Podcast Ep. 108: Does Agile Force Continuous Improvement?

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Episode Description:

On this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner, Sam Falco is your host, joined by senior agile coach at AgileThought, Adam Ulery — and today they’re discussing the concept of agile forcing continuous improvement.

Does agile “force” continuous improvement? What does this mean? Is it inherently negative or positive? How does agile implement continuous improvement as a natural consequence? Sam and Adam address these questions and share their tips on how to leverage agile to maximize your continuous improvement in all levels of your organization.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Key Takeaways

  • What does “agile forcing continuous improvement” mean?
    • Agile “forces” continuous improvement because continuous improvement is inherently baked into agility
    • “Force”, not as coercion, but as a natural outcome of adopting an agile mindset
    • The frequent use of feedback loops is built into the way you work in an agile environment, “forcing” continuous improvement
  • How agile implements continuous improvement as a natural consequence:
    • Regardless of the framework, there is a feedback loop with the goal being to deliver as much value as possible to the end consumer
    • Inspecting and adapting the product and the process at regular intervals
    • Agile encourages and fosters teams to be able to talk about things transparently and openly and not see impediments as an indictment of their performance
    • Through failing fast (i.e. learning fast through your failures or mistakes) the team will continue to improve
  • Tips for leveraging agile’s continuous improvement:
    • Address the fear of speaking up by teaching leadership roles on how to make the environment safe for the delivery teams
    • Acknowledge that the environment may have not been safe in the past but that changes are being implemented and it will be different going forward
    • The shorter the feedback loop, the shorter the risk (so if something doesn’t go right, you’re not that far from recovery)
    • Delivery early and often, get the feedback loops working so that teams can course-correct as they learn
    • It’s important to get to a point where it is understood that quick learning is what the team and leadership is looking for (and that failure is not failure; it’s learning)
    • Leadership needs to be supportive of the mindset shift regarding quick learning/failing fast so that the team can feel encouraged in exhibiting these behaviors
    • If you are a leader who wants to begin to make their team more comfortable with quick learning, you need to educate yourself, believe it, communicate with your team, be transparent that you’re still learning and growing, set your expectations about what you’d like to see, and call out real examples as they happen so that the team can begin to recognize it
    • As a leader, display vulnerability and acknowledge that you have not done the best with communicating in the past, but that it will be different going forward
    • Model the behaviors you want to see as a leader
    • You need to create safety and support your team in order to thrive and increase performance

Mentioned in this Episode:

Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar.]

Intro: [00:02] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought the podcast for practitioners, and leaders, seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host coach and agile expert, Sam Falco.

Sam Falco: [00:15] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner. I am Sam Falco. I’ll be your host today. Dan Neumann is being held at an undisclosed location. He’ll return next week with joining me laughing with, along with me on the line is out of jewelry, senior agile coach at agile thought. Welcome to the podcast again, Adam. All right.

Adam Ulery: [00:35] Thanks a lot, Sam. I’m happy to be here.

Sam Falco: [00:37]
Well, let’s, uh, let’s dive right in. You had some interesting things to say when we were getting started up this afternoon about agile forcing continuous improvement. So tell us what you meant by that.

Adam Ulery: [00:54] We always think of those terms force or coerce or not really, right. I mean, when you hear those terms, that just sounds kind of almost foreign or like it doesn’t quite fit with what we think of when we think of agility, especially as agilists and seasoned practitioners, but I was working with a client, uh, somewhat recently and he was an executive and he mentioned it in those terms. And I just thought it was really fascinating the way he said agile forces continuous improvement. And he really meant it as a compliment or a way to say that he’s getting great value out of agile, because what he’s seen from his organization is all of this continuous improvement. That’s just sort of built into the way they’re working. I, uh, heard the words and thought, wow, that would be something that’s kind of interesting to unpack and talk a little more about, which is what we’re doing here today.

Sam Falco: [01:54] So it was, sounds like sort of forced, not as coercion, but as a natural outcome of adopting an agile mindset, you begin practicing continuous improvement.

Adam Ulery: [02:04] That’s a great way to say it. And I think a couple of things he had in mind when he mentioned that were the frequent use of feedback loops that are just kind of built into the way you work in an agile environment and full transparency.

Sam Falco: [02:22] Yeah. Let’s dig in a little on the ways that feedback loops are built in of course in Scrum, that’s fairly obvious, but let’s, let’s maybe take a step removed from a specific framework. How do you feel that agile implements continuous improvement as a natural consequence?

Adam Ulery: [02:44]
Yeah. So regardless of framework, we know that we’re always seeking to continuously improve. And we also know that we’re really trying to deliver the most value we can to the customer or end consumer of the product or service that we’re delivering. Right. Regardless of the feedback loop, I’m sorry. Regardless of the framework, there is a feedback loop. So Scrum, it’s obvious there, as you mentioned in other frameworks, there are also opportunities for feedback. And, um, I really like to think about it in two main groups, right? Inspecting and adapting the product at regular intervals and inspecting and adapting the process at regular intervals.

Sam Falco: [03:36] Okay. Yeah. And there again, maybe it’s not obvious to everybody who’s listening, how Scrum implements it, but those are the two interlocking feedback loops and Scrum, right? At the end of the sprint, we have a sprint review stakeholders get to see what have we been working on for the past sprint and give some feedback on what might be most valuable to do next. We can adjust to marketplace changes and et cetera. And then right after that, the team meets for it’s retrospective, which is our opportunity to inspect and adapt our own behavior and our own process. So talk about some other ways that those interlocking loops happen.

Adam Ulery: [04:14]
Yeah, well, I also think it happens vertically as well as horizontally. And what I mean by that is I think it happens throughout different layers of the organization. So what you just described is likely to be some kind of delivery team, perhaps they’re building a software application and then in a scaled environment where you have more than one of those types of teams, and they’re all coordinating to produce an integrated increment of value periodically, we need some sort of feedback loop between the, the next layer up that program layer that seeks to coordinate and integrate everything and the actual delivery teams that are building something within their team, and then an even larger environment where you may have a portfolio of programs you’ve got yet another layer up potentially where there needs to be this type of, uh, feedback as well. And, and what we’re trying to do is share the, the things that we can improve, make better things that are going well, that we need to keep doing. And just how we can always be collaborating in a really effective way to achieve the business outcomes we’re trying to achieve.

Sam Falco: [05:34] Right? The, the horizontal feedback loop or the vertical, excuse me, vertical feedback loop. Uh, my brain doesn’t apparently operate in the right dimensions, the vertical feedback loop. I think sometimes that, that seems to be missing even in single teams Scrum, we’ll see that a Scrum team will identify a that’s keeping them from delivering and it’s not, doesn’t quite rise to the level of impediment or at least they don’t identify it as such. It’s just a drag on them. And they think of an impediment as a complete blocker. And so they don’t communicate that out or they feel like, well, until that’s fixed, we, we shouldn’t bother working on anything else, you know, working on something of our own. So either all improvement comes to a standstill or we just sort of spin our wheels.

Adam Ulery: [06:28] Yeah. We see that a lot. Don’t wait. And I think there’s a lot of work on the next layer up to encourage and really foster the teams in the layer, down from them to be able to talk about these things openly and transparently and share them and to not see things like impediments as a, as an indictment of their poor performance or some sort of a knock on them as a team, but to really encourage that open communication, you know, almost think of it as over communication, if you must, uh, but be willing to talk about those things. And a lot of times the teams are not used to an environment where they can share that kind of thing, kind of ask for help without being seen as they can’t handle it. Right. So that’s part of a bigger mindset shift that we go through when we’re transforming organizations, as you know, Sam that’s, that’s a place where we really work with the leadership teams to make the environment fertile for those types of discussions and collaborations to happen.

Sam Falco: [07:43] I agree. And I think some of that sometimes comes from there’s the perception that agile is something that teams do you go in and be agile. We’ll tell you what we want you to do. Not out of any sort of misbehavior, just not really grasping that this is beyond just this team is going to change the way they work. It’s going to also require us to change the way work and up until very recently, you know, business schools, art, or teaching, that kind of thing. And that’s starting to shift, but I think that old, uh, what’s the word, uh, Taylorist from the, uh, the efficiency expert, Oh, I forgot his first name, but a side note. It was the inspiration for the movie, um, cheaper by the dozen. But the idea that we just measure everything, uh, tell people how much time they have to do stuff and tell them what to do. And so that same mindset has been taught until, as I said until recently. And so even people who didn’t go to a business degree, they may have just fallen backwards into management. This is what they’ve been told to do. This is what they’ve been told to expect. And then even those of us who aren’t managers will often, that’s what we are expecting to be responsible for. So there’s a real fear of speaking up.

Adam Ulery: [09:16] Right. And it, a lot of it can be under the covers. As you know, we’ve seen when people speak up, they’re perceived as not being able to handle it, not being ready, that sort of thing. So it is a lot of work for us when we go in and work with clients to teach those, those leadership roles and those teams where leaders operate, how to make the environment safe for the delivery teams to be able to do that. And then at the same time, we’re working with those delivery teams to teach them, Hey, look, we’re teaching your leaders how to crave this type of feedback. So now you need to take action and start providing that kind of feedback. You have to acknowledge that it may not have been safe to do that in the past, but things are changing now. And so what we’ve noticed when that happens, uh, when the learning occurs both from the leadership team and those, those delivery teams, um, quite magical things start to happen, they really start collaborating. Their effectiveness goes up, the happiness of the team goes up and they just become a higher performing team. And it’s that two way street, right? It, it has to be both ways for that to work.

Sam Falco: [10:39]
And that’s where the feedback loops can also come into play because the shorter, your feedback loop, the smaller your risk. So if something doesn’t go right, you’re not that far away from recovery.

Adam Ulery: [10:52] Yeah. Good point. And I think that’s especially important with delivery when you’re putting product or service out there to deliver early and often and get those feedback loops working so that you understand how well what you’re delivering is providing the intended value. And then the team can course correct, as they learn and they’re going to continuously learn, they will always be getting better because they’re getting new information and they’re actually acting on that. And, and that’s helping them pivot and change what they’re delivering. So it’s always the highest value thing they can possibly do.

Sam Falco: [11:43] Yeah. And you said learning, there’s a phrase that always kind of makes me cringe fail fast, right? And sometimes that gives people the impression that we’re aiming for failure. And when we were talking about this earlier, we talked about learn fast is a better way of thinking about it.

Adam Ulery: [12:06] Right. Because we don’t really think of it as failing. If you continue on, don’t give up and learn from the mistake or the failure, right. That’s, that’s a learning opportunity. And the team’s just going to get better and better if they’re allowed to learn. And that’s how humans learn. We try things. If they don’t work, we try something else until it does work. That’s the best way to make progress. So if you’re not allowed to do that, because it’s seen as a failure or a negative thing, then you’ll never come close to meeting your full potential. And then this applies to the team as well. Not just individuals. Of course it applies to teams. So, you know, if you think about being able to learn quickly and, and make changes and just keep going, then the team’s just going to maximize their potential.

Sam Falco: [13:04] So what does it take to get us to a point where we understand that quick learning is what we’re looking for and that if there are failures, that’s not failure. That’s learning. How do we get there?

Adam Ulery: [13:17] That is a mindset shift. And it really needs to start with leaders and be supported by leaders so that the staff can begin to exhibit those behaviors in a way where they will be encouraged to do so. And, and leaders need to learn this, understand it, and then make it super clear that it is what we value and what we want to see. So encourage that behavior, reward that behavior.

Sam Falco: [13:54] Let’s maybe dig in a little more specific. Let’s say I am a leader. I have been used to just handing out instructions and applying a carrot and stick rewards. And now I see that other organizations are thriving with agile and I want to be agile. What are some ways I can’t just say, well, we’re all going to be agile now. And we want you to learn fast and don’t worry about failure because I haven’t been that kind of leader. People aren’t necessarily going to trust that. What are some things as a leader I can do to begin to make people comfortable with it

Adam Ulery: [14:35] That, so I think the first step for you as a leader would be in education for yourself. So what we would usually do is, is work with you to help you start to learn that this isn’t the truth, that way you believe it and buy into it, right? So let’s assume we get there. And we’ve gotten you to a point through, through just coaching conversations, sharing materials with you from case studies or previous examples, places where it’s worked, maybe some books and, and you, you get there. And you’re like, okay, well, I think I believe this. And I certainly am ready to give it a try, right. But I’d love to see it for myself. Uh, then what we would do is have you begin to communicate with those people who were trying to get to open up and, and start to share these things with, and your, your communication would be around what you want from them. And you would be transparent about the fact that look I have learned and grown, and I’m trying something new and, and acknowledge that it hasn’t been the case in the past, because that allows them to see that a change is happening. And then start to just set your expectations about what you’d like to see. And then, and this is where we as coaches really help clients kind of get over the hump. When we see it happen in action. A lot of times people don’t realize that it’s happening. It just, it does one time and you’re in a meeting and it happened. And nobody really understands that that thing just happened. So as a coach, we’re able to see that as kind of the neutral party there, and we call it out, we stop everything. They could be in the middle of a very important medium. We just stop it and say, Hey guys, I just want everyone to acknowledge what just happened. Right there. Call out real examples as they happen. And it helps people see, Oh, that’s it. And I, now I know how that felt. I saw what just happened there. That’s what we need to be doing. And now let’s practice doing that.

Sam Falco: [16:47] It sounds like if I’m going to be as a leader, transparent that, Hey, I have not been doing the best job of communicating in the past. I’m I’m trying to change. That sounds like I am having to open myself up in a, in a really new way. So that seems like an even bigger leap to display that kind of vulnerability.

Adam Ulery: [17:08] It absolutely is. It is a big growth point. And once leaders do that, they can almost feel the growth in themselves, but it’s definitely a scary moment for many people. And particularly with people who, as you said, have been educated in one way, or they got to where they are now by being successful by doing something a completely different way. And now we’re in here trying to tell them to change the way that they have been successful for their whole career. Right? Why is this different? But the breakthrough, when it happens is amazing.

Sam Falco: [17:48] Yeah. And I, I liked the idea that the leader has to go first with the transparency. I have seen a number of times when they say, Oh, we want to be transparent. And what they mean is they want the teams to be transparent. They want to be able to look down in some sort of pan Opticon where they can see everything. But what you’re saying is the leader has to open up first. I will be transparent before I expect you to be transparent.

Adam Ulery: [18:13] That’s part of leadership, right? Modeling the good behavior, demonstrating going first, you know, taking action. So, um, yes, absolutely. That’s where it has to start with.

Sam Falco: [18:26] While we’re on the subject of leaders modeling the behavior, they want to see, I know you recently read something that talks about that quite at length.

Adam Ulery: [18:37] I’ve recently read leaders eat last by Simon Sinek. And I really enjoyed the book. I thought it was a great, I thought it was really a great book for leaders and it touches on some of what we were just talking about with regard to leaders, needing to create safety for their people and really to support their people to thrive. And basically that was what the book was about. And he says that leaders who do that will increase the performance of their teams and their company. And, um, and that’s a great way to lead.

Sam Falco: [19:14] I’m reminded of a CEO of a company I worked for early in my software career, who, whenever you came to him with, has happened to me, once I said, I’ve got, I’ve got good news and bad news. And he said, let me have the bad news first, so we can do something about it. And there was no repercussions for bringing bad news to him. Well, the repercussions was, he would say, what do we need to do to fix that? It was not well, you screwed up. Um, we had, in fact, a really glaring problem with the product we’d been developing. That was, um, we couldn’t ship it. We literally couldn’t ship it because it was going to destroy a customer’s documents. That was the bug. It would wipe out the entire document. XML, authoring tool. And then when I came to and said, we’ve got a problem, this is happening. All right, let’s get some people together, sit down and figure out how we can do this. And meanwhile, let so-and-so know to tell the client, we’re not going to ship it. No rants, no. You know, fingers pointed just let’s get the right people in the room. Let’s fix this problem as fast as we can. And then we congratulated ourselves on having fixed it. So that’s, that’s exactly that kind of behavior,

Adam Ulery: [20:26] Good leadership there, because now you won’t be afraid to speak up about that type of problem. The in the future, you’ll be looking for a way to get it solved quickly.

Sam Falco: [20:36] Absolutely. What else have you been reading in your continuous learning journey?

Adam Ulery: [20:41]
Same. I recently read a book called radical focus by Christina whatky. Um, believe that was her first name, whatky was her last name. And it was a really good book on, OKRs. So for those who don’t know what OKR is, our objectives and key results, you can Google for that and find tons of info on it. But this book was a really good kind of, um, overall explanation about how to use them. One of the better ones I’ve read in a book form. And it did a good job of using a parable or, you know, a story about a company, a startup to illustrate how it works. So I really enjoyed that. And then I’m finishing up a book that’s been on my list forever, and I just never, I’ve never gotten around to reading it and I’m finishing it right now. It’s called measure what matters by John Doerr. And of course that’s about the Genesis of OKR and where they came from, how in Intel and Google used them early on. Really cool.

Sam Falco: [21:49] Well, thank you very much for being on the show, sharing your insights on leadership and transparency and the fact that agile processes force continuous improvement. It’s a great insight. Thank you very much for being here and next week Dan Neumann will return as host. We’ll see you then.

Adam Ulery: [22:12] Thanks.

Outro: [22:15]
This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests, and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes at

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