Your agile team assessment is all wrong

For years agile groups and consultancies have been using team assessments to determine the level of agile capability or maturity. In many cases this has been helpful to show up some issues, however, this method of checking agility is all wrong. Essentially, this form of assessment is inward looking – based on organisational structures. Team assessments don’t start with the customer and their needs – oftentimes work, particularly in larger organisations, will cross team and organisational structural boundaries.

For many years the agile community has been obsessed with “high performing teams”, in my early days of agile coaching I thought this to be the case too. However, the reality of the vast majority of the organisations and groups that I’ve worked with over the last decade have been about how to flow work across teams to reach a goal with customers in mind. That is the central part of agility – the ability to learn quickly and change or pivot based upon a customer or market need. It is true, that on occasion some aspects of customer delivery are held entirely within a single team. Thus I have to question why we base our assessments on agility on an organisational construct (the “team”) rather than how we deliver to customers.

Your ability to create outcomes is based on how you service your customers. Thus understanding the purpose of your customers and improving how you service them should be of upmost importance. You assessments should be aligned to the purposes of the customers and the outcomes that you produce – not to a single cog in the overall machine.

By focusing on the team, you’re likely to introduce “improvements” that could sub-optimise your outcomes to customers. It’s well known in lean communities / bodies of knowledge that if you optimise for a part of the system, you’re most likely going to sub-optimise the whole (value stream to customers). A part of the system is just that, and it doesn’t matter if you improve just that part if the customers aren’t getting an overall benefit. In many cases, because things are measured at a team level, you might not even have many metrics (such as lead time) about how well you’re meeting customer expectations.

Conversely, you may have been doing team assessments for some time and getting good results on the assessments, but still not seeing a shift in how the overall product / service is delivered to customers or the outcomes that result. I’ve seen this happen a number of times – it’s even worse when teams / project managers do “self assessments”. Again, you’re measuring a “part” of the system and detaching from customers, their purpose and outcomes. The only way to improve from this point is to look at how your product / service lines and improve across all the interdependent services in your organisation (eg product, marketing, sales, HR, technology, operations). After all, your organisation is a network of interdependent services and the focus should really be on improving the network, not just a single node in it.

I was teaching a Kanban Maturity Model class recently and it occurred to me that one of the things I’ve seen, agile team assessments, is one of the things holding teams back to a Maturity Level 1 level. So many agile implementations focus more on the team and trying to reorganise to be “self contained” teams, but neglect to realise that rarely is something entirely self contained in a single team. Indeed, it’s when we make new connections across the organisation for the benefit of the customer that we can unlock new value we hadn’t considered in the past.

This oversight can be corrected. Look to do a basic STATIK investigation and critically examine “Who are your customers and what do they ask for“. Starting to track customer based metrics such as customer lead time and other fit for purpose metrics will start to elevate things above the team and towards the customer(s). Visualise the entire process – perhaps another group or department is coming up with the ideas and then eventually feeding those to the delivery teams. Seeing the end to end process across teams will help inform you where you should spend your limited time and money making improvements (see also Do you cards on the Kanban board reflect customer requests).

The reality for most organisations is that agility is not necessarily just based on a team in isolation – Organisational agility is a “Team of Teams” sport. You should assess your agility on the the basis of how you respond to changing demands from customers and the market. For this reason, agile team assessments don’t make sense and you should shift your assessments to something that will bring your organisation closer to customers like the Kanban Maturity Model.

If you would like to assess your organisational agility with the KMM or you want to learn more about how Kanban can help your customer focus, please contact us.