“The map is not the land” or, to put it another way, to get something explained (however precise and accurate) is quite unlike experiencing it for oneself; it is not the real thing. The IT community has traversed the Agile terrain for the past two decades. Why? Necessity. Survival. Growth.
As Information Technology moved from the electronic age to the information age, demands on (and for) an IT team sky-rocketed with the growth, acceleration and advancements in technology. There was no choice but to adapt at the pace of change: to be either Agile or to be obsolete. Today, technology is interwoven throughout the work of the entire organization. Companies are holistically facing many identical challenges as well as in Sales, Marketing, Operations, HR, Services as in Finance that were once thought unique to the IT culture.
What can we learn about Agile from the software development community and transfer into other areas of work? Read on.
A “manifesto” is a declaration of aims. The Agile Manifesto is an overarching yet masterfully simplified set of targets or priorities rendered highly adaptable across all disciplines. Integrating this scheme of prioritization across the entire company landscape synchronizes actions and reinforces values that enable quick, confident, smart, aligned, dynamic decision making. There is neither a person within a department, a department within a company, a company within an industry, an industry within a sector, nor a sector within the economy that does not benefit from aligning priorities.
Why? Everywhere we learn about the power of choice; the potency of discernment.
As Steve Jobs put it:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
The manifesto gives us the map. Now it’s time for us to explore the land itself. After the first and second priority covered in the previous episodes, this third guideline in the Agile Manifesto advises us to prioritize customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Let’s review its real meaning:
What is a customer? And why is collaborating with customers important? Certainly, you have heard that “the customer is always right,” but are they really? Henry Ford sums it up quite aptly in his famous “faster horse” quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Customers can be defined in myriad ways. Ultimately, they are organizations, but primarily people with needs and the means to choose, that is to accept OR reject, what you are offering. Accepting your offering, customers exchange or transact, in order to receive. They use or consume the value that you provide. Customers are external to your organization and are the fulcrum in facilitating the relationship between supply and demand.
Break your paradigm, your caricature of the word, the label, “customer” and understand them as the powerful, influential, necessary, primary role they play.
Actually, there are no internal customers. Setting up structures that reinforce “internal customers” will create barriers and power hierarchies between ‘departments.’ Internal team members are colleagues, all working for the benefit of the external customer. The customer is the boss of your organization and has the power to keep you in or put you out of business. A good reason to prioritize collaboration!
There is a perceived value in what you deliver to your customers. The precise nature of that value is different for every customer, each being in a unique situation of their own. The ability to discern the inherent value of your products and services comes through collaboration with your customer. Learning what the essential value is for your customer helps you better understand and interpret the need (faster horse or an alternate mode of transportation?) to guide and refine the delivery.
Collaboration is different from negotiation or transaction.
Arriving at a mutual understanding, what we are able to create together is stronger than what can be “ordered” in isolation. The world has moved away from static, commoditized goods and services. The actual facts of your customer’s unique situation are relevant. The needs, the value, the constraints and the problem to solve, when personally understood will enable your team to create real value and differentiate your organization in remarkable ways.
Saying NO to the unessential, so that we can compose a shared vision and say YES to a truly valued solution. That is partnership, the basis for lasting customer relationships.
In this sense, I was always impressed about Toyota´s attitude toward their dealers, which is far from how the majority of companies see their final touch points with customers:
Dealers are the front line where Toyota’s “Customer First” policy is directly observed. Toyota and its dealers share the value of their products/services and always work as one to enhance customer satisfaction based on a strong relationship of trust through a close two-way communication.
Contracts are ‘agreements intended to be enforceable.’ In Episode II we talked about the subordination of comprehensive documentation to working on the product, with the whole POINT being the delivery of value to the customer. If the point is mutual understanding of value and the shortest distance to delivery, then every second spent negotiating the terms of delivery of that value is one less second applied to the discovery of it.
Negotiating contracts and collaborating with customers are but two ways out of many to accomplish the goal: shared understanding. If I say BLUE, an image comes to mind for you and an image comes to mind for me. They may be the same, they may be different. If I say blue PMS299, we will be closer to shared understanding of the shade. If you and I arrive at a shade while mixing paint together, discussing how, and the conditions in which it will be used: mutual understanding.
Experience through collaboration will compose an understanding far more agile than any stagnant contract.
What I experience with the best companies I am working with right now, is that we are currently in an age where you work with your users and customers to find out the best solution, and in doing so you not only solicit their feedback, but you show them you are human and you care by actually having a conversation with them. While some people do not deign to have conversations and only want to be seen as experts, others are more humble and realize that it is OK to actually have a conversation instead.
When I work with teams that do not engage in any conversation with users and customers and with others that do, the ones that do get a lot more feedback to go on while seeding their features and getting a LOT more attention in the value-delivery system. The ones that do are enabled and powered by real conversations for continuous deployment and quick iteration which result in higher user and customer satisfaction.