Considering an Agile Assessment? Here are some things you need to know

Picture of a map with pins symbolizing how an Agile assessment gets you to your destination.

So you’re thinking of doing an Agile assessment or two? Congratulations! We think that’s a great idea, provided you consider the big picture.

Let’s start with why. Why do you want to do an assessment in the first place? Is there a level of dissatisfaction with how things have been going? Perhaps negative feedback from within a team or from leadership and stakeholders? Or just a sense that “things could be better”?

An Agile assessment will provide insights into the current state of things– “Where we are now”–and help shine a light on strengths and opportunities. Those insights, combined with a vision of a better future, will help guide the team on their journey from “here” to “there.”

Picture of a map with pins symbolizing how an Agile assessment gets you to your destination.

An Agile Assessment Answers “Where Are We Now?”

Before a team considers possible steps to get to where they want to be (that “better future”), it’s important for them (and their stakeholders) to know where they are now. There are a lot of tools that can help assess teams, but we are a little partial…so we’re going to use Path to Agility Navigator in this article. Unlike other tools out there, Navigator provides a way for teams to self-assess their current state in terms of Agile outcomes, capabilities, and practices instead of maturity of practices.

Here are some definitions to level-set:

  • Outcomes: The newly achieved result of better agility
  • Capabilities: The new ability the team has developed
  • Practices: Something the team has implemented, “the how”)

We recommend involving the full team when doing assessments versus surveying solo. This allows the team to get more buy-in on how they’re currently working and feel involved because are providing their perspective. This also means that there are no surprises in the assessment results, which aids in determining and accomplishing action items that address improvement areas.

Using a tool like Path to Agility Navigator (P2A Nav) that has built-in polling features makes collaboration easy and lightweight. While polling can be limited to Agile Outcomes (AO), we recommend assessing the current state of a team’s Agile Capabilities (AC). In either case, the rating is on a five-point scale from “Not Met” to “Fully Met.”

During a P2A Nav poll, team members are able to reference what “good” looks like. In addition to clear succinct descriptions and acceptance criteria, there are brief inline videos to support teams new to Agile and P2A.). P2ANav allows team members to have a meaningful discussion and ultimately reach a rating consensus on where they are currently. (Think “Planning Poker” – where the value is in “the estimating” more so than “the estimate”.)

Agile Capabilities poll in an Agile Assessment

Where Do We Want to Be in the Future?

A team assessment often reveals opportunities for improvement. However, a shared visualization of the current state will not be sufficient to create a backlog of meaningful action items that move the team(s)toward a better future. If you don’t know where you want to be, how would you prioritize what to work on? You would run the risk of boiling the ocean and wasting time.

You’ve likely heard the adage ”If everything is a priority, then nothing is…” (BTW, did you know the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did the term become pluralized and folks started talking about priorities. Thank you, Industrial Age!)

The End Goal of Agile Assessments: Outputs or Outcomes?

A great place to focus the team’s efforts will be to clarify what “better” looks like. What would it mean to the team? To the organization? Why change anything at all? Hopefully, the goal for changing the status quo is NOT something like “Do the Agile things better” or “Bring team velocity up.” While improved team velocity is a common desired output or result, there are healthier ways of improving productivity. We’ve seen that a misguided spotlight on outputs creates a risk. See: Can You Feel the Burn(down)? How to Use Burndown Charts for Good, Not Evil.)

Path to Agility (P2A) offers a powerful approach: Focus on a business outcome as the goal. And do so for a given time horizon.

P2A has nine business outcomes that provide a starting point for discussion and eventual alignment on “what’s the most important thing.” While it is often a challenge to select one top business outcome, knowing that there’s a relationship between them will help the team surface the leading contender. For example, struggling with predictability? Look “upstream” to “Continous Improvement” and “Employee Engagement.”) (See What Business Outcome or Goal is Your Agile Transformation Focused On?)

Narrowing the list to a small set (1-3) of business outcome will provide a clear navigational beacon toward a better future–helping to prioritize the next actions and design feedback loops to support the team through complex and changing terrain. Those feedback loops accelerate the pace of learning, with both quantifiable and qualifiable data. (See related article: Business Outcome-Based Metrics: How to Effectively Measure Your Agile Transformation Journey)

A picture of the 9 business outcomes in Path to Agility release 2.5

The Value of a Compelling Purpose

Most people are not inspired by logic alone, but rather by the fundamental desire to contribute to a larger “Why?” Leveraging the focus of a single business outcome will help engage heads, hearts, and hands to achieve extraordinary results.

Having a clearly understood and regularly communicated reason to change will ensure alignment and a common goal that motivates the team to take action. Actions that will create a future that will be different from the past.

For example:

  • Enable our team to work collaboratively on our top initiatives so that we deliver customer value 25% faster and at 1/2 of current costs. Together. Better. Faster.

Identifying Practical First Steps

There is a virtuous relationship among P2A Business Outcomes, Agile Outcomes, Capabilities and Practices.

a graphic showing the relationship between Business Outcomes, Agile Outcomes and Agile Capabilities in Path to Agility.

There are also correlations between each Business Outcome and specific Agile Outcomes that help accomplish it.

By looking at those correlations and a team’s current state, P2A provides clues on what to consider for the next actions. If you are not using a model like Path to Agility that helps to connect Business Outcomes to practices, consider the following:

  1. What are team strengths to leverage and amplify?
  2. What are opportunities to address?
  3. How do the above items relate to desired quantifiable and qualifiable goals for the team?

Zooming out helps to prevent over-rotating on practices (which is a very easy thing to do).

You can then work with the team to build a backlog of specific next steps that will lead toward a different future.

Let’s take a look at an example. Given the business outcome of Employee Engagement, and the current state team assessment shown below, there’s a clear opportunity in regard to the Team Ownership Agile Outcome, and the related Continuous Team Improvement Agile capability.

Maybe it’s orange because teams are not owning how they work, or maybe they are improving through regular retrospectives but they’re getting stale. Action items related to improving Team Ownership could be “First Retrospective” or “Register to trial Retrospective Tool.” Like any product backlog item (PBI), the action items should meet the “INVEST” criteria: Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable.

The team can also create additional PBIs to address other gaps they see, eg. Delivery Team Agile capability.

By designing small, time-boxed experiments or identifying action items the team (those closest to the issue) can address these “not met” Agile Capabilities through improved behaviors or practices. Your Agile assessment should not be a laundry list of problems. The whole point of an assessment is to drive better outcomes that accomplish business goals by identifying growth opportunities and then taking action!

screenshot of Agile Outcomes assessed using Path to Agility Navigator with trend lines.

Share Agile Assessment with Leadership and Stakeholders

A quick recap:

  • The team has created a snapshot of “Where We Are Now” via an assessment
  • They’ve painted a picture of a more compelling possible future based on measurable business outcomes
  • They’ve built a backlog of practical next steps via action items

Time to share all of the above with their leadership and stakeholders. While it might be tempting to “send a PPT” and call it “Done,” we’ve never seen much success with that approach! Far better to set up an interactive discussion, much like a Scrum team would do during a sprint review. (See Sprint Review – Make it Much More Than a Demo…)

When building their backlog of action items, the team may find items that are currently outside of their control. Team composition and level of dedication, both part of the Delivery Team capability, are common examples.

In this case, the team has an impediment. The solution: ask for help. Equipped with their current state assessment, combined with the clarity provided by the desired business outcome, they can pitch an experiment. And leading with the business outcome is sure to grab leadership’s interest. “To drive Employee Engagement, as measured by…., we intend to…. How do you feel about that approach?”

Chronicle the Journey through Continuous Assessment

An assessment is not a “once and done” event. Over time the team will make progress on their action items. Within the P2A model, since the items are related to specific P2A capabilities and outcomes, they in turn will accomplish the business outcome.

In Navigator, the team can update their assessment ratings in near real-time. Even if you are not using Navigator, we recommend revisiting and refreshing the assessment periodically.

Either approach provides a view of progress (or lack thereof) and helps the team tell a story of their transformation journey toward better results. In P2A Nav, the trend lines in the assessment map will reflect changes over time.

A screenshot of assessed Agile Outcomes with trend lines showing growth over time.

Ready to Get Going?

Teams, particularly in an enterprise, are part of a complex system. Change is not simple, and there’s rarely a single, direct path from here to there. The approach described above provides a means of navigating the journey: Start with a team assessment, add a clear vision of a more compelling future, identify practical next steps, and implement feedback loops.

If you’d like to test drive to get a snapshot of where your team is today and where to go next, visit Path to Agility and try our free 10-minute assessment.

When was the last time you did an Agile assessment? What worked for you? What can you improve on for the next assessment? 

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