Your Path through Agile Fluency

A Brief Guide to Success with Agile

Agile methods are solidly in the mainstream, but that popularity hasn't been without its problems. Organizational leaders are complaining that they're not getting the benefits from Agile they expected. This article presents a model of Agile fluency that will help you achieve Agile's benefits. Fluency evolves through four distinct stages, each with its own benefits, costs of adoption, and key metrics.

08 August 2012

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Diana Larsen partners with clients to design work systems and improve project performance. Diana co-authored Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great! and Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams and Projects.

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James Shore teaches, writes, and consults on Agile development processes. He is a recipient of the Agile Alliance's Gordon Pask Award for Contributions to Agile Practice and co-author of The Art of Agile Development. In 2012, InfoQ named him as one of the "most influential people in Agile."

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For over twelve years, we’ve been leading and helping teams transition to Agile. The industry has changed a lot in that time. When we started in 1999, methods with names like Scrum, Extreme Programming, and Crystal were gaining visibility under the banner “lightweight methods.” Programmers looking for faster, simpler, and more effective ways of working were the primary drivers.

Throughout the next decade, Agile grew. In 2001, prominent members of the “lightweight methods” community met in Utah, coined the term “Agile” and created the Agile Manifesto. In 2005, the XP/Agile Universe and Agile Development conferences merged to form the Agile Alliance’s “Big” Agile conference.

The community grew, too. From a programmer-centric, Extreme Programming focus in the early days, to a more inclusive approach in the mid-2000s, to a project management and Scrum focus in more recent years. What was once a grassroots effort among early adopters is now solidly in the mainstream.

Growth hasn’t been without its problems. Programmers, once the drivers of Agile adoption, are increasingly turning away from what they see as a bloated, ineffective project management methodology. Agile luminaries are posting articles such as Martin Fowler’s Flaccid Scrum (2009). Organizational leaders are complaining that they’re not getting the benefits from Agile that they expected.

We’ve been helping teams transition to Agile since the beginning. We’ve learned a lot over the years about what it takes to achieve the benefits promised by Agile. In this paper, we share what we’ve learned.


Agile Fluency

We’ve observed that Agile teams develop through four distinct stages of fluency. Fluency is how a team develops software when it’s under pressure. Anyone can follow a set of practices when given time to focus in a classroom; true fluency is a skillful, routine practice that persists when your mind is distracted with other things.

For Agile, we’re considering team fluency rather than individual or organizational fluency. Agile development is fundamentally a team effort, and your organization’s success with Agile will depend on the fluency of your teams.

Team fluency depends on more than just the capability of the individuals on the team. It also depends on management structures, relationships, organizational culture, and more. Don’t make the mistake of blaming individuals for low team fluency, or assuming that one highly-skilled individual will guarantee high team fluency

Teams progress through four distinct stages of Agile fluency, which we describe with a “star” system. Each star includes fluency at all previous levels. While it’s theoretically possible for a team to be fluent only at a particular level, we’ve seen that teams progress through the stages in a predictable order.

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Each star brings specific benefits, and each involves new adoption challenges. As you read through the fluency levels, remember that every level of fluency brings its own benefits. Since achieving higher fluency takes more investment, consider whether a lower level’s benefits are enough for your organization


Deliberate Practice

Fluency is more a matter of habits than skills. Although training courses can teach the underlying skills, the skillful ease at the heart of fluency requires practice. A lot of practice. In our experience, it takes a team two to six months to become fluent at the one-star level. About 45% of the teams we talk to say they’re fluent at this level.

Reaching the two-star level takes another three to 24 months, depending on the amount of technical debt in the code. About 35% of teams report fluency at this level.

Three-star teams are much more rare. About 5% of teams report fluency at this level. We’ve heard reports ranging from a year to five years to reach this level of fluency. Much of the delay is caused by resistance from the rest of the organization.

Even among three-star teams, only a handful of teams report striving for four-star fluency. Other than single-team organizations, we only know of a few companies that have reached this level.


Call Your Shot

We’ve seen that teams progress faster when they practice advanced techniques alongside basic techniques. Teams’ practices become more deeply and reliably grounded when they work this way. It’s best to choose the level of fluency you want to achieve and to practice everything needed for that level from the beginning.

In other words, if your goal is to have a three-star team, use a three-star approach from the start. Although your team will still progress one level at a time, practicing all the techniques together will allow them to advance more quickly.

The appropriate level of fluency for your team depends on your organization. Two or three-star fluency is often the best target. Three-star fluency has larger payoffs, but it requires changes to organizational structure and culture. Making those changes requires building consensus and spending social capital, which is usually easier in smaller, nimbler organizations. For teams in larger, more bureaucratic organizations, two-star fluency may be a better choice.


Losing Fluency

It’s rare for established teams to lose fluency. In our experience, two factors cause teams to lose fluency more than any others.

First, and most common, new management decides that Agile approaches no longer fit their vision. Without organizational support and the ability to continue practicing what they’ve learned, team fluency erodes quickly. This is often accompanied by loss of expertise as dissatisfied team members seek new positions.

Turnover is the other major cause of fluency loss. A team that gains or loses too many members may have trouble sustaining what it’s learned. This is a particular problem for organizations that assemble new teams for every project rather than assigning projects to long-lived teams.


One-Star Teams Create Business Value

Benefit: Greater visibility into teams’ work; ability to redirect.
Investment: Team development and work process design.
Core Metric: Team regularly reports progress from a business value perspective.

Teams fluent at the one-star level focus on creating business value. Rather than planning in terms of technical considerations, such as software layers, one-star teams plan in terms of the benefit their sponsors, customers, or users will see from their software, typically with user stories.

Scrum and Kanban are examples of Agile methods used by one-star teams. In addition to user stories, techniques in common use include backlogs, retrospectives, and iterations, Sprints, or kanban boards.

Teams fluent at this level consistently focus on creating value. The benefits include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Transparency: Management knows when the team is building the wrong thing, or isn’t making progress, and has the ability to positively intervene.
  • Alignment: The team works collaboratively, reducing misunderstanding and hand-off delays.

Fluent one-star teams regularly report what they’re working on and how it’s progressing from a business value perspective. This is the core metric for one-star teams: it’s not the only thing you should see from a fluent one-star team, but it’s an easy, quick way to check if a team is fluent. If you aren’t getting a regular, frequent business-value report, or if the report doesn’t reflect what the team’s actually focusing on, then your team isn’t fluent yet.

To reach fluency at this level, teams must learn and practice techniques such as those found in Scrum and Kanban. These techniques aren’t difficult; the main challenge is the shift in team culture this level of fluency requires. Team members must learn to plan in terms of business results rather than technology, and they must learn to take responsibility for the success of the whole team rather than their contribution as individuals.

Investment/Value Tradeoff: It takes two to six months of practice to shift from independent individual contributors to a collaborative, team-based workplace. You may need to make an investment in selecting members with the right skills and background for the team, as well as the willingness to work together. You may also need to provide coaching or hire a scrummaster (or equivalent) to help the team learn how to remove impediments and focus on business results. The team may need more attention from the organization in terms of information about business priorities and customer value as well.

In exchange, you’ll have greater visibility into what your teams are working on, and you’ll be able to direct them towards the 20% of the work that provides 80% of the value.


Two-Star Teams Deliver on the Market’s Cadence

Benefit: Low defects and high productivity.
Investment: Lowered productivity during technical skill development.
Core Metric: Team ships on market cadence.

Teams fluent at the two-star level not only focus on business value, they realize that value by shipping as often as the market will accept it. This is called “shipping on the market’s cadence.” Two-star teams are distinguished from one-star teams not just by their ability to ship, but their ability to ship at will.

Extreme Programming is an Agile method commonly used by two-star teams. It’s often combined with Scrum or Kanban. Useful techniques include continuous integration, test-driven development, pair programming, and collective ownership.

Teams fluent at this level consistently and predictably deliver value. The benefits include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Transparency: Fast concept-to-delivery cycle times reveal systemic flaws early.
  • Alignment: High technical quality and frequent delivery results in high morale, and more productive work

In addition to the one-star metric of regular business-value reports, the core metric for two-star teams is their ability to ship on the market cadence. If you aren’t getting a consistently low-defect product, shipped as often as the market will bear, then your team still needs more practice.

This is the most skill-intensive fluency level. There are a lot of techniques to learn. Some, such as test-driven development, are of the “moments to learn, lifetime to master” variety. To reach fluency at the two-star level, study and practice techniques such as those described by Extreme Programming, Software Craftsmanship, DevOps, and Agile software quality gurus. Although many of these techniques have been around for a while, they aren’t consistently taught or used, so the challenge lies in bringing all team members up to a high standard. Collective ownership, pair programming, and working in a common team room are useful ways to help team members bring each other up to speed.

Investment/Value Tradeoff: Developing team members’ skills to the point of fluency takes time and significant effort. Training courses can introduce the concepts, but students often have trouble translating course examples back to their real-world problems. In many cases, real fluency requires hiring an advanced Agile programmer to mentor the team full-time on their real-world projects. In addition, productivity will often appear to decrease as the team learns new skills and pays off technical debt in existing code.

Despite these costs, the benefits from this level of fluency are substantial. Fluent two-star teams produce very low-defect software and keep technical debt to a minimum, which means they have more time for delivering features. It takes time for pre-existing technical debt to be paid off and for the benefits to appear, but once they do, you’ll see much higher quality software and dramatically improved responsiveness.


Three-Star Teams Optimize Their Value

Benefit: Higher value deliveries and better product decisions.
Investment: Social capital expended on incorporating business expertise into team.
Core Metric: Team provides concrete business metrics.

Three-star teams deliver the most value possible for your investment. They understand what the market wants, what your business needs, and how to meet those needs. Or, as in a startup environment, they know what they need to learn and how to go about learning it.

Most Agile methods are directed at one- and two-star fluency. However, Lean Startup is an example of a method that operates at the three-star level. It’s most applicable to new product development. The ideas from Lean Software Development (no relation to Lean Startup) are also useful. Agile chartering, embedded product management teams, customer discovery, and adaptive planning are all examples of techniques used by three-star teams.

In addition to one- and two-star benefits, the benefits three-star teams provide include:

  • Transparency: The team reports its results using concrete business metrics, such as RoI, net profit per employee, and customer satisfaction.
  • Alignment: Mutual trust between the team and its organization leads to rapid, effective negotiation, and the team’s broad-based expertise eliminates hand-offs and speeds decision making.

The core metric for three-star teams is the use of concrete business metrics in its reports, in addition to the core metrics for the preceding levels of fluency. If your team isn’t focused on these sorts of metrics, or if they produce less value than their opportunity costs, they aren’t yet fluent at optimizing value. (A corollary of this metric is that the team will switch directions or even cancel their own project when they discover it’s not producing enough value.)

Reaching three-star fluency requires teams to incorporate business experts as full-time team members. Although you can add business expertise by hiring additional employees or training existing personnel, it’s usually more effective to include employees who already understand your business’s unique priorities and constraints. Examples include product developers, product managers, business analysts, as well as staff from marketing, sales, and sometimes quality assurance. Incorporating their expertise means making them full-time members of the team, which usually requires high-level permission from the organization.

Three-star fluency also requires organizational support in removing obstacles to delivery. This often requires managers to work collaboratively across the organization, sometimes in cross-functional management teams, to remove obstacles to team performance. Managers may also need coaching in how their work changes in high-performance Agile environments, where cross-functional, self-organizing teams are responsible for making their own decisions about what to fund and where to focus their efforts.

Investment/Value Tradeoff: Both of the above changes challenge existing organizational structures, so they can be difficult or even impossible to implement. Achieving three-star fluency often takes several years--not because of the skills required, but because people in the organization must learn to trust the team and its use of Agile before making changes that affect their power, control, and familiar ways of working.

Shifting organizational structures takes an understanding of positive political skills, a deep conviction in the value of the payoff. Managers may need to spend their “social capital” to make it happen.

In exchange, you’ll gain higher value deliveries that predictably meet business objectives and create new opportunities, as well as building internal capability and expertise in making good product decisions.


Four-Star Teams Contribute to Optimizing the System

Benefit: Alignment with organizational goals; synergistic effects.
Investment: Significant effort in establishing organizational culture; inventing new practices.
Core Metric: Team reports how its actions impact the overall organization.

Four-star teams contribute to enterprise-wide success. Team members understand organizational priorities and business direction. Four-star teams will sacrifice their own needs to support the needs of a product more critical to business success. They work with other teams and with managers to optimize the overall value stream.

While the ideal of the four-star team is described in Lean Software Development materials, we aren’t aware of any Agile methods that fully describe how to achieve four-star fluency. The teams we know that are striving for, and in some cases reaching, four-star fluency are at the “bleeding edge” of Agile practice. They adapt ideas from advanced management theories and innovative product development methods. Techniques include Agile portfolio management, systems thinking, value stream analysis, whole system planning, intact teams, open book management, and radical self-organization.

In addition to the benefits provided by other levels of fluency, four-star teams’ benefits include:

  • Transparency: The team describes its work in the context of the business’s other initiatives, allowing products to be balanced against each other.
  • Alignment: The team cross-pollinates perspectives, context, and innovations with other teams and other parts of the organization.

The core metric for four-star teams is whether the team shows understanding of the overall system and reports how its actions affect the enterprise. If your team doesn’t understand how its work contributes to the organizations overall value stream, they aren’t yet fluent at optimizing for whole system success.

To date, we’ve most often seen four-star fluency in single-team startups, where it’s not much different from three-star fluency. It seems to be easiest to approach four-star fluency in organizations where trust is high, communication overhead is low, and business information is widely shared.

Smaller organizations can start with a culture that supports an Agile mindset across functions and levels. They support intact teams where the work comes to the team, rather than teams repeatedly reforming to fit the work. Working as intact, ongoing teams enables them to demonstrate high performance and full-on four-star fluency.

We have yet to see any teams approach four-star fluency in large organizations. This may be due to the challenges associated with changing to a culture that supports them, or it may be that Agile is still young and these teams will eventually emerge.

Investment/Value Tradeoff: Four-star fluency not only requires shifting organizational culture to focus on the whole system, it also requires working at the bleeding edge of Agile practice and potentially inventing new ways of applying systems thinking to Agile. It’s not for the faint of heart. People in all parts of the enterprise have to adopt new mindsets, change their familiar behaviors, and learn to value new practices. However, if you’ve done the work to build and support multiple teams with solid three-star fluency, you may be most of the way there.

For most organizations, four-star fluency is probably best left as an aspiration for the future, at least until three-star fluency is within reach. However, for organizations that already emphasize Lean principles and systems thinking, or for organizations that value visionary approaches and innovative processes, four-star fluency offers a bold challenge and an intriguing puzzle. In exchange for this extra attention to fluency, you’ll have teams that contribute not just to their product, but to your business as a whole.


Conclusion

In our work with Agile teams and organizations, we’ve seen that teams follow a typical progression in their understanding of Agile and the benefits their organization receives. We’ve grouped this progression into four stages of fluency. Each stage is characterized by unique benefits and distinct challenges to adoption.

The first stage--the “one star” stage--requires a team to learn to work together to focus on creating business value rather than merely finishing technical tasks. In return, the organization gains greater insight into the team’s work, and has more opportunities to influence that work in positive directions. This star reflects Agile fundamentals.

Achieving a second star requires a team to invest in learning a wide array of development skills. This star reflects Agile sustainability. The skills don’t come easily, and it’s often frustrating to go back to basics, especially for senior developers. But with time and adequate organizational support, the team gains the ability to create and ship low-defect software as frequently as the market will accept it, which gives the organization new opportunities for achieving return on their software development investment.

The third star represents the promise of Agile: a team that dances and turns in response to changing market conditions, and collectively takes responsibility for building the best product your investment can buy. Achieving this star means business experts must join the team as full-time contributors, and while this change to organizational structure takes time and effort, it pays off in the team’s improved ability to serve your business.

The fourth star represents Agile’s future. Four-star teams collaborate with other teams to optimize the value produced by their whole organization. Reaching this level requires whole-system thinking and a willingness to experiment.

All these levels provide benefits, and every one is the right level for some team. Choose the level that makes sense for your situation. Often, three stars suit small organizations and two stars suit large organizations. Regardless of your target, practice everything needed to achieve that level right from the beginning.

We’ve seen teams go through these stages of fluency time and time again. By sharing our experiences with you, we hope that you’ll gain greater insights into the possibilities Agile provides, and greater understanding of the challenges it poses. May you and your teams achieve ever greater fluency, and ever greater success.

BenefitInvestmentCore MetricTime to achieveAchievement Rate
Greater visibility into teams’ work; ability to redirect.Team development and work process design.Team regularly reports progress from a business value perspective.2-6 months45%
★★Low defects and high productivity.Lowered productivity during technical skill development.Team ships on market cadence.3-24 months35%
★★★Higher value deliveries and better product decisions.Social capital expended on incorporating business expertise into team.Team provides concrete business metrics.1-5 years5%
★★★★Alignment with organizational goals; synergistic effects.Significant effort in establishing organizational culture; inventing new practices.Team reports how its actions impact the overall organization.unknownvery few

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This article copyright 2012 James Shore and Diana Larsen. All rights reserved

If you'd like help applying this model in your organization, contact James Shore and Diana Larsen.


Further information


Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Arlo Belshee, Lisa Crispin, Jutta Eckstein, Martin Fowler, Steve Holyer, Ron Jeffries, David Lokietz, Mary Poppendieck, Justin Redd, Linda Rising, Nancy VanSchooenderwoert, Rebecca Wirfs-Brock, and Woody Zuill for their thoughtful comments on an early draft of this article.

Significant Revisions

08 August 2012: First published on martinfowler.com