Still Struggling to Make Agile Work in Your Company? It Might Be an Alignment Issue

When the tires on your car are not wearing evenly, or the car tends to pull in the wrong direction, that’s a sure sign of an alignment issue—or at least, that’s what any good mechanic would tell you.

And that’s a perfect metaphor for organizations undergoing an agile transformation as well: If the stress and burden of the work are falling unevenly on one group, or if a team seems to be constantly pulling in the direction of its own self-interest, those are signs of an alignment issue, too.

How does an alignment issue happen in organizations? In a previous post, we described how, at a high level, creating and maintaining a product follows a sequence. That sequence has three parts: Business, Development, and Delivery. Each part represents a different cluster of activities. (In waterfall organizations, these parts are discrete stages; in an agile organization, they are more distributed and flow into one another.)

Misalignment in an organization exists when these three elements aren’t moving in the same direction toward a common outcome. More specifically: If one “part” has a different idea of what gets done, who reports to whom, and what gets protected, then there will be more friction and less collaboration. That wastes a lot of energy and funding.

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Tell-tale Signs

Outdated reporting structures: Who do team members report to? Do they feel they have to justify the work they have done during each sprint, rather than showing off what they have built to get feedback? How much hierarchy is there? Does a team’s work have to be pre-approved by one or more “people managers”?

Obscured access: Do developers have fairly straightforward access to the customer and/or product owner? Or do they have to send questions and requests through a chain of people? 

Defensive postures: What are people protecting in the organization? Are some people trying to protect their departmental budget? Their standing in the company? Pet projects? Their job security?

Near-sighted reward systems: Over time, local incentives will trump any sort of collective mission. Are people evaluated regularly as a team, or annually as individuals? Are accolades based on outputs, or outcomes?

Five Tips to Fix Misalignment Issues While Becoming More Agile

If you’re dealing with misalignment, maybe you have a stalled agile transformation on your hands. Or maybe you're just beginning to notice friction creeping in. 

So what can you do? What can you change?

We urge organizations to…

1) Encourage collaboration. Work together collaboratively instead of just handing things off. Yes, this will mean more dialogue and more face-to-face interaction. That’s a good thing; it enables shared understanding, more timely feedback, and better outcomes.

2) Prioritize delivering value over perfecting requirements. Don’t sit on requirements until everything has been specified and perfected. Requirements are never perfect, and trying to perfect them takes an enormous amount of time, causing delays. Instead, focus your “business” activities on having collaborative conversations – including frequent feedback – with your customers and with the people who are “building” the solutions.

3) Get some automation. It’s 2022, folks. Get some tools that will help automate testing and deployment. This will allow you to release more often, which enables more frequent feedback and also frees up your team members from some manual, error-prone “delivery” activities.

4) Move the definition of DONE to the “right”. Developers should not just say “done” when they have checked in some code, for example. The team should be delivering working software to the customer as frequently as possible. So continue to work on moving the definition of “done” as close to the customer as you can. Remember to focus less on outputs (e.g., “code checked in”) and focus more on outcomes (e.g., “customer can use a feature”).

5) Realize you are all on the same team. And that team is “Team Customer.” All parts of the value creation and delivery system should be working for the customer. That might seem obvious, but it’s hard to do in practice when there are competing internal entities with hierarchical authority over one another. And so you must be constantly on the lookout: Are people serving the customer, or are they preoccupied with justifying their actions to management? Can questions be brought to those who can answer them, or do they have to go through several layers of vetting first? These are the kinds of contrasts that reveal whether everyone is pulling in the same direction, or if some are pulling against the others.

We’ve touched on just a few common symptoms of organizational misalignment here. There are certainly others, but we hope there’s something here that you can use right away to start the process of realignment in your organization.

For more helpful tips and tools, we highly recommend you check out our webinar: Why Your Company is On Its Third Agile Transformation…and how to make this one stick. 

Why Your Company is On Its Third Agile Transformation

Lee Cunningham

Lee is passionate about helping organizations deliver great products and services through the practical application of lean, agile, and systems thinking. He works with people at all organizational levels – from executives to team members -- providing insight and practical guidance in meeting the challenges of change...

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