Will The Real Business Agile Please Stand Up!

Any group of people discussing “agile methodologies” would have a hard time agreeing on what the term means. For some, it is simply the adoption of Scrum or a scaled version of it. 

Along with that definition goes the hiring of agile coaches who are often “scrum certified”.

Going up the food chain in agility you could include Cloud Adoption as a key step. The problem is many Cloud practices are incomplete and don’t actually exploit Cloud. Then, of course, there is the whole area of DevOps and continuous everything that goes with it, which is really software agile.

I’m going to be a bit controversial here and say none of those fit the notion of real business agility.

We as IT leaders need to wake up to is the fact that we are still routinely asked to implement bad business decisions. True business agility will only come about when we learn to make our voices heard on this business-critical topic. And to do that we need to develop our own ideas about what business agility means.

My view is that business agility should really be value-based agility. The agile manifesto is explicit about the importance of value, although because we are engineers we tend to treat it as a waste reduction mandate.

As agile spreads out across the business though, we have to start expanding our view of what value is and our role in creating it. Hence value-based agility. I think IT leaders should lead the charge on it.

So what is value-based business agility and what do CIOs need to learn to master it?

Here are seven points most IT professionals and business leaders need to huddle around. These steps are essentially what I call Flow (the minimalist framework for value-based agility):

Agile methods have to solve real problems

Methodology gurus are going to get us a bad name. Scrum, Scrum at Scale, Scaled Agile and all the other core agile methods have a role but they do not lead to agility. They become part of a story that says something like, if we reach a certain density of scrum practices or percentage of agile coaches to developers, we are agile.

By focusing on the language of agile, leaders are often missing the real problems they need to address: constantly having to do wasteful work because of bad decision making upstream; managing CxO ego projects; too many new hires tidying up after bad code integrations; Cloud migrations that lack a core agile focus. We really have to make our voices heard on value.

Agile is an end-to-end framework, embracing all aspects of the business

Value-based agility means that software professionals have to step out of their respective silos and see themselves as part of the business decision process. If you create good feedback loops or good sources of data analysis, then you are giving the business real-time tools to draw customers into a closer relationship.

It needs visualisation tools that bridge the IT-business divide

What I’ve just said could be a little difficult to grasp, unless you have access to visualisations of your “flow of value”. In Flow, which I’ve been developing with my co-author Haydn Shaughnessy, we have created a visual framework that begins with understanding customers and ends with applying customer feedback (see diagram).

Screenshot 2019-05-09 at 10.42.28

All of this is visualised so that we can create more social interaction with our colleagues in the workplace. Good social interaction can help bridge the IT-business divide, particularly when you use visualisations. It also enables leaders to find their real purpose within teams and not be confined to the corner office.

We recently installed a portfolio wall to help business leaders and IT professionals have a more intelligent dialogue about what could be achieved in a legacy-dense IT environment. From the new conversations, we were literally able to build a bridge between business and IT.

Business agility is human-centred for a reason

What that means, if you think about it, is that agility is really about conversations. Sharing one’s life stories is an essential part of leadership humility, learning from the retrospective and building trust amongst team members. If you can’t have conversations, you can’t make decisions.

Customer-centric tools to prevent waste from entering the flow

Any agile process has to begin with a deeper understanding of customers and what Chris Andersen christened the long tail. We find businesses want to be more customer-centric but don’t know how. The big advantage from it is that less waste is produced and therefore more value goes into the flow of work.

Consistent work breakdown to optimise the economics of development, production and delivery

I advocate no scrums or sprints but good work breakdown. If you can get work broken down into a consistent (small) size, you can easily estimate the cost of work in progress and quickly assess the likely cost of any pivots you need to make.

Integrated with feedback loops and value management principles

Value management has been treated more like waste management in the past. However, we advocate proactive value management. That means using feedback loops to create insights into which features, processes and projects are creating the most value and which are detracting.


When confined to the technology team, agile becomes a mess of old and poorly executed methodologies. We need to put in the effort to go beyond our existing knowledge of today’s agile practices and use Flow value-based agility techniques. At the very least we can use value as a focal point for agreeing what business agility is really all about and our role in defining and managing it.

To learn more about the Flow approach, you can find our books on Amazon – Flow: A Handbook for Change-Makers, Mavericks, Innovation Activists & Leaders – Simplifying Digital Transformation and 12 Steps to Flow: The New Framework for Business Agility.

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