Agile Transformations and the Chicago Cubs

If you live in or near Chicago or have been paying attention to baseball this year, you know that the 2015 Chicago Cubs have made an amazing turnaround. I have been following the Cubs and have noticed several ways that they compare to a successful Agile transformation.

The culture has changed

The Cubs new manager, Joe Maddon, has instilled a sense of transparency, accountability, support and fun. One of the most important and difficult aspects of an Agile transformation is changing the culture. When a transformation receives top down support, it helps to motivate the teams and greatly increases the odds of success. Agile is a different way to work than waterfall, for example, and it makes some people uncomfortable because letting go of command and control isn’t easy. The team needs to be empowered to make decisions, but also know that they are held accountable. A culture that allows failure because it results in learning is important. Teams need to feel comfortable to try new approaches so they can find what works best for them.

Cross-functional teams

The Cubs have many players that are able to switch positions throughout the game. Even in the playoffs – the most important time of the year – people are playing several different positions in one game. Key players get injured and the team doesn’t skip a beat. Applied to Agile, cross-functional teams help ensure that team members are not working in silos and increases collaboration. Spreading knowledge and skills across the team helps them thrive and provides the ability to be more dynamic and responsive to change. There is less concern when someone uses PTO or gets sick because team members have the ability to play several roles.

Keep it simple

“I always talked about simplicity” and “The simpler solution is probably the better one to go with” are a couple of things that Maddon has said this season and he’s also referenced Occam’s razor (’The simplest solution is usually the correct one’). This attitude is very important for an Agile transformation because organizations and teams are trying to transition from a very detailed, let’s-get-everything-defined-up-front kind of attitude. With an Agile transformation, identifying an MVP (minimum viable product), writing small user stories that are expressed in the language of a customer and emphasizing face-to-face communication are examples of how keeping it simple helps to be successful. Building in short iterations and then inspecting and adapting help make the process more simple.

Just in time planning

When the Cubs started the season, Wrigley Field was under construction and several of their key players were not even on the team. The Cubs did not need everything  in place to start the season. They continued to build on their stadium and their team as the season went on. This is a key lesson during an Agile transformation. The notion that all requirements do not need to be detailed before the project has started can be difficult when you’re new to Agile, but a just-in-time process will keep the team focused and help avoid waste. A key aspect of Agile is learning as you go and adjusting the plan based on what you learn. Short iterations, having a few sprints worth of stories groomed and using retrospectives help teams be nimble and adjust on the fly.

Please let me know what you think, and Go Cubs.