Agile Transformation: 4 Fundamental Tenets that Underpin Success

Agile transformation is a journey that mandates a complete mindset change throughout the organization and across every team. A fallacy nurtured by many companies is that one specific Agile methodology, technology or program approach will deliver the magic elixir that overcomes every challenge, provides instant efficiencies, and fulfills every promise that being ‘Agile’ delivers. However, starting at the ‘how’ without understanding the ‘why’ or the ‘what’ of underlying issues results in complete derailment. Many organizations fail to uncover and address the fundamental strategic components that pave the way toward success. Rather than leading the transformation process with the desired Agile technology or methodology, these organizations would be better served by isolating the best fit methodology and tools based on what they want to achieve. Here, we’ll offer some key steps we advise organizations to embrace to ensure success.

Clearly Identify the Business Driver

Our digital-driven economy makes competition fierce.  Companies that are “lagging” behind competitors seek to regain their competitive stance by solving the problems they perceive they have in operations. In our work, we’ve seen clients undertake an Agile transformation initiative before investing effort to identify the existing problems that contribute to their malaise. Typically, companies undertake an Agile transformation to address delays in delivering product to market or to improve quality of the deliverables. Fundamental to strategy, yet often misunderstood, is the realization there are many ways to become Agile. Sometimes, implementing an Agile method like Scrum or a Kanban model is best suited to provide the basis of Agile. Other times, not.

Be Critical and Honest: Change Requires Courage

In our observation, one of the biggest challenges that surfaces after a “failed” transformation is this:  While companies may understand the overarching problem, they are unable to acknowledge or dissect the deeper issues that exacerbate it.  Part of this derives from the complexity of enterprise change and its impact on diverse teams – implementing any major change can be overwhelming. Because of this, some companies lack the fortitude to invoke the changes demanded during their Agile journey, and nothing affects morale more than failure and dissension.

Whenever a company initiates a transformation to Agile, we advise a deep internal review at the senior management level. It is the role of every senior manager to tear down the organizational barriers that impede change. These barriers can range from bloated decision trees, communication and collaboration challenges, complex business processes, organizational structures that drive conflict, or lack of team empowerment that impede improvement. The internal review must align every senior management member with how they will become Agile and level set expectations and goals.

Build consensus around goals

When a company begins the process of an Agile transformation, they have the best of intentions. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the core principles of Agile – transparency, collaboration, and valuing people over documentation. A common scenario involves senior management establishing goals with minimal or no input from cross-functional teams. This approach ends up creating massive expectation disconnects between management and teams and actually ensures project failure. Because teams need to provide up-to-date pending work volumes, critical production issue detail, and resource availability that impacts how realistic goals are established, management needs to incorporate these variables into their overarching plan.

Senior management should ensure they have a cross-company team established to shepherd the transformation and secure needed input from all levels of the organization. Just as this cross functional team must be in unison with the transformation goals, management must understand the capabilities and limitations of the business so that they can align their teams with overarching organizational goals. This provides the framework that will reinforce the self-organizing team tenet in Agile.

Many organizations choose to involve outside consultants skilled in Agile transformations to help gather organizational expectations and data, orchestrate necessary transformation steps, and bridge communication gaps, aiding in consensus building. Objectivity is critical here; as senior managers navigate the constraints of internal politics, they will require expert advice and inputs to influence and implement significant change. Relying on a program owner who is focused on the broader goal yet maintains a neutral stance within the broader organization will help ensure success.

An external program advisor provides further benefits. Often organizations that choose to pursue Agile transformations themselves make common mistakes—they either appoint an internal champion who now is responsible for both the initiative as well as their day-to-day job or they attempt to split the initiative into component parts which results in only pockets of success and not true change.  Both these strategies set up the organization for disappointing results. Measure and keep measuring: Continuous Improvement

As we stated earlier, Agile is a mindset. There are multiple methods that enable Agile, such as Scrum, Kanban, XP and many more. The predominate, quantitative goal is to ensure that enterprises hone in on the metrics that will drive Agile within their organization and train teams on what to capture and how to report the necessary information. In a majority of cases, organizations have not taken the needed steps to train teams fully on what these metrics mean; this results in group level captured data that has no real use in measurement – or that conveys skewed results. There are very different metrics when using Scrum vs. Kanban, and a company needs to understand these differences to obtain value. For example, in a typical enterprise, the software development group may use Scrum while the production group will leverage Kanban. Scrum will be looking at velocity and timeliness of work being produced. Kanban will be looking at the flow of daily work going through the work process. The two methods together will ultimately foster greater transparency.

A solid transformation has one key attribute – transparency. A company that has true “skin in the game” will track metrics carefully; review metrics frequently; and deploy methods, such as Root Cause Analysis, to dig deep to evaluate and solve the hardest of problems experienced by the company. In the drive for transparency, executives can quickly see real-time information regarding work to be completed versus work that seems to be blocked. The real-time nature allows executives the ability to make quicker and more accurate decisions.

Beware The Agile Paradox: Transformations are never ‘over’

A common failure point in Agile transformations is that companies establish a “date” where the transformation will “end” and they will experience nirvana. This mentality drives all the stated goals to a quick conclusion, and sadly terminates with the realization that “we have failed.“  To successfully undertake a true Agile transformation, organizations must interweave a new paradigm for driving continuous improvement with a completely different mode of moving forward, and commit to functioning forever in this Agile mode. Successful organizations embrace this goal early on and are energized by the results.

Conclusion

Transforming a company to Agile is harder than the words suggest- it requires work and commitment. While many people profess to like the idea of change, they resist when pressed. However, teams that succeed with their transformations see the fruits of their new Agile skills.  One team that was heavily entrenched in waterfall methods experienced increased productivity and ever increasing velocity of work production. This positive result encouraged a much happier and productive team.  Agile is often called a new mindset for a company and a skilled set of coaches needs to be utilized to ensure the practical deployment of the chosen Agile practice.  The final litmus test for success is clear goal setting up front, full transparency, executive support and constant communication in the full organization.