Agile Lean Leadership in a Nutshell

Agile Lean Leadership (ALL) is a mega pattern for building organizations that are built on the Agile and Lean principles and exhibit the same benefits that Scrum does at the Team level. So it can be said that:

ALL is a way of scaling Agile, Lean and Scrum out in the whole organization.

ALL is for organizations that have  a fairly high percentage of complex challenges where context and perspective can change frequently. To be resilient such organizations need to make quick decisions about operations and innovation strategies. ALL is also for organizations with a high percentage of knowledge work, where there is a need  for sustainable commercial stability and long term relations with staff, customers and suppliers.

ALL organizations are a network of Teams instead of the traditional Hierarchical command and control structure.

Scrum defines a set of enabling constraints that allow teamwork to flourish and produce extraordinary value. In the same way ALL defines a number of constraints and practices to follow. It is just one way to get started on the road to constant improvement; many others are possible, but it is a good and easy-to-understand way. We will step through how an organization could think about organizing the ALL way.

The Value Stream – The Primary Circles

In classic Lean style we focus on the Value Stream:

External Customer Circles. First we identify our customers, try to understand who they are and what would be the best way to categorize them in order to serve them. What kind of grouping of customers makes most sense in order to serve them well. We call these groups of customers “External Customer Circles”. Our understanding of the Circles is expressed in a Manifest.

Internal Customer Circles. Then we design and form Circles in our organization whose job it is to serve the respective External Customer Circles optimally; people with the best competencies we can muster. We call these Internal Customer Circles, they operate on the edge of the organization, touching the real world of customers out there, sometimes they are also called Agile Customer Circles. Circles in the organization are modelled with inspiration from the classic self-managing Scrum Teams, more on these later. Such a Circle also has a Manifest, describing what it does and why.

  • An Internal Customer Circle will sometimes require more people to fulfill the service request from its Customer Circles than one small team can accomplish (5-9 empirically known to be most effective) . It may then choose to implement the “Scaled-up” pattern where there are more than one tactical Team working on delivering products and services.
  • Internal Customer Circles have Relationships to External Customer Circles, minimum of one. Such a relationship also has a Manifest describing in detail what kind of services are delivered.

Center Circles. Usually the Internal Customer Circles cannot deliver the requested products and services alone, they would become too big and we would lose the benefit of the tightly knit Team in the Circle. Therefore we introduce Circles in the center of the Organization, these do not have customers in the external world, but instead they have other Circles in the value stream as their customers.

  • These Circles also have relationships with other Circles, this defines who can Delegate deliverables to whom. Such relationships have Manifests describing the nature of these Delegations.
  • When deciding on the design of the Circles, their competencies and hence the necessary Delegations that happen, there is a balance to be struck. CIrcles should have “High internal coherence and low external coupling.”
  • Center Circles will often serve multiple other Circles, they therefore have to operate in what is called a “Scaled Down” way, with one Team serving multiple input streams of requests and delegations. The prioritization of what to do next becomes more complicated as multiple – often conflicting – interests have to be balanced.
  • The functions that in traditional hierarchical organizations are implemented as staff functions, such as administration, finance, accounting and human resource will normally be placed in service oriented Center CIrcles.

Supplier Circles. When dealing with suppliers of non-trivial components to the Value Stream of the organization it is helpful to include these as circles and precisely define the relationships with them.

All these Circles together are called the “Value Stream”, but also the Primary CIrcles or the Level 1 Circles. The most effective would be if each External Customer Circle would be fully served with one Internal Customer Circle, that only would draw on basic services from a Center Circle. That is rarely possible so a lot of effort goes into designing the best Value Stream of CIrcles. It is best to involve those who will work in the Circles in the design of the Structure and Team composition; this enables their engagement and commitment.

Cross Circle resolution – Level 2 Circles

When there are more Circles involved in the Value Stream, the bulk of leadership activities and decisions are made inside the Primary Circles or bilaterally between them. However, from time to time there will be issues and opportunities that cannot be resolved adequately this way. Therefore there is the possibility of Escalation to a set of Circles that have been granted authority to resolve such matters. These are called the Level 2 Circles; their decisions are made from an organization-wide perspective so they may have a bearing on more than one Circle, there are three (3) of these:

Tactical Resolution Circle. This Circle meets from time to time to resolve tactical issues between Circles such as dependencies and impediments. The meeting consists of team members from the CIrcles. In Scrum, this is known as the Scrum of Scrums.

Strategic Resolution Circle. This Circle resolves strategic issues relating to customer requirements, prioritization, product specifications or resource issues. The Circle is composed of the Strategy Owners from the Level 1 Circles in question and are as such not a separate class of managers. It rests with this Circle to take care of long term planning, investments, allocation of funds etc.

Operational Resolution Circle. This Circle is composed of Operations Owners who meet to resolve issues related to process, impediments and improvements that cannot be resolved at the Primary Circle level.

In a larger organization with more than 10 Primary Circles or more than around 200 staff members, it may be helpful to have a set of level 3 Circles above.

Cross Cutting Concerns – Secondary Circles

The Value Stream constitutes the primary objective of the organization. There are however many cross cutting concerns that need to be worked on across the Primary Circles. When this need is permanent, Secondary Circles are created.

A Secondary Circle will typically have a certain area of expertise such as marketing, QA or product Architecture. Those who work in a Secondary Circle come from the Primary Circles, typically participating because they have the strongest competencies in this particular area. So they are not a special class of specialists, but belong and live in the primary Circles.

A Secondary Circle may meet once every week or every second week to deal with work and decisions within its area of expertise. If there is real work to be done in addition to the meetings, it is good practice for the deliverables to be delegated back to the Primary CIrcle  to maintain traceability and visibility.

Secondary Circles are also sometimes called “Communities of Interest” or “Guilds” and are important instruments to make sure that the Primary Circles do not become another kind of silo focused on their own operation.

Transient Circles

Sometimes an organization has to undertake activities that are not part of its normal operation. These are handled in so-called Transient Circles, they may be used for special projects or if a sudden crisis or opportunity occurs. Those working in the Transient Circle belong in the primary Circle, so this work is considered an exception and is signalled to everyone as such. If a project lasts more than 4-6 months and people are allocated more or less full time, the project should be created as an ordinary Primary Circle where people “live” so to speak.

Inside a Circle

An Agile Lean Leadership Circle is largely modelled on the Classic Scrum Team, although Circles may decide to work the Kanban way, or with a mixture of Scrum and Kanban:

There is a fundamental cadence to the work. If the Circle works with Scrum this is called a Sprint otherwise an Iteration. There is a Review cadence where deliverables get reviewed by consumers of the Circle’s services. There is also a Retrospective cadence where the Circle reflects on improvements. There are clear quality standards and definitions of “done”.

There are a few fixed roles in a Circle:

  • There is a Strategy Owner (called Product Owner in Scrum), who prioritizes the work and has the responsibility for the return on investment.
  • There is a Team (called Developers in Scrum), who have the skills and responsibility to actually deliver the Circle’s products and services. Scaled Up CIrcles have more than one Team.
  • There is an Operations Owner (called Scrum Master in Scrum), who has the responsibility for the operations, collaboration and constant improvement.

There is a set of planning, refinement, review and retrospective meetings and normally also a daily tactical standups where the Team stays in sync.

There are some standard, public Artifacts that are always used in the Circle, but the CIrcle may choose to have more:

  • Main Backlog (called the Product Backlog in Scrum) where all the deliverables reside. It is owned by the Strategy Owner.
  • Team Backlog (called the Sprint Backlog in Scrum) where the day-to-day plan for the work unfolds. It is owned by the Team. It is also sometimes referred to as the Tactical Backlog.
  • Improvement Backlog where all impediments and improvements are recorded and prioritized. It is owned by the Operations Owner.
  • Circle Manifest that describes what the Circle is, what it does and how to get its services. This provide a great transparency to the whole organization

Details of Practices

A few of the practices mentioned above deserve some extra explanation:

Delegation. When one Circle requests a deliverable from another it is called “delegation”, for which there is a precise definition of the responsibilities. Among other things the receiving Circle is now responsible for keeping the delegating Circle updated about status changes on the delegated Item.

Escalation. When an inter-Circle issue or a challenge grows bigger than individual Team Members can handle they call on the support of the Operation Owners. If they conclude that this needs to be dealt with in the context of all the Circles, then they escalate it to the appropriate Level 2 Circle.

Secondary Circle. When Circles identify decisions or deliverables that has to be made in unison, they place this deliverable in an appropriate Secondary Circle, for example to decide on the next version of the Organization’s graphic Profile.

Scaled up Circle. Sometimes it makes sense (gives the highest internal coherence and lowest external coupling) to have multiple Team in a Circle working off the same Master Backlog. This of course changes some of the events and meetings and adds complexity, but could still be the best balance.

Values

All of Agile Lean Leadership rests on a few values

  • Purpose, clear and worthwhile
  • Sustainability in all things
  • Resilience in all things
  • Respect for people

The last point means that under normal circumstances no single person dictates terms and everyone honors their commitments. These are the fundamental tenets of self management and are the prime enablers of people’s intrinsic motivation, which, again is absolutely necessary for good results when doing knowledge work in the complex domain.

 

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