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Digital Strategy
3 min

Infinite Agile: Don’t let a good thing grind you down

by Ryan Horner, Kalev Peekna March 10, 2021
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We love agile. It’s an extremely powerful methodology for producing work and solving problems. But is too much agile a bad thing? It can be. Without realizing it, organizations can slip into Infinite Agile—a state of producing lots of work that’s not always in service of a larger strategy.

Infinite Agile can be hard to detect. After all, progress often feels like success, and activity fuels momentum. As long as actual work is being produced, it’s hard to notice any problems. But it’s important to ensure you’re consistently headed in the right direction. If you chart the right course, and correct when necessary, you’ll ensure what you’re executing continues to align with your overall business goals and objectives.

The first step in preventing Infinite Agile is recognizing the warning signs.

 

Telltale signs of Infinite Agile

  • Teams focus only on tasks that can be solved in short sprints.
  • The backlog is comprised of rebuilding or updating work that’s already been done.
  • You’re seeing lots of churn in your backlog, or you have little visibility beyond the next handful of sprints.
  • You’re building things that aren’t being used.
  • Teams no longer feel like they’re working on anything significant.
  • You are stuck; no tangible innovation.
  • There is no accountability to the strategy.

 

What causes Infinite Agile?

Although all organizations are different, there are three common contributing factors:

  1. Strategy disconnect: This occurs when agile teams have lost sight of the big picture. It could be that the strategy hasn’t been communicated, has shifted, or worse—doesn’t exist. Detached from the strategy, it’s nearly impossible to know which tasks are truly essential, so everything becomes essential.
  2. Sprint tunnel-vision: Some agile teams have adhered so tightly to the sprint rhythms, they see only the tasks that can be completed in a two-week cadence. Or, they neglect opportunities to tackle critical, strategic tasks because they don’t fit within an agile sprint.
  3. Agile misapplication: Organizations get into trouble when they use agile for work that doesn’t align with agile workflows. For example, you can’t develop a design system or reset your strategy in two-week sprints. Similarly, some data-gathering activities—especially explorative or generative research—can’t always be done responsibly on such a tight timeframe. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon agile. Just recognize that different tasks require different approaches and methodologies.

 

What’s at risk?

When you’re in Infinite Agile, you’re really great at executing, but you’re not great at innovation or bringing anything new to market. If you don’t break the cycle, you’ll end up out-positioned and out-maneuvered by competitors. Infinite Agile is also not good for employee morale. Engineers and technologists don’t want to feel like they’re in a hamster wheel, rebuilding the same thing. We all feel the difference between progress and productivity, and the latter can’t supplant the former indefinitely.

 

Breaking the cycle

It starts with strategy. A lot of times, you might be eager to just get a project going and start the work. Resist. Instead, take the time to bring together experts from a wide array of capabilities. Use a process like Design Thinking or Human-Centered Design that allows you to step outside your regular context and cadence. Which specific methodology you follow isn’t important; what’s important is ensuring you engage in an open discovery and ideation process that lets you both see new opportunities and set your priorities.

Then, when the strategy is set, switch to agile to create the roadmap, order your backlog and get the work done. Most importantly, make sure your agile sprint teams are continuously connected to the strategy. Be suspicious of any work that doesn’t align with the vision.

 

Outside perspective

Infinite Agile can be a tricky loop to break. Having a third-party partner can be useful. Our team at One North can help you to examine your vision, form an interdisciplinary approach and make sure your strategy is fed into the agile rhythm in the most effective way.

 

Photo Credit: Lysander Yuen | Unsplash

As Managing Director of Technology, Ryan is responsible for overseeing One North’s strategy related to technical applications, systems and client implementations. He got his start at age seven, programming an Apple IIe.

Last thing you geeked-out about: This happens on a daily basis, oftentimes to the internet of things coming to life and novel uses of the technology-enabled sharing economy – or some combination of the two.

Most unusual job: I grew up on a working farm, so I’ve had lots of unusual jobs: baling straw, sweeping bins, cleaning a cattle barn, etc.

Kalev Peekna is the Chief Strategist at One North, leading the Digital Strategy team. He brings a cross-platform, user-focused approach to innovations in brand development, design, data analysis and technology, and helps clients apply those innovations to their strategic aims.

If I were a vegetable: I would be broccoli. Because I have always wanted someone to call me “cruciferous.”

Most unusual job: Cocktail bartender at a Cabaret

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