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The One Thing We Must Change Before Agile Transformation Can Work

Reading: The One Thing We Must Change Before Agile Transformation Can Work
The One Thing We Must Change Before Agile Transformation Can Work

So we want to function better as an organization. We see what our problems are—or at least some of them. But then what? “Let’s be Agile” isn’t as simple as snapping our fingers.

Maybe we haven’t taken any steps toward change yet because we don’t feel we can effect change in the organization to begin with.

Or, maybe we do, and any conversations with leadership or colleagues make it seem like we can’t get aligned on how changes should be made, and if they should be made at all. Often, we’ve already invested Agile training, thinking that if we just do the practices, it’ll resolve our issues as an organization. 

Will Installing Agile Practices or Culture Make us Agile?

It’s easy to buy into this method because it’s so simple to hire a SAFe trainer or go to Scrum school. Once we get people to adopt Agile practices and do them well, we think that will translate to doing better as an organization. 

But there are some common obstacles that keep this from working, namely that it doesn’t show us how to know what our dependencies from across the organization are and how to coordinate and orchestrate with other teams to manage and remove them. We may have teams operating with Scrum, but they are still blocked by dependencies.

Implementing practices into teams also doesn’t enable us to first think about how to align what our teams are doing with our customers and markets. It’s true that Agile practices are part of becoming Agile. But dependencies kill Agility. So this isn’t going to work.

Or maybe we think if we start by changing the mindsets of the people in the organization—inserting Agile culture—they will begin to easily adopt the practices. And once we adopt the practices, we’ll see our impediments, and that will get us to break the impediments in our way.

The thing is, when we overlay practices or culture on an already broken system, Agile doesn’t work, no matter what we insert on top of what’s already in place. 

Focus On The Core Issue Instead

The core issue with either of these starting points is that we’re overlooking the real problem: it’s the underlying system that’s broken.

The organization has to be adapted to the practices before the practices can work. Many of us may not think we can change the structure of the business or effect change in this way, so we don’t even consider it as a possible starting point. 

When the underlying business ecosystem is full of incongruence and competing priorities, lack of coordination across the organization, lack of ability to make decisions smoothly or at all, and a lack of ability to understand dependencies—we can’t ultimately coordinate and orchestrate and ensure we’re aligned with value. So how could we install something on top of such a system and expect it to work? 

Since we already know about many of the problems we have in our systems, we need to start by solving them and enabling those systems first. We can do this by anchoring on structure, governance and metrics. We design a knowable system by forming teams, operating off of known backlogs, at a stable velocity, in a model focused on small batches that are strategically aligned. Once that system is in place, we can enable it with the practices of Scrum, Kanban, etc. 

When we enable a realistic viable system by adding the right kinds of practices onto the right foundational ecosystem, we also end up getting the culture shift. 

When we start by first getting the structure, governance, and metrics aligned in a way that we know is going to deliver effective results—that’s when we start getting the business outcomes we want. And those outcomes are the real goal of Agile. 

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