You’ve Mandated an Agile Transformation. But You’re Not Done Yet.

“I want us to be a more agile organization. I’ve arranged to get everyone trained. When can we start seeing results?”

That’s a question that a business leader once (more or less) asked me when I was speaking with him about agile coaching. And I will be the first to admit that, for a for-profit business, it’s a natural question to ask.

But notice how there’s some hidden assumptions in there. First, that the leader’s job is to set the vision or make the executive decision (notice how he started by saying, “I want us to be…”?). Second, that the important first step was to get everyone to training. And by extension, he was probably making a third assumption: That it was the job of his employees to then apply what they learn at the training, and that this was what would propel their agile transformation.

If all those were true, then yes, it would be a totally natural thing to ask when results could be expected. The problem is that this gets the order of events in agile transformation completely wrong.

Why Agile Fails

Don’t just take my word that these assumptions are wrong. The industry has proved it.

The 12th Annual State of Agile Report, which polls 1,492 professionals globally from the software development community, has an interesting section on page 11 that looked at the reasons people gave for agile projects failing.

Here’s their chart:Note that this chart is not saying that a certain percentage of agile projects will fail. What it is saying is that, of the projects that did fail, there were certain explanations that came up more often than others.

For example, the explanation that there was a “lack of skills/experience) comes in fourth—it was a reason cited in just 41% of failures. Not now notice the top three reasons given: Organizational culture at odds with agile values; general organizational resistance to change; and inadequate support from management. In other words, the top three reasons why failing projects fall apart have to do with culture and leadership.

What this means is, if you are a leader near the top of the org chart, a lot of the responsibility for a successful agile transformation falls squarely on your shoulders. It goes beyond mere vision casting, or providing resources for the transformation. It takes a completely different approach to leadership to begin with

Agile transformation doesn’t just come from the top, it starts at the top. So you need to take a long, hard look at your own leadership and ask to what degree you are willing to change.

An Assessment Can Kickstart a Successful Agile Transformation Process

In fact, when my colleagues and I begin a coaching engagement, we typically start with an intake survey to try to assess how ready an organization is for a full agile transformation (and what challenges we can reasonably anticipate). I thought it would be good to give a taste of the sort of questions we ask during that intake, and what the answers mean for the project going forward.

(And I’ll note here that, although these are offered more to leadership in the C-suite, they are not bad questions to review if you are in more of a mid-management position, and have just discovered that “agile is going to be expected of you soon.”)

#1. Are you willing to change?

This might seem like an obvious one; but just as the on-phone tech support knows it’s wise to ask anyway if a machine is plugged in and switched on, it’s worth asking if you are willing to change, too. If the idea of a big change makes you uncomfortable, it will likely make your managers and other employees uncomfortable, too. In fact, your discomfort with change will be picked up on by others. Resistance to change is contagious.

So be honest with yourself and your teams up front. Just how much are you willing to change? And what do you hope to get in return for the comfort and security you are losing?

#2. How much are you willing to change your leadership style?

Agile approaches tend to flatten hierarchies and re-assign tasks that have traditionally been the purview of management. That in itself takes some adjustment. But even for the people at the top of the org chart, an agile transformation is likely to challenge your typical leadership style.

For example, leaders have to be much more willing to resist micro-management and let teams self-organize. They also need to refocus on clarifying strategies, identifying opportunities, and removing institutional roadblocks and obstacles so that teams are empowered to deliver consistent, high-quality work. All of this takes a shift in perspective about what teams do, what leadership does, and what the tools are to get there.

If you want to see the kind of “mindset shift” that is needed in agile, I recommend our article on mindset shifts. And if you want a more unconventional approach to leadership, again I recommend our Dangerous Book for Leaders, which you can download for free with a valid email.

#3. What is your role in this transformation?

Again, just because you’ve mandated a move or pivot to agile does not mean your part is done. It has only just begun.

For example:

  • How much will your culture have to change? Who are the influencers who can get you there? Who will be hardest to “bring around”? What can you do to lead by example here?
  • Will you be the one in charge of re-assigning roles? If so, how will you determine how that is done? If not, who will be responsible, and what do you do if they encounter resistance?
  • Are you adapting existing teams to an agile approach, or forming new teams? How well do they understand their new roles and procedures? What training do they need? (Yes, it’s still a consideration—just not the only one!)

#4. What skills will you need to learn to do this?

We all know that leadership consists, in part, in having mastered a set of leadership skills. Sometimes those skills are specific to your context and situation. So do you have the skill set needed to see an organization through to the other end of an agile transformation?

Here are some:

  • A good basic understanding of agile values and principles 
  • Motivating an agile workforce (and doing so consistently) 
  • Spotting talent that can work in an agile environment
  • Recruiting that talent successfully
  • Knowing how to support agile teams and break down organizational silos

If you don’t have all of these skills, that’s OK. It does not mean you cannot proceed. It just means there will be some areas where learning must occur. And practice.

#5. What is going to be the most painful part of the change?

Every change in an organization has its “pressure points.” You will need to identify those in your organization when it comes to reorganizing around agile principles.

For example:

  • Who will feel uncomfortable in a new role? Who will feel a loss of power, or security?
  • How will the cadence of work need to change? Will sales and marketing align with production?
  • How will accountability be enforced? And by whom?
  • Who will have client access?
  • In what ways will budgets change?
  • Which people are likely to pursue other opportunities rather than take on the challenge of changing?

Being honest about the pain that comes with change will not only help you anticipate problems, it will also help you communicate about those pain points. Sometimes, simply having people understand a particularly painful challenge is enough to reassure them, even if the challenge is not totally solved yet.

Does Your Team Need a Transformation-Readiness Assessment?

Of course, the previous questions are just a taste of what we do during an assessment. We ask other questions, too. I picked these out because they are the ones that usually get leaders to open up and be candid about change management in their own organizations. Once we start talking about willingness to change (and the pain that comes with it), it makes the roadmap for an agile transformation that much clearer.

We’d love to discuss our agile coaching with you, which starts with such an intake. Or, if you’re not ready, check out some of our other leadership articles.

James Nippert

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