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How Systems Thinking Can Be Applied To Agile Transformations

Systems thinking is a popular buzzword today. We hear about it a lot and in different contexts: Healthcare, business, coaching, transformation initiatives etc.In this article, we will try to understand the conceptual basics of system thinking and how it can be applied to the Agile transformation initiatives to get extraordinary results and the influence of system thinking on the agile practices. We will see the common problems that plague Agile transformation initiatives, and what could be an effective solution from systems thinking lens.Systems thinking has already been established as a key management competency of the 21st century. Therefore, it is very rewarding to become ‘System-aware’ and ‘System-wise’.Barry Richmond coined the term ’Systems Thinking’ in 1987. However, this became hugely popular through Peter Senge’s book: ‘The Fifth Discipline’.This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively. Systems Thinking is the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.System thinking examples includes ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants and animals work together to survive, whereas in organizations systems consists of people, structures and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.Whether we want it or not, we are a part of many systems and interact with them on a continuous basis. A family, a team, an organization, an automobile, a tax system etc are examples of some system we are part of and interact with.What is a system?But what exactly is a system and how do we know when we see it? How can we use this to manage our organizations and initiatives better by using this knowledge?A system can be defined as:A group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent parts that forms a unified whole and has a specific purpose.Let’s examine this definition closely and identify the characteristics of a system. These characteristics help in identifying the system:All systems have purposeAll parts of a system must be present for a system to carry out its purpose optimallyThe order in which the parts are arranged, affects the performance of a systemSystems attempt to maintain stability through feedbackWhole is more than the sum of its parts“Whole” and “Part” are relative abstractionsA system is always subject to redefinition by changing the perspectiveCollection or systemSometimes, we may tend to get confused between a system and a collection. When in doubt, always look for the interrelatedness, interdependence and purpose. If any of this is missing, you are more likely dealing with a collection, rather than a system. This may also change based on the assumptions we are making and the perspective of observation. The assumptions define the boundary of the system under consideration.Let’s take an example: multiple types of fruits kept together in a basket is obviously a collection, as there is no interrelation or interdependence between the fruits, neither is there a goal of the fruit basket. However, let us change the perspective  and look at the fruit basket at a microscopic level. In this case, it becomes a system, as certain fruits interact with each other at a molecular level. This intermolecular interaction either aggravates or slow down the decay of certain fruits kept together. This is an example of how a system is always subject to redefinition by changing the perspective.System diversity:To simplify our understanding of the system, the system can be classified based on two factors: Structure (capability to understand) and Behavior (Capability to predict). In terms of structure, a system can be either simple or complicated, and in terms of behavior, a system can be either ordered, complex or chaotic.We generally refer to the system as a combination of two factors, like Simple-Ordered, Simple-Complex, Complicated-ordered etc.An organization can typically be classified as a ‘Simple-Complex’ system. This means that while the structure of the organization can be easily understood (simple), yet its behavior is moderately difficult to predict, primarily because of the presence of human interaction (complex).System ThinkingThis picture summarizes what could go wrong if we are not system aware. When we focus on local optimization and ignore the global impact, we create more problems for the future.It is said that ‘today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions’. This is mainly the result of quick fixes, we create without considering the overall system.Reality can be seen through the following levels of perspectives: Events, patterns and systemic structures. This can be represented as an Iceberg to put the system in context.Events are occurrences we encounter on a day-to-day basis.Patterns are the accumulated memories of the event. When viewed together as a series over time, they reveal recurring trends.Systemic structures are the ways in which the part of the system are organized. The events and patterns are usually generated by these structures.We live in an event-oriented world and our language and actions are heavily rooted at the event level. Our decisions are majorly guided by events. In reality events are the results of deeper patterns and systemic structures. But these are not easily visible. Understanding where to act leads to a higher leverage action. A leverage point is a point where small change can yield large improvements in the system. As we go from events to patterns to systemic structures, the leverage increases.Why is systems thinking importantBetter decisions on the addition or modification of services, or the applications based on how they affect the overall system and business.Understand what is important to the business based on the system.Tools to constitute the interactionsSystem thinking uses some tools like feedback loops and behavior over time graphs to represent the interactions in the system. These can be thought of as the rules of grammar for the language.Application of systems thinking in Agile transformation can help us map the organization as a system using the reinforcing and balancing loops and identify the right leverage points to act. The following points should be considered:Take a systemic view→ draw the system diagramIdentify the central subject that needs attention. As a group, ideate on the different variables affecting the central theme or getting affected by it. Draw the causal loop diagram to identify whether it is a reinforcing loop or a balancing loop.Look out for leverage points→ an area where a small change can yield large improvement in the systemTypically a leverage point at a pattern level will be high in impact than at event level and the one at the systemic structure level will have greater impact, than at the pattern levelLook at the organization as a system and identify the system archetypeDrawing the systemic structure helps in identifying the system archetype. Since structure influences behavior therefore, this knowledge is key to understanding the system behavior and thus the right leverage points.Look for (and address) causes not the symptoms.Although we live in a event driven world, yet as system thinkers, our focus should be on identifying the patterns and systemic structures and act thereon. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions hence localized solutions merely shift the problem from one part of the system to the otherThe following table gives a mapping between the level of perspective, and the action modes. The leverage decreases as we move from top to bottom in the table.Levels of perspectiveAction modeSystemic structuresCreativePatternsAdaptiveEventsReactivePrinciples of system thinking:A system is:Created by the nature or human beingsPhysical, abstract, or humanA whole separated from its environment by a borderAlways remember:The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.Be sensitive towards the compensating feedback: When well-intentioned interventions result in responses from the system that offsets the benefits of the interventions.

How Systems Thinking Can Be Applied To Agile Transformations

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How Systems Thinking Can Be Applied To Agile Transformations

Systems thinking is a popular buzzword today. We hear about it a lot and in different contexts: Healthcare, business, coaching, transformation initiatives etc.

In this article, we will try to understand the conceptual basics of system thinking and how it can be applied to the Agile transformation initiatives to get extraordinary results and the influence of system thinking on the agile practices. We will see the common problems that plague Agile transformation initiatives, and what could be an effective solution from systems thinking lens.

Systems thinking has already been established as a key management competency of the 21st century. Therefore, it is very rewarding to become ‘System-aware’ and ‘System-wise’.

Barry Richmond coined the term ’Systems Thinking’ in 1987. However, this became hugely popular through Peter Senge’s book: ‘The Fifth Discipline’.
Agile TransformationsThis discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively. Systems Thinking is the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.

System thinking examples includes ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants and animals work together to survive, whereas in organizations systems consists of people, structures and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Whether we want it or not, we are a part of many systems and interact with them on a continuous basis. A family, a team, an organization, an automobile, a tax system etc are examples of some system we are part of and interact with.


What is a system?

But what exactly is a system and how do we know when we see it? How can we use this to manage our organizations and initiatives better by using this knowledge?

A system can be defined as:

A group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent parts that forms a unified whole and has a specific purpose.

Let’s examine this definition closely and identify the characteristics of a system. These characteristics help in identifying the system:

  • All systems have purpose
  • All parts of a system must be present for a system to carry out its purpose optimally
  • The order in which the parts are arranged, affects the performance of a system
  • Systems attempt to maintain stability through feedback
  • Whole is more than the sum of its parts
  • “Whole” and “Part” are relative abstractions
  • A system is always subject to redefinition by changing the perspective

Collection or system

Sometimes, we may tend to get confused between a system and a collection. When in doubt, always look for the interrelatedness, interdependence and purpose. If any of this is missing, you are more likely dealing with a collection, rather than a system. This may also change based on the assumptions we are making and the perspective of observation. The assumptions define the boundary of the system under consideration.

Let’s take an example: multiple types of fruits kept together in a basket is obviously a collection, as there is no interrelation or interdependence between the fruits, neither is there a goal of the fruit basket. However, let us change the perspective  and look at the fruit basket at a microscopic level. In this case, it becomes a system, as certain fruits interact with each other at a molecular level. This intermolecular interaction either aggravates or slow down the decay of certain fruits kept together. This is an example of how a system is always subject to redefinition by changing the perspective.

System diversity:

To simplify our understanding of the system, the system can be classified based on two factors: Structure (capability to understand) and Behavior (Capability to predict). In terms of structure, a system can be either simple or complicated, and in terms of behavior, a system can be either ordered, complex or chaotic.

We generally refer to the system as a combination of two factors, like Simple-Ordered, Simple-Complex, Complicated-ordered etc.

An organization can typically be classified as a ‘Simple-Complex’ system. This means that while the structure of the organization can be easily understood (simple), yet its behavior is moderately difficult to predict, primarily because of the presence of human interaction (complex).

System Thinking
system thinkingThis picture summarizes what could go wrong if we are not system aware. When we focus on local optimization and ignore the global impact, we create more problems for the future.

It is said that ‘today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions’. This is mainly the result of quick fixes, we create without considering the overall system.

Reality can be seen through the following levels of perspectives: Events, patterns and systemic structures. This can be represented as an Iceberg to put the system in context.
Levels of perspective

  • Events are occurrences we encounter on a day-to-day basis.
  • Patterns are the accumulated memories of the event. When viewed together as a series over time, they reveal recurring trends.
  • Systemic structures are the ways in which the part of the system are organized. The events and patterns are usually generated by these structures.

Leverage of perspectiveWe live in an event-oriented world and our language and actions are heavily rooted at the event level. Our decisions are majorly guided by events. In reality events are the results of deeper patterns and systemic structures. But these are not easily visible. Understanding where to act leads to a higher leverage action. A leverage point is a point where small change can yield large improvements in the system. As we go from events to patterns to systemic structures, the leverage increases.

Why is systems thinking important

  • Better decisions on the addition or modification of services, or the applications based on how they affect the overall system and business.
  • Understand what is important to the business based on the system.

Tools to constitute the interactions

System thinking uses some tools like feedback loops and behavior over time graphs to represent the interactions in the system. These can be thought of as the rules of grammar for the language.
ToolsApplication of systems thinking in Agile transformation can help us map the organization as a system using the reinforcing and balancing loops and identify the right leverage points to act. The following points should be considered:

  • Take a systemic view→ draw the system diagram
  • Identify the central subject that needs attention. As a group, ideate on the different variables affecting the central theme or getting affected by it. Draw the causal loop diagram to identify whether it is a reinforcing loop or a balancing loop.
  • Look out for leverage points→ an area where a small change can yield large improvement in the system
  • Typically a leverage point at a pattern level will be high in impact than at event level and the one at the systemic structure level will have greater impact, than at the pattern level
  • Look at the organization as a system and identify the system archetype
  • Drawing the systemic structure helps in identifying the system archetype. Since structure influences behavior therefore, this knowledge is key to understanding the system behavior and thus the right leverage points.
  • Look for (and address) causes not the symptoms.
  • Although we live in a event driven world, yet as system thinkers, our focus should be on identifying the patterns and systemic structures and act thereon. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions hence localized solutions merely shift the problem from one part of the system to the other

The following table gives a mapping between the level of perspective, and the action modes. The leverage decreases as we move from top to bottom in the table.

Levels of perspectiveAction mode
Systemic structuresCreative
PatternsAdaptive
EventsReactive


Principles of system thinking:

A system is:

  • Created by the nature or human beings
  • Physical, abstract, or human
  • A whole separated from its environment by a border

Always remember:
The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

Be sensitive towards the compensating feedback: When well-intentioned interventions result in responses from the system that offsets the benefits of the interventions.

Prince

Prince Mishra

Blog Author

Agile, Scrum and Kanban training and coaching , SAFe, CMMI, Process improvement, Metrics, ISO 9001:2008; ISO 27001, Open Source software process

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A Guide to Scaling Scrum

Scrum has been proven to work well for small teams. But the true benefits of Agile can only be reaped if Agile and Scrum are scaled at the enterprise level. However, this is easier said than done. According to statistics, 47% of Agile transformations are not successful. While this is a worrying trend, there are still hundreds of organizations who have got it right and are able to survive the competition by innovating faster, delivering value and adapting to changing markets. How are they doing it? By using scaled Scrum.There are several tools and frameworks available for scaling Scrum at the enterprise level. In this blog, we attempt to look at a few of these.  Scaling Scrum with NexusNexus is among the most popular frameworks for scaling Scrum. According to the Nexus Guide, “Nexus is a framework for developing and sustaining scaled product delivery initiatives. It builds upon Scrum, extending it only where absolutely necessary to minimize and manage dependencies between multiple Scrum Teams while promoting empiricism and the Scrum Values.” How is Nexus different from Scrum? Scrum defines three primary roles: The Product Owner, the Scrum Master and the development team. These three roles work together in one team.The Nexus framework consists of several Scrum teams that work together toward a common product goal and defines the Nexus Integration Team as an additional accountability.  Nexus helps to build on the values of Scrum and also solves the collaboration and dependency challenges that tend to occur between teams in Scrum.Benefits of using Nexus Nexus extends Scrum in the following ways:  Accountabilities: Nexus introduces the Nexus Integration Team, which consists of the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and members. This team is accountable for delivering a workable product at the end of each sprint.  Events: Nexus events aim to add to or supplement Scrum events and serve not just individual teams but also the Nexus Integration Team. The objective of a sprint is to achieve the Nexus sprint goal. Artifacts: Although the teams are different, within the Nexus framework they all work towards a single goal and follow a single product backlog. There’s a high amount of transparency and work is allocated to each team. The Nexus Integration TeamAccording to the Nexus Guide, “the Nexus Integration Team exists to coordinate, coach, and supervise the application of Nexus and the operation of Scrum so the best outcomes are derived.” The Nexus Integration Team or NIT comprises of the Scrum Master, the Product Owner and Nexus integration team members. There are generally three to nine Scrum teams working together in Nexus. All of them follow a single product backlog and work towards delivering a single product. The Nexus Integration Team forms an essential role within Nexus and is tasked with providing transparent accountability among the teams in Nexus.Product OwnerThe Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the product value and the work carried out in Nexus. Their primary task is to order and refine the product backlog. Being a member of the Nexus Integration Team, the product owner will work with all the Scrum teams in the Nexus Integration team. The product owner and the teams work towards better defining and refining the product backlog.Scrum MasterJust like in regular Scrum, the Scrum Master in the Nexus Integration Team is also responsible for ensuring that the Nexus framework is understood by everyone on the team as prescribed by the Nexus Guide.   MembersThe members of the Nexus Integration Team are the Scrum team members who aid the Scrum teams in adoption of tools and practices that will help the team and members deliver value at the end of each sprint that meets the definition of done. Nexus Integration Team membership should be considered more important than the individual Scrum Team membership and members should work towards first fulfilling their Nexus team responsibilities.What are the Events in Nexus?Nexus adds or augments the events as defined by Scrum. The Nexus event durations are like Scrum event durations and are guided by the Scrum Guide.  Nexus events consist of: Sprint- A Nexus sprint is the same as in Scrum, at the end of which a single increment is delivered.  Cross team refinement- The aim of Nexus is to enhance collaboration and reduce cross team dependencies. Cross team refinement helps to make dependencies and responsibilities more transparent. This makes it easier for Scrum teams within the Nexus to clearly identify and deliver their allocated tasks.  Nexus Sprint Planning- Nexus sprint planning will involve the participation of the Product Owner and concerned teams' members from each team. The purpose of the Nexus Sprint Planning is to assign and co-ordinate activities for a single sprint.  Nexus Daily Scrum- This is like the daily stand up in Scrum. Nexus daily scrum is used to identify any issues and track progress. Any issues are immediately prioritized and solved so that they do not hinder the work of the developers.  Nexus Sprint Review- This event is held at the end of sprints to provide feedback on the increment that has been built and on any future updates that have to be made. Nexus Sprint Retrospective- Like in Scrum, Nexus retrospectives are an important part of the project and are used to reflect on how quality and consistency can be improved.  Some Nexus ArtifactsNexus artifacts are the same as Scrum artifacts and when implemented correctly ensure transparency and value maximization. Every artifact is designed to give a commitment. For example, the product backlog is the artifact and its commitment is the product goal. Other artifacts and their commitments include: Nexus Sprint Backlog-Nexus Sprint Goal Integrated Increment-Definition of Done Along with Nexus, LeSS is another popular framework for scaling agile.  Scaling Scrum with LeSS The Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS) framework is an offering from Atlassian and is a framework for scaling Scrum to multiple teams that are working on the same product. The idea behind LeSS is to start with a single Scrum team as defined in the Scrum Guide and then replicate it to multiple teams who are working on a single product. LeSS has earned the label of being “barely sufficient” as it is a simple framework to apply and uses the basic concepts of Scrum to scale.  How do Sprint Planning meetings in LeSS work?  LeSS generally carries out sprint planning in two stages. Sprint Planning One focuses on selecting items that are of topmost priority, solving unanswered issues and defining the sprint goal. The Sprint Planning Two is like the sprint plan of regular Scrum and focuses on creating a plan of action for getting things done.  Daily meeting  The daily Scrum meeting in LeSS is similar to how it is done in normal single Scrum teams and involves team members discussing the work accomplished and the work to be done during the day. It is a time-boxed meeting and helps teams address any issues that may be hindering work.   Sprint Delivery Meeting (Review) The sprint review meeting is an essential part of LeSS and helps teams and stakeholders review the product built during the sprint and suggest changes and new ideas.   Retrospective The retrospective for LeSS is similar to one team Scrum. These retrospectives held at the end of the sprint will help teams to reflect on the progress of tasks, and identify the obstacles that may hinder or impede the overall project.  Let’s take a look at some of the other frameworks that are used for scaling agile. Scaling Scrum with SAFe®The Scaled Agile Framework, SAFe in short, follows the principles of lean and agile and helps in scaling Scrum to the enterprise. It helps to manage alignment, collaboration, and delivery from multiple agile teams to ensure enterprise success. It systematically focuses on applying Scrum at each level of the enterprise, to maximize value and ensure a successful agile transformation.A successful SAFe adoption ensures end-to-end business agility with significant improvements in strategy, delivery, execution and business competencies. It helps organizations overcome competition and ensure innovative business solutions to gain customer trust and partnership. The SAFe framework is continuously improvised in order to help organizations cope with the digital age and ensure that business outcomes are delivered.Scaling Scrum with the Scrum@Scale frameworkAnother framework that allows organizations to implement Scrum at scale is the Scrum@Scale framework. This framework expands on the core principles of Scrum and helps to scale Scrum over a wide range of industries and sectors, ensuring customer satisfaction and creation of successful products. It promotes communication across all teams and departments, and optimizes resources, removes roadblocks and ensures creation of innovative products.A Final Word By driving Agile at the organizational level, companies can gain all the benefits of team-level Scrum at scale. More often than not the principles of team level Scrum are not sustainable at the enterprise level and the transformation fails. Tested and proven Agile scaling frameworks are now able to turn this around, and help organizations scale up the principles and practices of Scrum to become more adaptable, flexible and responsive. Professionals can master these frameworks and help their organization adopt the culture, mind-set and principles of Scrum and agile.  
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A Guide to Scaling Scrum

Scrum has been proven to work well for small tea... Read More

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