You know what the number 1 reason for failed Agile transformations is? It is not the skillset of Agile Coaches and Agile teams' members, it is not the budget or executive support. The most frequent reason for failed Agile transformations is inability to manage organizational change. If we as coaches do not approach Agile rollout strategically, if we do not view it as a change management activity, we do not leave ourselves any chance to succeed.
What does it mean? When we come to an organization to roll out Agile, we start with multiple activities. We create template, produce playbooks, organize training sessions, work with the delivery teams, refine backlogs, create roadmaps, implement technical practices, and get outseves busy with important activities that help those organizations succeed. Six months or a year after, we find out that senior executives do not perceive our transformation as success, that there are concern from a product organization, from former PMO, from engineering managers, sales, marketing, and a whole ton of passive observers throughout the company. Are they blind? we wonder. Don't they see how high performing our teams are? how frequently they deliver? how innovative our new products are? have they missed our last demo? failed to stop by our hackaton and open space? what is happening. And before we know it, status quo is slowly restored, our Agile teams are lost because they cannot imagine themselves working the way they did before, and the whole effort is now in jeopardy.
How do we avoid this situation? Very simply. Rather than starting with multiple activities, we need to be strategic in how we orchestrate the transformation and make the change happen. By saying "strategic", I mean "relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them." In creating my strategic vision of Agile transformation, I use two theories, traditional coaching and multiple organizational change approaches. Below are things you have to consider when implementing Agile transformation.
1. Close 3 gaps
In his book "The 3 Gaps: Are you Making a Difference", Hyrum W. Smith describes 3 gaps. Closing these gaps "enables people to live a better, more fulfilling life and have a positive impact on everyone around them." I applied those gaps to the organization change and specifically, Agile rollout, and have been using them as pre-requisites for the Agile transformations that I lead:
- The Beliefs Gap - the difference between what we assume is correct and what is in fact true. For example, if we as an organization believe that product and process are independent, this is a fundamental gaps that we need to close, otherwise we won't be able to co-create beautiful products across the organization.
- The Values Gap - the difference between our long-term objectives and where we actually spend our effort. As an organization, we need to be clear on our values and long-term objectives. Do we want to create a product that will be available to anyone at a low cost? do we want to make the use of it super easy and intuitive? or are we targeting a small market niche with something sophisticated and new? Based on our values as an organizations and the objectives we set up (many organizations nowadays use OKRs - objectives and key results to build and align those cascading goals throughout organization. For example, if we want to create a very basic minimum viable product (MVP) and make it readily available at a low cost, we would make our decisions differently from being able to create a sophisticated product providing elaborate functionality to a small market niche.
- The Time Gap - this is the gap between the values we have set up and where we are actually investing our time. Investing our time in the values we discovered is closing the time gap. It involves expectation setting at all levels and being very honest about where our time as coaches and transformation leaders is being invested. It requires courage and transparency, but also flexibility and emotional intelligence in dealing with unforeseen priority changes and unexpected circumstances.
2. Agree on organization-specific non-negotiables
Once we closed three gaps, we need to all agree on fundamentals, or Agile non-negotiables. These non-negotiables are different for different organizations and depend on scope, organization type, objectives, and level of openness to change, but they need to be stated, discussed and agreed upon. Some examples from various organizations include:
- budget constraints;
- retaining existing employees;
- continued support of legacy products;
- real-time dashboard for executives;
- complete visibility into deliverables and the budget for senior management.
3. Create emotional support of the change
An important aspect to remember is widely discussed in an organizational change bestseller, The Happiness Hypothesis.
The author, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, compares our emotional side with an Elephant and our rational side is with a Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. Similarly, the desire for the organization to change has to be emotional as much if not even more than it is rational. Prior to your Agile rollout, create presentations, set up Lunch and Learn sessions, talk one-on-one with division leaders and executives, start running our transformation team in kanban on scrumban mode and place your information radiators in a highly visible place in the office. Ensure that people understand reasons for change, that they see their pain points and are aware of benefits of Agile. Create organizational-level support before you start any activities, and 50% of success is accomplished. In their outstanding book "Switch", brothers Heath speak about building the emotional case for change as a pre-requisite for the change success.
This approach is relevant to every steps of the way, from hiring Agile Coaches (pay attention to empathy as much as their knowledge of Agile and Lean practices) to coming up with prescriptive requirements which take best practices into consideration but do not leave teams enough space to innovate and to grow.
4. 15 Rules of Agile transformation
As in any organization, John Kotter's 8-step process for leading change is highly applicable to Agile transformation. The 8 steps of leading change listed by Dr. Kotter include: generating a sense of urgency, establishing a powerful guiding coalition, developing a vision, communicating the vision clearly and often, removing obstacles, planning for and creating short-term wins, avoiding premature declarations of victory, and embedding changes in the corporate culture.
Dr. Kotter's books are powerful and the examples given there are thought provoking. All of these steps equally apply to Agile transformation and have to be addressed before playbooks are being created and competency-based organization is being re-organized in product-based delivery teams with business stakeholders aligned to a specific team or multiple teams.
Based on these criteria and my own experience leading multiple Agile transformation, I formulated the following Rules for Agile transformation success:
- Create case for change.
- Build coalitions.
- Be inclusive. See yourself as part of a team.
- State goals and expected measurable results before introducing change.
- Co-create new reality.
- You can never overcommunicate.
- Build it, and they will come.
- Be genuine, transparent and positive.
- Question the status quo. Innovate and experiment.
- Be assertive and courageous but not controlling.
- Serve but don't follow.
- Lead without authority.
- Walk the talk.
- Celebrate success (but not too early).
- Iterate. Never stop!
In the next posting, we will review these rules one by one and suggest some specific actions and artifacts to implement them.