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What Is Agile Transformation?

Reading: What Is Agile Transformation?
What Is Agile Transformation?

Is Agile Transformation simply about making a culture shift, or should we start with processes and go from there? Most tend to think it’s one or the other. But what does it really take to enable successful Agile Transformation? We’ll explore the answer in this blog.

Starting With Culture Change

Because people tend to resist change, culture-first Agile Transformation can be a tempting way to get started. But it’s more than just culture that makes change hard to accomplish in an organization—there’s a complex set of constraints that actually create the complexity around it. So if we want people to be open to change, what we have to do is remove the impediments in the way of achieving our goals. 

The problem is that a mindset of change—without proper guidance on how to form cross-functional teams, build refined backlogs, properly identifying what needs to be measured and controlled, and implementing those changes—often results in people simply “going through the motions” of Agile. People may be saying the right things, and maybe even doing the right things, but still not achieving the business outcomes they want. 

This is exactly why a culture-first mindset erodes confidence in both Agile and Agile methodologies. 

Starting With Process Change

Often, Agile is implemented as a process change. This happens when you have people go through training and then optionally give them support from coaches to help sustain the new things they’ve learned. A process-first Transformation is predicated on the assumption that adopting team-level practices will yield—through iteration and retrospective—an understanding of the impediments that are preventing true Agility. It also assumes the team will be able to identify and resolve the root cause of those obstacles. 

The challenge with this approach is that many of the structural, organizational, technical, and governance issues are beyond the purview of a single team. While the team may see impediments, it’s unlikely they have the agency to actually do anything about them. Many impediments at this level require executive support, funding, and time for them to be removed. In the interim, simple process adherence results in teams going through the motions of Agile without deriving any real benefit. 

Creating a Foundation for Change

Agile processes and culture require a certain kind of ecosystem to effectively yield the promised business benefit. Agile necessitates a specific team formation strategy and a clearly articulated strategy for what we’re going to form those teams around. It necessitates a specific strategy for how requirements are defined, how those teams will process the requirements, and how they will deliver them to their customers. Agile necessitates that we measure progress a certain way. 

Without the right fundamental ecosystem in place—and the right system of delivery—no amount of process and culture will solve the problem. Failing to install the right environment for Agile to thrive within will work against everything you do to apply new culture or processes. 

If you start with culture, you’re betting that changes in attitude will drive changes to systems and practices. If you start with practices, you’re making a bet that those practices will reveal issues that teams will be able to solve independently. 

Things to Keep In Mind

That said, this isn’t easy—it’s an uphill climb. There’s a reason so many organizations start with culture or process. We want to believe that if we simply point people in the right direction, they’ll do the right things. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and the momentum of the company often gets in the way. 

As an Agile change agent, you need to identify the constraints in the system and proactively work to overcome them. Sure, Agile is about inspecting and adapting, but—for the most part— 80-90% of the things that will get in our way are knowable up front. It’s a good strategy to be upfront about dealing with issues we know we’ll encounter during the process. 

Size of Organization

The strategy you use for Transforming a single team is different from the strategy you’d want to use for a Fortune 100 company…or even a mid-size company of 300 product developers. If you’re leading a group of six to eight people, sending them to culture school or Scrum school, along with a little coaching, this might be sufficient. 

If you’re Transforming 300 people working across an integrated product suite…you’ll need to approach your Transformation with a greater degree of intentionality. If you’re Transforming 12,000 people in a Fortune 100 company, the level of structure, planning, and coordination you’ll need can be overwhelming. Knowing these types of Transformations are different is a key insight necessary for crafting your plan. 

Resistance to Change

Resistance to change comes in lots of shapes and sizes. When most people think of resistance, they think of managers that don’t want to change. People that are stuck in old ways of doing things and have no interest in learning or getting better. More often than not, your leadership wants to adopt Agile and realize all the benefits of doing so. They might not know how; they might misstep; but the desire and intention are there. More than likely, you’ll have the support of your senior leadership team and maybe even the support of your execution team, but middle managers will get in the way, because they don’t know where they will fit in this new world. 

Dependencies

Dependencies in organizations kill Agility. Anytime one person has to communicate with another person, it’s more difficult to change. Therefore, our ability to remove dependencies is a key part of our longer-term Transformation plan. 

But, dependencies are everywhere. An Agile Transformation Change Agent has two choices. Either remove dependencies or manage dependencies. You cannot have it both ways. 

Removing dependencies will increase Agility, but unmanaged dependencies or dependencies discovered late in the process, will create unmanageable chaos. If you are overwhelmed with dependencies, or dependencies are getting in the way of delivering product in a reliable and predictable manner, your Transformation plan will have to address how to manage dependencies now and how to break them in the future.

Overcoming Barriers to Agility

The trick isn’t to just teach people Agile. We have to find a way to systematically overcome the structural, procedural, and cultural barriers that are continuously getting in their way. That problem can either be solved top-down, bottom-up, or someway in between. In our experience we’ve found that removing the impediments will require executive support, dollars, and time. You’ll need engagement from the senior leadership, middle management, and the people on the ground doing the work.

Furthermore, transforming your organization isn’t trivial…and it certainly isn’t easy. You’re going to need a plan. Yes. A plan. You’re going to need a way to measure progress, demonstrate results, and to justify your investment economically. You’ll need a way to establish hypotheses, validate and test those hypotheses, and pivot when things don’t go as you might expect. You’ll need a way to keep everyone on board and engaged throughout the process.

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