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Implementing Agile, from good to great!

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

While many traditional companies have embarked on agile transformations, most have faced real challenges in achieving their desired objectives, and sometimes they have failed miserably.

Based on our experience across numerous transformations, and adoptions, we have a good understanding on what makes a transformation successful. Here are the top 5 high level priorities to consider:

  1. Your first priority, culture first over everything else

  2. Ensure alignment on the aspiration and value of an agile transformation.

  3. Focus on the mindset more than the framework and tools.

  4. Invest in people.

  5. Establish a strategy for scaling up.

1. Culture first over everything else

Let’s dive right into it … Agile is all about culture.

Its changing the ways of working, it’s changing the way people interact with each other, how they think and how they act. It also should affect the organizational structure to support this mindset shift. Ignoring the cultural and change-management implications of agile is one of the biggest mistakes large organizations make.

I have often seen how Agile is adopted to obtain “faster results”. So hey embark quickly into adopting Scrum and iterate. It can be simple, it can be messy, but the reality is that a scrum team be trained and be up and running within days. The challenge is that you don’t get to the end delivery “faster”, you just deliver value early, hopefully minimizing risk, avoiding rework adapting to a changing environment and becoming better with continuous improvement techniques as needed along the way.

There are a lot of benefits in adopting an Agile framework and the idea is NOT to discourage you to do so, much the opposite, is to think bigger and don’t leave money on the table.

Make no mistake, even if you and your organization are only adopting an Agile framework, it should require a change of ways of working at the team level and hopefully at the leadership level as well.

At the very core of Agile we find customer centricity, collaboration, continuous improvement and education and lean thinking, driven mostly by self-organizing teams. These self-organizing teams must be empowered to make decisions. For any organization to make the most out of their Agile adoption or transformation, and really embrace these new behaviors, it also often requires giving up some preexisting ways of working. Let me clear, top-down leadership and command and control environments will have a hard time with adopting Agile at any level.

The most common red flags to be aware of are:

  • Hesitant leadership to empower teams

  • Detailed requirements of the end product

  • Timelines are hard coded, not estimates

  • Status reports

Remember, that an Agile transformation is a journey, and it doesn’t happen overnight. However, you have to make sure you align with leadership form the get go not only on goals and aspirations, but on the value of an agile transformation, which bring us to our next topic.

2. Ensure alignment on the aspiration and value of an agile transformation.

An Agile transformation is in essence a redesign of the operating model of the enterprise. In other words, its focus is to change the ways of working to avoid risks, rework, with a laser focus approach on continuous improvement through, lean thinking and customer centricity.

We have very often seen organizations take on what they perceive as a transformation when in reality they are just adopting Agile; and there a huge difference between both, in expected results, organizational impact and ways of working.

Taking on any transformation without first ensuring alignment among the leaders of the organization on the real goal and expected value of the transformation it is very risky, and you are setting up the organization for failure.

Even when top leadership is aligned on what success looks like, it is critical to communicate appropriately in terms that are understood across the organization to get their buy in. Clarity and transparency at this stage could be often overlooked in a top-down organization, and that could possibly be your first red flag of misalignment. Agile is all about collaborative environments where a top-down approach only works to establish priorities. It is imperative that when those goals are communicated it is done in a way that everyone understands that the transformation goes beyond of implementing frameworks and possibly setting up recurrent ceremonies. It is about changing the way we work, on in other words, change the current culture.

Any agile transformation requires at a minimum aligning at a high level on the aspiration and goals, the value it would deliver over time, and a high-level plan for achieving it.

When Agile transformations begin bottom-up, it usually ends up on Agile adoption, with very limited success and usually faces lots of challenges aligning other stakeholders t0 new ways of working. These Agile adoptions, at times positioned as transformations, usually end up having limited impact, as most of the stakeholders may not understand how to they interject, how much value they add, and as a result, agile principles are adopted to different degrees and in multiple flavors within the organization, which leads to a significant confusion, less adoption and at frequently going back to old ways of working.

3. Focus on the mindset more than the framework and tools.

As organizations embark on their Agile journey, the process typically starts in one of two ways. In one case, it begins with a grassroots movement from the ground up as interested teams start practicing standard Agile rituals. Usually, as momentum builds and projects see some of the more obvious benefits, the movement may grow throughout the organization.

Alternatively, executives could establish a roadmap to change the company ways of working to deliver “faster” and implement Agile within the organization.

In both cases, the typical first steps are usually standing up foundational Agile rituals and practices within the teams, ecosystems, pods, etc. In the most common Agile framework, scrum, some of the ceremonies are backlog estimation, sprint planning, daily standups, retrospectives, and product demos.

Unfortunately for many organizations, they just stop there. They start seeing the immediate benefits of the iterative work, with risk reduction and rework elimination and they tend to give a blind eye to the major pieces of work that need to occur for a true agile transformation and end up with just agile adoption.

And that, is the beginning of the end. It is a very common problem, and yet some organizations fail to see it. The question we all need to ask is why we are putting our efforts in tools and processes when the Agile manifesto clearly values people and interaction more processes and tools?

When we fail to understand that Scrum or any other framework is just that, a framework, and we stop adopting the Agile mindset, is when we start failing in the Agile transformation. We are just setting a limit to the real value of the transformation within the organization.

You can do Agile without being Agile, as well as you can be Agile without applying any of the frameworks.

Needless to say, you do get the best results when you embrace both!

4. Invest in the talents of your people.

This topic, as easy it is, it is usually the most overlook component of a successful Agile transformation.

There is no silver bullet to tackle this, however there are important questions to be asked to determine your path forward and help the transformation be a success.

  • What skills and levels of expertise do we need in people moving forward?

  • Do we currently have this talent available within the organization, or de we need to source it from outside the organization?

  • What will happen to those that may not be required during an Agile transformation?

  • What does the learning curve look like for those people that will remain with the organization?

  • Do we have the right talent to train the organization?

  • Do we have the right practices for continuous learning & education within the organization to enable better performance compounded over time?

  • How will performance be measured and managed moving forward?

  • What does the coaching strategy look like for all levels and functions to support proper execution?

Once those questions have an answer you will have to develop a strategy to tackle those needs. Hiring Scrum masters won’t necessarily mean a successful transition or transformation. You need to establish a course of action to cover those immediate and long terms needs. If you fail at the long-term strategy, without a doubt your organization will face attrition among your early adopters and first hires.

And there are good reasons to strategize about this from the beginning. Think now, if you don’t put this effort upfront to solve for this unknown, what will be cost to solve them once the plane is on fire mid-flight?

Have that conversation before you kick off agility within your organization, at a minimum you’ll understand how leadership value people, or maybe if they are just “human resources”?

5. Establish a strategy for scaling up.

As we discussed during the alignment of goals, aspirations and values of the Agile transformation, when companies find themselves limiting Agile adoption to just a few teams it ends up being just a pilot with s small footprint within the organization and very limited impact.

These limitations usually also limits the understanding of leadership of the true benefits of a Transformation that get lost in translation with just adoption.

The result is that way too often, organizations will end up carrying a series of team adoptions (pods, ecosystems, etc.), before they’re eventually killed once the need to reallocate funding for new initiatives arises.

While it is acceptable to start the Agile journey with adoption, the real benefit is with the transformation. Think about the impact in the small team, growing exponentially across the entire organization … This is when you and leadership need to pause and think critically if they are willing to take it to the next level, and if they will continue the journey, or if this is a just a new framework that will eventually fade away.

This conversation needs to happen, and hopefully before the adoption or transformation begin as we saw on our second point on this article.

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