Business Agility - Keeping the Focus on the Right Things

Vimal Pillai // May 19, 2021


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We are continuing the article series to explore successful agile adoptions, and this week we are talking about how to keep focus on the right things in the mist of change and chaos. This is adding to the key areas of transformation in the other articles below.

Business Agility – Getting Started  

Business Agility – What was step 2 again? 

Business Agility – Measuring and investing in growth 

Business Agility – Avoiding Chaos: Standards, Operations, and Guidance ( part 2 here )

Business Agility – Keeping focus on the right things <- You are here

Business Agility – Been there, Done that… 


Key 8: Grow with the end in mind

If you are working on new software features, or processes that will support knowledge work outside of technology, there is significant risk in confusing the means and the ends. We have heard this multiple times, but the simple summary is that we are human. We tend to over focus on the importance of things we are good at, and when this can become pervasive in an agile adoption. What we often see is that technologists over time, come to act as if the technology is the goal. Similarly, process coaches over time, come to believe that perfect execution of a process is the goal. Therein lies our problem because both process and technology are a means to an end.

If we explore the idea of a software company, the insidiousness of this prospective becomes easier to understand. Imagine for a moment, we are writing the Office Suite of products. In this scenario, we want to add a new feature to Outlook, for attendees to send responses to a calendar invite. What is the end this feature is trying to accomplish? Is it so that the sender can know who will be there? Is it so that invitees can control their calendar? In part, yes. But neither of the these summarize the goal line. They still focus on the technology. Ultimately, the new feature is attempting to ease communication between people and facilitate the conversations that will follow. If this could be accomplished in different ways like suggested scheduling, or integration with IM tools, or dozens of other options they would still serve the end goal. That slight shift of focus opens the team to considering possibilities outside of their day to day experience. In an agile adoption, the responsibility of keeping this focus for a team lies on the shoulders of the product owner. There are many tools and techniques that can assist the product owner in keeping the team focused on the end. Immature teams will often look at a sprint goal as a nice to have, rather than a required part of the process. However, having a sprint goal is the first step to a consistent reminder of the outcomes we are aiming for. Another tool in this drive for focus is assigning business value on every backlog item. We often use a 1 to 10 scale to capture the business value measurement. Many mature organizations have grown to put estimated dollar values on each backlog item.  

Another area that needs special attention is the inclusion of supporting more secondary processes on a team by team basis. For some teams that are more research or experiment driven, a standard practice of design thinking can pull back to the customer perspective but may be needed less frequently for teams maintaining an existing product. When a new team member joins a team, or a new team is starting down the road to agility, value-stream mapping can put the teams work into a broader business context.  

In each of these cases, whether adding a process or removing friction, we are optimizing for outcome of the entire system. We are aiming to avoid the common description of local optimization; we don’t want our teams to be penny wise and pound foolish. This includes changes to organizational structure. We will find waste and friction as organizations grow to maturity. But often, the knee-jerk reaction without broader context can be severely damaging to the organization in the long run. We coach on this behavior because of its prevalence by telling our clients frequently not to have permanent solutions to temporary problems. Not to enact new policies, rules, or guidelines, for each failure along the journey to agile maturity.  

Key 9: The work is still important


It would be easy to read through this article series to this point and conclude that process is the primary problem teams are facing today. While process, inefficiency, and waste have significant impacts on teams, there are many other problem areas that a team will find in their day to day work. We are going to dig in and expand on the idea that a pursuit of excellence in our individual competencies is critical to the success of an agile team.

There is no amount of agile coaching, process change, or training that will create competency in a team from outside. The team’s growth, expansion of skills, and ability to tackle new problems can be externally supported but must be internally motivated.  

The model we often use to describe the levels of change is the hierarchy of pain, introduced by Tim Rayburn. It describes the levels of pain that affect organizations, and what levels those pains can be solved at. You can solve a tools or technology problem with character or team, but you cannot solve interpersonal problems on the team with tools. This is often the model that allows us to discuss why perception of the work varies drastically on the team and from the outside of the team. If the team is working very hard to overcome issues of process and they are successful, it will likely look like the process is working from the outside. This is one of the core reasons for team level retrospectives raising issues. They are the closest to the work, and most likely to see the flaws.  

If the focus is quality software or a quality deliverable, then we want to instill personal discipline and a team dynamic that cares deeply about building something well. We can throw a ton of quality measures, tools, and processes at the problem and ultimately not move the needle. This typically requires several shifts in the organization, not just at the team level. If the organization is incentivizing through praise, recognition, or bonuses, the hero that puts out the fire, then we are encouraging having fires. Does the product that hasn’t seen a fire for months or years get similar praise and recognition? Does the quality team find bugs and report them, or do they get involved early and avoid most of the potential issues? 

Many of these practices include learning and growing as a team, which highlights two additional lessons learned.  

First is that sustainable pace doesn’t mean a lack of urgency or a breakneck run for months on end. Sustainable is time dependent. I can run at full speed for a short duration, or at a lower speed for much longer without causing injury. Sustainable pace is often used as a stonewall to push back on expectations, but we believe it is a great starter for a conversation. A discussion of how long to maintain high velocity, or the cost of large numbers of additional hours. It is like the discussion of the cost for software against its value. Sometimes the right answer is putting in additional effort to make a date, and sometimes the cost is too high, and we renegotiate timelines.  

Secondly is to budget time for growth and sharpening the skills of the team. The speed technology is moving is not likely to slow down, and the skills needed tomorrow are going to require growth of the team. If we are always focused on raw productivity, we are likely creating a future problem. We typically recommend 30 minutes of time per week to learn something new. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but you would be amazed at the results when a team takes that time seriously. 

If you are on a team and trying to find ways to implement the 30 minutes a week average, we would love to help with a free lunch and learn on an upcoming technology or new skillset. Please reach out and we will get it scheduled. If you are overseeing multiple teams and want to support that growth and excellence, we have a training voucher system that allows for training to be better distributed inside a set of teams.


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