[This post is a sneak preview of my talk at IIL’s Agile Scrum 2020 Online Conference, and is based on my upcoming book “Untapped Agility”]
We’ve been told that to achieve more innovation, more collaboration, or more agility, we need to adopt modern practices. Unfortunately, many of those practices seem fundamentally incompatible a team’s reality on the ground. If the experts say we have to use stable teams, product-based funding, but our current state won’t allow for it, what do we do? Short answer: We adapt. The path forward is to be agile with your agile, to transform your transformation.
Tailoring is management common sense
Much has been written in the project and product worlds about “tailoring” processes and practices, based on the work being done. Let’s pause for a moment to take a look at some key points. The idea of The PMBOK Guide Sixth Edition officially defines tailoring as follows:
“Determining the appropriate combination of processes, inputs, tools, techniques, outputs, and the life cycle phases to manage a project is referred to as “tailoring” the application of the knowledge [of project management].”
That’s a fancy way of saying that each organization should customize its approach to delivering work based on the specific dynamics and demands of the environment.
Moreover, these adjustments are not optional. The guide goes on to say:
“Tailoring is necessary because each project is unique; not every process, tool, input, or output identified is necessary.”
Ironically, if your PMO, Center of Excellence, or other standards group has defined their process playbook by merely copy-pasting a textbook approach from PMI, from Google, or from Spotify… they are violating the ASNI standard for project management.
Tailoring was always core to Agility
Now if you think that point is only for traditional project management and has nothing to do with Agility, then you would be mistaken. The original Agile Manifesto closes out its declaration of values and principles with this very topic, saying:
“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
That’s the conclusion, the climax, the final word. Kind of important.
So whether you come from a formal standards perspective (project management) or a more informal values-based perspective (Agile Manifesto), the expectation is the same: modify how you do your work, based on the situation at hand.
Put another way, if you believe in continuous improvement, then by definition whatever practices you are using are not optimal. If you are still using that fancy new devops method strictly out of the box, then you are simultaneously neither compliant with international standards nor consistent with the spirit of agility. Not adjusting your practices is a double-fail.
Okay, but HOW do we Adjust?
Unfortunately, there is almost zero guidance on how to go about tailoring effectively. Much of the literature in place today strongly advises that you do it but offers no filters, guardrails, or tips for doing so. That’s a problem, because if we don’t make the right adjustments we can get some very unwelcome side effects, such as:
If we don’t adjust enough, we still struggle unnecessarily.
If we adjust it too much, we lose all the benefit we’re trying to get.
How do we customize our practices without diluting their potency or even making things worse? We need to offer people a viable alternative beyond all-or-nothing.
The 3P Tailoring Technique
To do that, we can walk through a simple set of questions to figure out some degree of doing things better:
Listen to their PAIN. Ask the team what is the specific frustration, difficulty, challenge they would face if we were to use a given technique.
Design a PIVOT. Ask the team how might we adjust the technique so that we could get at least some of that benefit.
Here is how the process works in real life.
Tailoring Example for Documentation
Let’s say Maria the Manager wrestles with the excessive documentation generated in regulated, life-critical environments. Here’s how her team might approach that topic in their transformation.
Maria’s Pain. “Experts say documents are wasteful. But we build medical devices. Those documents are how we pass compliance audits, never mind the rigor they foster to prevent tragic mistakes. ”
A colleague explains the Purpose. “Remember, the emphasis of ‘working product over comprehensive documentation’ is to avoid distractions that waste time. I’m sure you can think of how to adjust your documentation practices to save time, without compromising the safety of the work you do.”
Maria’s Pivot. “Well, much of our time is spent using our specifications to convey designs to the builders. But talking is faster than typing. We could accelerate knowledge sharing by including the designers and auditors in our meetings more frequently. Then writing the compliance documents will be more focused on the final product, rather than directing intermediate work. That might improve quality and speed, without losing any of the documentation the government requires. Let’s try this as an experiment for one subset of the overall product.”
That’s how it works. When moving on a journey towards new ways of working, leaders often get confused on how to adopt things like automation, stable teams, or prototyping. By making appropriate adjustments to established practices, you can help your transformation move forward, rather than getting stuck in the false choice of all-or-nothing.
[To learn more on this topic, click here to register for IIL’s Agile Scrum 2020 Online Conference]