Agile vs agile: Understanding the correlation between speed and cadence are vital parts of deciding when agile is the right approach to project delivery.
Have you ever taken a bike ride and really noticed the factors that impact your ability to achieve the right speeds for hills and bends? It might be a mix of conditions such as the wind, the surface you’re on, the grade of the road, and – dare we say it – your own fitness?
Applying the right amount of power at the right time to achieve the optimal speed for the terrain is reliant on numerous factors; what gear you choose, knowing how fast you can peddle, and how good your understanding is of the environment you’re riding in. Of course, your ability to know the likely impact of these factors comes down to how experienced you are as a rider and your understanding of the importance of cadence and the part it plays in the overall efficiency of your efforts.
Experienced cyclists know that there is a difference between speed and rhythm and how to adapt to conditions. The less experienced rider may think that the best way to get up the hill is simply to apply more speed and peddle harder, but not recognise that it’s not always the most efficient approach.
While our cycling analogy may be a somewhat loosely held one, there is a correlation between the importance of understanding the cadence required for different cycling conditions and the way that organisations choose to adopt and then implement an agile approach to project delivery, which is also impacted by different conditions.
So, if you want to suddenly sprint up that hill when you’ve only ever ridden on the flat, there’s likely to be some pain involved – either along the way as you’re forced to adapt to the incline or once you get to the top and realise you may not have been quite prepared enough for the effort.
Agile as a methodology is designed to be adaptive to multiple conditions and drivers to enhance the speed of delivery, but it is most successful when the organisation adopting it understands its own in-built cadence, i.e. its specific rhythm of project delivery.
Speed and Cadence: A Distinct Correlation
Let’s go back to some basics here and start with definitions:
- Speed is the rate at which someone or something moves or operates or is able to move or operate. In the business context, this is about the business’s ability to move and adapt to changing circumstances.
- Cadence on the other hand is about the rhythm at which the business can regularly and consistently delivery projects that effect change.
Just as there are numerous contributors to the cyclist’s ability to accelerate his or her speed (environment, cadence, resistance, and power), the same considerations apply in being able to truly power agile project delivery, for example:
- Environment: Is the organisation really ready for an agile approach?
- Cadence: Does it understand its own rhythm to enable it deliver faster projects?
- Resistance: Are the size of the benefits delivered by a project best achieved by agile – or would a longer-term project be better served by a waterfall approach or possibly a hybrid of both?
- Power: Does the project have the right level of governance with stakeholders who can influence the speed of its delivery and apply the right decision making at the right time?
Many businesses recognise the benefit of being able to deliver more projects quickly however the reality is that sometimes the business isn’t ready or able to move equally as fast. Becoming an ‘upper-case A’ Agile organisation is dependent on the business understand its own rhythm at which projects can be delivered.
Why Speed and Cadence Matter in Agile
When organisations pursue agile as a delivery methodology, it’s typically to facilitate faster delivery, quick wins along the way, and to actively integrate feedback into development as a project is implemented. In any successful agile project delivery, the same two mechanisms as found in cycling come into play: speed and cadence.
It begs the question: If a business isn’t ready or can’t keep pace with the rate of new project delivery, is Agile doomed to fail? The answer is not necessarily. Ultimately, it’s about finding the right framework for speed and cadence to leverage one another to achieve the outcomes needed by the business.
And this is where lower-case agile comes into play. It goes without saying that agile delivery aims to directly increase the cadence of project delivery i.e. more agile delivery = faster cadence = increased speed of change.
So the hypothesis might be then that if we introduce agile delivery into the organisation we will in turn increase the speed at which the business can change. However the dimensions that need to be considered in the equation – i.e. environment, resistance and power – must be factored in first.
Let’s look at each one in turn.
The environment we are referring to is the business conditions being faced. Is the business facing a steep climb such as increased competition, redundant products, rapidly changing customer requirements etc?
The steeper the climb (or larger the challenge) then the increased cadence required to move forward and the larger the change required to retain competitiveness. Whilst the cadence may go up the actual speed of overall business change is slower. This is largely due to the scale and size of change increments delivered through short-term agile projects.
Resistance pertains to the gears or level of resistance required to push the change. Resistance in this case can be seen as the size of change the project delivers. The larger the change the more resistance. This is not a conceptual stretch as in most instances, the larger the change the more stakeholders that feel the impacts of the change and consequently, a higher potential resistance to change.
Finally, there is power. In order to push at a higher gear, a cyclist needs to apply more power and the same applies to projects.
A project that is designed to deliver a larger change requires strong senior leadership as it effects more people and produces bigger change for the organisation. These types of projects require strong governance. Conversely a short, sharp agile project that delivers a small change does not need as much power as the change is smaller and often impacts fewer, meaning the governance can be lighter.
Balancing the Equation of Speed to Cadence to Achieve Agility
If a business wants to move faster as an Agile organisation, there is more to the equation than just project cadence. Our professional view is the speed at which an organisation can effect change can be assessed by looking at speed as the interplay of environment, cadence, resistance and power. Each of these levers needs to be considered (i.e. fit-for-purpose) when selecting the projects to be undertaken and the manner (read: methodology) and governance in which they are delivered.
For example, in a period of consolidation we might look to change the mix of projects and push a higher gear i.e. longer projects that are more complex but deliver larger outcomes, which in turn might mean choosing a few more non-agile projects with larger returns but slower delivery times i.e. reducing the overall cadence.
Bringing it all together, the reality is that not all parts of the business need to have the same cadence or travel at the same speed. Ipso-facto, they do not need to be following the same delivery approach.
When looking at the organisational portfolio of projects, an assessment of the project mix should be made that working together provides the overall speed the organisation seeks. Like cycling on different terrains sometimes the cadence will be high but the overall speed low and vice-versa.
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