How “Good to Great” applies to agile software development

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Maybe you read it long ago, or it’s been on your “to read” list for years. Or maybe you’ve never heard of it: The book “Good to Great” by James C. Collins. It describes how companies move from being average to great and how they can fail to make the transition. So, what does all this have to do with agile?

The book describes three main stages:

  • Disciplined People
  • Disciplined Thought
  • Disciplined Action

Disciplined People

In this section, Jim Collins talks about “Level 5 Leadership”:

Level 5 leaders are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the work –not themselves– and they have the fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.

I usually refer to such leaders as “Servant Leaders”. These are the people who need to be in charge of your organizations. Managers only interested in micro-management and power-games, should not be put into critical roles!

In addition to “Level 5 Leadership”, Jim Collins talks about “First Who…Then What”:

Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the key seats before they figure out where to drive the bus.

I couldn’t agree more: It’s of paramount importance to make sure you have the right people on the team. It’s better to wait (and take on the extra work) while searching for the right one rather than taking just anybody. And, I can hardly think of anything more toxic than having the wrong people. It sucks the life and morale from your whole team. Think of the people you want to work with first. Everything else comes second.

Disciplined Thought

Disciplined thought, as described by Jim Collins, is extremely helpful in focusing on the right thing. He talks about the so called “Stockdale Paradox”:

Retain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end,
regardless of the difficulties, AND AT THE SAME TIME have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current
reality, whatever they might be

I’ve seen this as one of the most important traits of any successful team. Only if you’re always brutally honest with yourself, can you start changing things for the better. But, you’ve got to trust in your abilities to change things for the better – otherwise you despair. Retrospective meetings and root cause analyses are perfect places to “confront the brutal facts”.

When talking about “The Hedgehog Concepts”, things get a little more complicated.

The Hedgehog Concept is an operating model that reflects understanding of three
intersecting circles: what you can be the best in the world at, what you are deeply passionate about, and what best drives
your economic or resource engine

This is very important, but very advanced. You need to have a very self-conscious organization or team to be able to touch these underlying truths. But, knowing about them and working toward clarity in those “three circles” never hurts.

Disciplined Action

The first step of disciplined action is creating a “Culture of Discipline”:

Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action – operating with freedom within a framework of responsibilities

This perfectly describes a very important cornerstone of any agile process: Self organizing teams and disciplined engineering: Test automation, and easy to change architectures. There can be no success without a “Culture of Discipline”!

In the last section, Jim Collins talks about “The Flywheel”. The path to excellence is not opened by an epiphany but by constantly “turning the flywheel” until you have so much speed that it catapults you into regions of excellence you’ve never been able to dream of. This is really one thing I experience time after time when introducing agile practices in any team or organization: At the beginning it seems you’re only baby stepping and hardly making progress. But, as soon as a team learns the importance of ownership, clean code, and real team work, they reach a speed and quality with their results that is astounding. No one would have thought such great things to be within reach of the team.

Reading from “Good to Great” really opened my eyes in many areas. A lot of points resonate with my experience in working together with high performing agile teams. And mastering the hedgehog concept is a deeply powerful thing to guide your organization. Have you read the book? What are your thoughts? Please share them with us in the comments.

If you want to assess your organization in terms of the above concepts you can use Jim Collins’ Diagnostic Tool (a PDF document describing the concepts and asking you a few questions for self-assessing your current situation)

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