Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Agile Working in Practice: More Tips to Help Analytics Teams Transition

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Today I'm pleased to share another guest post by Paul Laughlin. This post originally appeared on Paul's site on March 9, 2019.

This is the second in two-part series from Paul about agile working. Find the first post in the series here.

In my first post on how to achieve agile working in practice, I focused on four principles that were needed - principles of attitude and culture in order to have the right mindset and approach to working this way.

Continuing with this series has been driven by the feedback I have heard from a variety of data and analytics leaders. Those working in business today are telling me that this challenge is still very much a work in progress. Senior leaders want a more agile business, but it’s not a quick fix to achieve.

To help, in this post I focus on two more aspects. Firstly, common practices, that I’ve observed in analytics teams implementing this approach. Then four drivers of success that I and other writers have observed. Those behaviours and attitudes that differentiate those who achieve successful Agile Working.

Agile working in practice: common practices
At the start of my first post on agile working, I referenced the five most popular agile methodologies. But, whether you are implementing Scrum, Kanban, or one of the others, certain practices appear to be needed by most methods.

So, whatever nomenclature you prefer, watch out to ensure you are implementing:

(1) A visible "backlog" of prioritised work
Every member of the team can see new work and any significant changes needed. One key here is having real clarity as to commercial priorities and drivers, so that requests for work can be compared and prioritised.

(2) Tickets for the units of work needed
Work is broken down both to suit time periods for sprints and to divide the different skills needed. One key here is the ability to diagnose early on the work units needed from different data, analytics, and other skills – worth planning out common work units in advance (based on experience). Plus, the use of tools like competency frameworks to raise awareness of skills really help with allocation.

(3) Public boards to track progress
Internal customers, sponsors, and the wider team have a common view of priorities and progress. Such transparency is key to the culture needed for this collaboration. One key is to consistently use this to support stakeholder management and sponsor conversations. Driving expectation of them using the board too.

(4) Planning short sprints together, with bidding for units of work
A regular rhythm, e.g., two weeks, is established as the duration for delivery and cycle for new priorities. One key here is the cultural attitudes I praised as needed in my first post; another is to focus more on collaborating in order to achieve delivery rather than more rigid planning.

(5) Stand-up meetings for the whole team to share progress and challenges
Regular opportunity, e.g., daily, to spot issues early and collaborate to fix. Once again, the attitudes and culture I shared previously are crucial to this working well. Managers also need to ensure that they encourage openness about issues or mistakes. Good news: reporting is the very antithesis of agile working.

(6) Post-sprint reviews to learn from what worked and what did not
Time is taken post-delivery to identify any lessons to be learnt for future sprints. One key here is to focus on systemic issues. Depersonalise criticism and work on improving how everyone works together to improve the system for future work. Any under-performance by individuals should be handled separately. Use one-to-one chats with managers, where possible giving close-to-the-moment feedback.

I have documented such a simple list to help reveal that a significant amount of agile working is not "rocket science." You may well have more success by simplifying to ensure everyone gets it, rather than an over-complex purist approach.

Agile working in practice: drivers of success
Through a combination of reading other blogs on this topic and reflecting on what I have seen in practice, I have four drivers to propose.

Driver 1: achieving personal "flow"
Despite all the focus on collaboration and flexible team working, Agile working also relies on high-performing individuals. At its best, team members know their strengths and have honed ways of working very productively.

Entering a state of "flow" - that state where you no longer notice time passing and are not easily distracted - is important for leaders and analysts. You are absorbed in the task and make surprisingly fast progress. I may well blog more on this important topic, but for now I recommend those interested to read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow.

Driver 2: a culture of Collaboration
"We are all in this together." Rather than being political spin, it should be the ethos of working this way. Successful delivery relies upon a flexibility and mutual support that is often not present in larger teams working within more rigid projects.

Team members should be encouraged to stay aware (keep eyes and ears open) of both their own progress and how the wider team is doing. Joint success often relies upon a willingness of every team member to both ask for and offer help. Once you are winning with your work unit, look up and see where you could help with other top priorities.

Driver 3: learning continually
Agile working has close affinity with the principles of continuous improvement from Systems Thinking. A commitment to spotting and closing gaps in knowledge and skills, plus a thirst for personal growth are key attitudes from effective team members.

A visible organisational commitment to Personal Development Plans can really help. In too many businesses, large and small, these can be token efforts – too easily reduced to documenting a book that was read or a training course attended. Embedding a culture of L&D takes time, but supporting individuals with time and money to prioritise their development pays huge dividends in improving team effectiveness - what Stephen Covey called taking time to "sharpen the saw."

Driver 4: reliability and clarity
Every team member in an agile working team needs to both understand what is asked of them and keep their promises. The lifeblood of working this way is effective communication, and it requires a higher level of personal responsibility, not less.

The old adage of "my word is my bond" is the attitude to encourage here, and leaders should challenge individuals if commitments are not delivered. Accountability is needed to avoid drift and any degree of hiding behind collaborative processes. In addition, I recommend investing time in developing leaner and more-effective communication. I recommend reading Brief by Joe McCormack.

Agile working in practice: what is helping your team?
I hope those thoughts and recommended resources are useful. It would be great to hear your thoughts.

If you are new to working this way or have it working well, please do share your experience in comments box below. What tips do you have for others who want to make the transition to agile working in practice (not just using the buzzword)?

Paul Laughlin, Chief Blogger at CustomerInsightLeader.com, has over 20 years experience of leading teams to generate profit from analysing  data. Over the last 12 years he’s created, lead and improved customer insight teams across Lloyds, TSB, Halifax and Scottish Widows. He’s delivered incremental profit of over £10m pa and improved customers’ experiences.

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