Sunday, July 16, 2023

Why Agile Coaches need to care about Delivery Speed

I often come across the sentiment that "Agile is not about speed of delivery." I believe that claim is a severe misunderstanding on what makes a team agile - and worse: it's already an early warning sign that at some point in the future, the Agile Coach will struggle to explain what exactly they're doing. Posing a false dichotomy between Agile and Cycle Time sets up their teams to underperform in comparison to teams coached by someone who understands both the impact of Cycle Time, and how to actively reduce it.

An Agile Coach setting themselves up for failure

Cycle Time Matters

Many traditional organizations I encounter still apply outdated delivery models, often stage-gated with various in-process queues and handovers. When a company takes half a year from demand to release - I'd say they're already well above average. In fact, a one-plus year delay from idea to value isn't uncommon. In such scenarios, managers and stakeholders often request their coaches to actively address time to market as a key success metric. For good reasons.

When we talk about agility, speed of delivery plays a crucial role. Cycle Time, which measures the time from development to production, directly impacts an organization's ability to respond quickly to customer needs, market changes, and emerging opportunities. An organization's agility is closely tied to the ability to rapidly deliver value to customers. The quicker they can do this, the more responsive and competitive they become. It's essential for Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters to recognize that optimizing Cycle Time is not a deviation from Agile principles but rather an integral part of fostering agility.

Reducing Cycle Time has several benefits to agility: First, it allows us to obtain customer feedback faster and more often, enabling them to validate assumptions, make adjustments, and iterate more rapidly. This feedback loop facilitates continuous learning and ensures that the delivered software meets customer expectations and quality standards. Shorter Cycle Times also reduce the delay between occurrence and resolution of risks and issues. Additionally, short cycle times reveal potential bottlenecks and delays. All these factors reduce rework and improve our ability to create value.

Furthermore, actively minimizing Cycle Time enhances adaptability and responsiveness to changes in the market. Rapid delivery enables organizations to iteratively experiment, learn, and adapt their product or service offerings based on real-time feedback. This fosters innovation and competitiveness. Agile Coaches who understand these aspects will guide their teams to optimize Cycle Time as a means to promote agility.

Don't make it a false dichotomy!

Assuming that "Agile Mindset" and "Delivery Time Optimization" are at odds would be a false dichotomy, but let's entertain the thought and see what the long-term consequences would be for a team whose coach would make an either-or decision, and focus on either one, or the other. In our scenario, we will assume that the Delivery Time is currently so slow that management is correct in being concerned - i.e., that the team is struggling to deliver one releaseable increment per month, and that Delivery Time Optimization would orient itself on Minimum Continuous Delivery requirements. These given, let's take a look at business relevant outcomes and how they'd develop over months and years:

Metric Explanation "Delivery Time" Focused Coaching "Agile Mindset" Focused Coaching
Time to Market Timespan between idea and value. Strong - More deliveries, reduced batch sizes and shorter wait times. Faster commercialization. Variable - "Results not guaranteed."
Product Quality Software meeting standards and expectations. Strong - High delivery frequency requires effective quality practices like automated verification. Possibly - No direct measurement or systematic approach to address quality.
Customer Satisfaction Maximizing feedback points while minimizing low-quality experiences. Strong - Rapid delivery with definitive quality verdicts enables better control of dissatisfaction factors. Limited - Limited opportunities to improve customer satisfaction through controlled delivery points.
Feedback Integration Collecting input on ideas and Working Software. Strong - Abundant and timely feedback, potentially multiple times per day, depending on stakeholder availability. Uncontrolled - Feedback effectiveness unquantifiably tied to delivery process effectiveness.
Adaptability and Agility Speed and accuracy in acting upon learnings. Strong - High delivery frequency fosters adaptability and enables effective change implementation. Poor - Limited means to determine the level of adaptability.
Collaboration and Alignment Staying in sync and acting in unison. Strong - Continuous Delivery exposes lack of alignment or collaboration through pipeline failures. Difficult to quantify - "Soft" collaboration with unmeasurable outcomes.
Risk Reduction Minimizing impact of issues and delays. Strong - Mitigation of risks through proactive risk analysis and automated testing. Poor - No inherent risk control mechanisms.


Agile Coaches who discount speed of delivery will struggle

Agile Coaches who primarily focus on promoting the Agile Mindset without actively driving speed of delivery and its enabling technical practices and processes, such as Continuous Delivery, will likely struggle when asked to show clear, measurable outcomes. Here's why:

  1. Lack of Transparency: Stakeholders and decision-makers often require evidence of improvements in key metrics, such as time to market, product quality, customer satisfaction, or change failure rate. Without indicative metrics that demonstrate the effectiveness of technical practices like Continuous Delivery, it becomes challenging to achieve significant improvements in these areas, making it harder for the coach to showcase the impact of their work.
  2. Inability to Improve: Sustainable speed of delivery is a lagging indicator for the adequacy and quality of a team's technical practices. The Agile Coach ignoring speed will limit their ability to help teams meet stakeholder expectations. This leads to missed opportunities, increased lead time, and decreased competitiveness, rendering their coaching ineffective.
  3. Limited Control over Quality and Risk: Teams that don't implement the practices supporting a rapid succession of deliveries will struggle to address quality issues and effectively manage risks. Systematic quality control mechanisms and risk mitigation strategies are essential enablers to consistently delivering high-quality products, hence scrutinizing and optimizing sustainable speed of delivery creates a strong focus on implementing the necessary supporting practices.
  4. Inadequate Feedback and Collaboration: Rapid feedback and effective collaboration are essential drivers of agility. The Agile Coach who solely focuses on the Agile Mindset may overlook the importance of technical practices that enable fast feedback cycles and promote collaboration.
  5. Limited Adaptability and Agility: Agility relies on an ability to adequately respond to changing market dynamics. Sustained delivery speed, supported by its enabling technical practices, is a powerful leading indicator for the level of adaptability and implementing effective change. Without leveraging practices that support rapid delivery and iterative improvement, the coach may hinder the team's ability to learn, adjust, and continuously improve.


The Agile Coach who neglects Sustained Delivery Speed and its incorporating technical practices, such as Continuous Delivery, is much more likely to struggle in demonstrating significant long-term outcomes. They may miss critical gaps in quality practices, feedback mechanisms, collaboration, and adaptability, thus leading to predictable challenges in meeting stakeholder expectations, driving improvements, and effective agility.

Important: This article consciously emphasizes "Sustained Delivery Speed." Our concern isn't the speed of typing, but the inherent capability of minimizing the time required for turning an idea into a high quality release candidate. Cutting corners to get one shipment through the door will quickly undermine a team's ability to maintain a high pace of deliveries - this tactic always results in incidents and failures which devastate a team's ability to maintain their pace. Hence, sustained delivery speed is an aggregate measurement that requires observing many technical metrics "under the hood," such as build time, build failures, incident frequency, recovery rates, and many others.

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