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The Agile Social Contract


Ryan is founder and CTO of Rally Software. He can be contacted at www.rallydev.com.


Are you preparing your organization to "go Agile"? Have you personally committed yourself to an Agile initiative? Or are you planning to have the teams figure it out and report their successes to you?

Agile software development has been around for a while. It is probably fair to say that it has crossed the chasm and is truly mainstream, at least as far as being accepted in the IT lexicon. That may be why you are now cautiously ready to make your move. But what does it really mean to "go Agile"? What books have you read? Which case studies gave you the guidance to move forward with your initiative? Do you really understand what your teams will be doing? Do you, in turn, know what YOU will be doing? What are the most important actions to take in adopting Agile? In fact, do you have anything at all to do in the adoption since you've heard it is just a development group activity with engineering practices?

Through Rally's work over the years helping organizations large and small adopt Agile, we've come to figure out some fundamental components of what success looks like. Yes, there are roadblocks and challenges. And Agile is not a silver bullet. Yet we believe Agile can bring increased productivity, higher quality, increased ROI, faster customer feedback, and higher morale. How does this happen? What is at the core of this success? Two simple tenets: commitment and a disciplined path for Agile rollout.

What I Mean by Commitment

We can understand how commitment works at the team level. Agile teams commit to delivering a set of features from a prioritized backlog every timeboxed iteration. They then make a daily commitment on what they will do toward the successful completion of their iteration commitment. At the end of the iteration, the team demos what it was able to complete of its commitment. After review and retrospection, the Agile team then moves to its next iteration, planning what its commitment will be for the next timebox. This team commitment is at the heart of Agile

Where do you fit in with this Agile work? You too must have an Agile commitment. At a high level, transition commitment is often called "executive championship," a "funded business case" or "executive buy-in." To me, these are soft commitments; they are pushed down the organization where the real commitment is enforced. In Agile, the opposite is true. What is really required for Agile success is a commitment I call "The Agile Social Contract." As the lead of an Agile rollout, you create this Agile social contract with the stakeholders and the teams, to answer the question "What is in if for us, and what is your commitment to us?"

The Agile Social Contract

This notion of a Social Contract is not mine. Isreal Gat is my mentor on the topic and forms the background of its use. It was a pleasure of mine to meet and work for Israel Gat at BMC back in 2005. I learned about his Social Contract in his office at BMC, but you can read about it on his blog in two posts "A Social Contract for Agile" and "Addition to the Social Contract." What you notice quickly about his contract is that it addresses the true elephant in the room. "If I do this for you, am I going to lose my job?" To me, this declarion of commitment hits at the source of much of the fear, uncertainty and doubt that accompanies any organizational initiative. And, as in Israel's case, it is all the more important to offer this commitment given the economic challenges occurring right now. The Agile Social Contract can't answer the employment question directly, but it does spell out the issues and commitment with empathy and consequences.

To paraphrase Israel:

We have to become more competitive, and Agile is the approach that does this by increasing value delivery, quality and reducing costs. It cuts cost by making the operations cheaper. If we do not do this, none of us will have a job. You might still lose your job to a cheaper labor source. But the chances are lower with good Agile skills. So, I am going to invest in you with training and professional development to increase your skills in an area that is very marketable. In return, I want you to support this effort with everything you have.

This economic imperative may not be the setting that everyone is facing with their Agile rollout. But this type of contract is one that gets everyone rowing together. As Israel noted, this is leading from within. What if your organization is doing well and not feeling this type of economic downturn pressure to adopt Agile? I would suggest that you either find a strategic imperative that you enable through Agile. Or resign yourself to a long boat ride of trying to gain true commitment and real Agile adoption. With the commitment you offer via an Agile Social Contract such as Israel's executive level one, your teams can offer their commitment at the team level. One level of commitment sustains the other. This is key to your Agile success

A Disciplined Path for Agile Rollout

With a clear Agile social contract, the entire organization can follow a very simple, step-wise adoption process to successfully adopting agility beyond the team level. This process and its success are in your hands. Your Agile Social Contract binds you to commit to all it entails. In return, you will reap the benefits of Agile you had contracted to your organization, the stakeholders, and the teams.

Jean Tabaka and I have written and spoken at the Agile conference about Flow-Pull-Innovate, as a Lean model for successful Agile rollout. It is a simple structure that guides your scaling and maturing of Agile team to teams of teams, to the entire organization. Our five-step process works incrementally and iteratively to mature your organization's level of agility, level of discipline and realization of benefits. These steps are discrete transition states for any team, program or organization. Organizations that understand these steps are very effective at developing strategies to move states quickly and efficiently. That is, they inspect and adapt without wasteful thrashing and churn. These firms plan and experiment with changes in the tools, techniques, methods and infrastructures that prove and enable these states at a small scale before moving to the entire organization.

Figure 1: Pull Innovate Model for Agile Maturing and Scaling


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