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Agile Australia 2011 Series - Incrementality versus Quantum Leap transformation

‘Incrementality’ is a key concept we applied to our agile transformation. Incrementality, I define, as the ability to make small changes, monitor the effects and feed the results into the next decision to make a small change. This is the underlying concept that allows retrospectives to produce very effective outcomes for agile teams.

To illustrate I use my swimming analogy. I’m a pretty good swimmer, or at least I thought I was; I’ve been swimming for a long time and was able to swim far distances, get good exercise and even compete in amateur events such as mini triathlons, using my long practiced swimming skills. I had never had formal tuition in swimming, post the usual childhood swimming lessons that every kid in Australia - a country girt by tempting and dangerous beaches - seems to receive as a baseline.

I decided to get some swim coaching at the pool over the road from my workplace. Every lesson I would get in the pool and my coach Laura would make tiny adjustments to my swimming; such as the angle that I speared the water with on entry, the shape my arm made as it pulled through the water, or a drill on just one small part of the stroke that I practiced until I could incorporate it into the entire stroke. With each small change or adjustment that I received, Laura would instruct me to try it for a few laps, she would then stop me and ask some questions. “Did I understand what she was trying to achieve with the change? Could I feel the difference? Could I see the improvement in my stroke?” In this way Laura improved my swimming ability over a period; the length of my stroke was longer, I could pull through the water much faster, and I was much more efficient in the water - covering the same distance with more speed and less energy. Laura moved me along the improvement curve by taking what I could already do and incrementally improving it with small changes faster than if she were to throw out my inherent stroke and start from scratch.

Incrementality then, is this ability to move faster along the improvement curve by making tiny changes, inspecting the results and allowing results to influence the next tiny adjustment.

Quantum Leap improvements, on the other hand, is what I classify as major ‘state changing’ improvements. In a world of agile transformation I equate this to major spend, and a far reaching program of transformational change that can potentially carry with it a higher cost. I don’t disagree that this can also result in a move along the improvement curve, and the results could be effective and even stunning. But it also implies high impact which can translate into high risk of failure. It’s not an invalid approach to an agile transformation however you don’t have to take a Quantum Leap approach to transform. Incrementality can work for you just fine for using agile techniques or to commence your agile transformation.


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