of what you saw in a way that is strong and more illuminating than when you first saw it.
Ahmed Sidky: We’re on a journey together. There’s a sense of community on this journey. It’s not like one person out there in Antarctica. We’re together on an expedition and we tell the world about the results of the expedition. Those on the expedition will benefit from it, from the conversations and the discoveries and all that. That’s who we are.
Paul Madden: What I like is that we are active discoverers. We’re not just sitting in a room. We are actually going out into the world and seeing what people are doing on the ground. That’s a lot more powerful. It’s not like we’re defining some kind of process in abstract. It’s more like: “Here’s what we have seen that worked really well in these different places. And it worked brilliantly. This might be worth trying as a way of doing things, if we want to have really high-performance teams. Worth a try?”
Are the results of the Learning Consortium scientific?
Steve Denning: We like to point out that the SDLC is doing case studies. We are not conducting formal scientific double-blind experiments, in which both the testers and participants don’t know what is being tested. Our case studies generate strong hypotheses, not scientifically verified conclusions. We leave it to academics to see whether they can carry out those scientific experiments. My experience with such academic studies is that they are very difficult to design and conduct and they take very a long time to reach any conclusions—maybe many years. Even then, there are often so many unexpected variables, it is hard to reach definite conclusions. And even if there are conclusions from those scientific experiments, the world has usually moved on anyway: they come too late to be useful.
The findings of the LC depend in part on presentations that were made by the management, but they were in most cases corroborated by informal interactions in unscripted private conversations with those doing the work. In effect, the findings of the SDLC constitute case-based research. This is discussed by Roger Martin in “The Price of Actionability” (Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2012, Vol. 11, No. 2, 293–299.) Roger Martin argues for a combination of case-based research and rigorous research along a time continuum. “The greatest utility for case-based research is not to produce rigorous answers but rather to raise interesting questions. The greatest utility for rigorous research would be to take those interesting and action-oriented questions and perform scientifically rigorous research on them.”
The findings of the SDLC should be interpreted in this spirit. They are case-based findings, put forward as hypotheses that warrant further research. Scrum Alliance invites academic researchers to carry out such research. Any researchers who are interested should contact Steve Denning at firstname.lastname@example.org
Being open-minded about Agile
Steve Denning: One negative we sometimes get is that the members of the SDLC are seen as Agile “zealots.” That’s partly because we find it hard not to speak about Agile with an evangelical tone and a missionary zeal. We see Agile, as not just another management gadget to make money for the company’s shareholders and top executives. We see Agile as a genuinely better way to run a company and an economy—better for those doing the work, better for those for whom the work is done, better for the organization itself. Instead of management extracting value from the firm, Agile generates value for society as a whole. It’s hard not to get excited about that.
At the same time, we try to be objective about what we are seeing and we often say that what we are seeing is not worth emulating. We seek to take a critical view, identifying the good along with the less good. In some cases, we saw firms talking about “doing Agile” but not actually “being Agile” in the way they operated. They were what Jeff Sutherland politely calls “Agile in name only.”
Yet the group is not judgmental about firms that are at an early stage in their Agile journey. So long as they are keen to learn from others, they are welcome to join the SDLC. What we don’t want are firms that are “Agile in name only” while trying to get false recognition for being genuinely Agile.
Ahmed Sidky: Our missionary zeal for Agile can make us sound dogmatic, rather than curious. We try to continue to be pragmatic communicators of what is already happening.
Steve Denning: Some of those perceptions stem from the hostile attitude to Agile in general management circles. I noticed that was still evident with some participants at the Drucker Forum in 2014: they had a negative attitude towards software developers in general and Agile in particular.
But things are changing. There has been this tectonic shift in the attitude to Agile in 2016 with HBR and McKinsey, A year ago, that wasn’t the case. Agile was something done in the basement with the IT people. Now it’s senior managers asking: how do I make the whole firm Agile? Executives want to know about Agile and learn about Agile. I see lots of workshops now being organized for senior executives, not just people in IT. This wasn’t happening a year ago. A year ago: it was more often: how do I keep these computer people locked in the basement, so that they don’t infect the organization? Now there are big old firms like Barclays and Microsoft that are making Agile official and inviting the Agile zealots to come out of the basement and into the mainstream of the organization. That’s a real change.
Ahmed Sidky: The benefits also come from the members being open-minded and willing to learn. If you think you already know everything, you are not going to learn a lot with us.
Steve Denning: We had one CEO on a site visit and he saw the CEO of the firm that we were visiting working at a desk that was exactly like the 2’ by 6’ mobile desks that everyone, including the most junior staff, were using. In fact, we saw that in a lot of firms—the C-suite didn’t have big corner offices. Instead their office space embodied the interactive Agile culture.
But in this visit, the visiting CEO, who happens to have a big palatial office, was horrified by what he saw and so he kept finding fault with everything he saw there. He didn’t learn a thing. You have to have an open mind to really see and learn from what you see.
The cost of membership
Paul Madden: I know some firms agonize about the membership fee. This is really getting things out of perspective. The fee isn’t really the issue if you think about it rationally.
Steve Denning: These costs are trivial compared to the opportunity cost of not becoming Agile. There are plenty of other ways to trim costs that make a lot more sense.
Another part of the cost issue is the fact that the firm might not have an established category for this particular expenditure. If the cost of membership of the SDLC was part of some established category, like marketing, it would be a drop in the ocean and it wouldn’t be noticed. But because it is in a new category all of its own, it gets an undue amount of financial scrutiny.
In fact, the ease or difficulty of a firm making a decision to commit the membership fee is often a sign of how Agile the firm is. If the decision in a billion dollar enterprise as to whether to commit $10,000 to the membership fee of the SDLC has to go up a steep management ladder through five separate layers, we know in advance, even before visiting the firm, that the firm is at a very early stage in its Agile journey.