Almost every Agile transformation effort starts from this concept. Actually, one of the variations of it, frequently contradicting each other:
- Get executive support!
- Start from the teams, and once they show success, you will get support in your transformation!
- No bottom up initiatives survive!
- The only recepy to Agile transformation success is top down. Otherwise, teams will get demotivated and say what we've heard so many times: "Agile does not work for us."
Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) suggests that top management should become the driving force behind Agile/Lean transformation. "If you cannot come, send nobody" - a famous and very profound example of engaging executives in transformation effort cited by Edwards Deming.
This example refers to a quote from William Conway, then CEO of the Nashua Corporation, related by Dr. Deming in his 1986 book. Mr. Conway was writing in response to the Vice President's request for an invitation to visit the Nashua Corporation. Dr. Deming elaborated for clarity: "If you don’t have time to do your job, there is nothing I can do for you." His point, driven home with typical Deming wit, was that there is no real substitute for leadership, for the top management support and involvement.
How do you ensure that you receive support from the top? Let me give you two examples:
1. In this Fortune 500 organization, all C-level executives were pro-Agile. They used words "Agile" and "Lean" in each of their presentations no less than three times. Their CEO said: "We need to be Agile by the end of this year. Tell me what you need and I will give it to you."
2. In a midsize educational organization, a CEO said: "We do not have unlimited budget. I want to learn everything I can about Agile, I want you to tell me how Agile transformation will affect our business, and I want to have a dashboard into our progress with metrics that resonates with me and our business stakeholders. I want to hear from you what is working and what is not, and how you pivot and improve your practices as we move forward."
Which company you think succeeded and which failed? Large powerful organization with unlimited budget and commitment towards Agile, or a midsize organization with limited budget and CEO who wanted to understand value and be involved in the progress?
Surprisingly, it was the first one. Despite unlimited budget in the first organization, the management wanted to see the results. They did not take time to understands what Agile and Lean actually mean and how their organization will be changing over time. They supported transition to product teams and expected these teams to start delivering value within months. Instead, some long-time employees left, some who did not fit into the new team-based culture were let go, productivity went down, old project management office was dismantled, and all the visibility into project status was lost, so the executives eventually decided that "agile did not work for them."
For the second company, transition was not easy either, but from C-suite to mid-level management, everyone felt their leadership role in Agile transformation. They came to the demos, asked many hard questions, each of them looked at their dashboards in Jira on a regular basis and questioned everything they did not understand or anything that they had doubts about. They were truly hands-on throughout many changes in company culture: their CEO served ice-cream to late evening hackathon participants, and sponsored external educational startup lab over the weekend. It was not an easy journey, but it was successful because the leaders wanted to be part of the transformation, wanted to understand its benefits and challenges, and be involved (but not micromanaging) every step along the way. Their expectations were properly managed (to say it correctly, they took active role in managing their own expectations) and this Agile implementation succeeded and brought results after the first six months.
When you are starting Agile transformation, start with senior managers. Find out their pain points, design your communication specifically for them explaining how Agile and Lean will address current challenges, target this communication to company culture (workshops, presentations, informal conversations, one-on-one interactions - do it the way consistent with the company culture, but never neglect this step). Don't proceed further until you gain the right level of understanding and support from your executives, and definitely, do not rush it.
Why moving fast is an issue? Let me give you just one example, and there are hundreds of similar ones with different inventions. This one is from an article that I read recently. It was about Josef Ganz, inventor of Volkswagen Beetle who invented the affordable family car in 1930 when Europe was dominated by motorcycles. No manufacturer was interested in producing this car. The world was just not ready for it yet. Motorcycles were cheaper, easy to start and to navigate, and there was no interest in Beetles. For many years, Adolf Hitler was considered an inventor of Beetle because when he saw the car at a car show in 1933, he used this model of a cheap family car later in his campaign of "motorizing Germany" and winning hearts of the middle class who were able to afford a car for their family. By 1939, the Nazis began their occupation of Europe. One of their tools was a nifty commando vehicle - a spruced-up version of the Beetle. After the end of World War II and the collapse of the Nazi regime, Germany's economy recovered with international help. The car industry, and Volkswagen with its Beetle in particular, became a huge success, but Josef Ganz was never able to reclaim his intellectual property which was introduced only 10 years before the world was ready for it.
Why did I share this seemingly unrelated story? Even 10 years play a huge difference in history. A month, a sprint, or a meeting with your key stakeholder may plan a huge difference in the success of your Agile transformation. Time your sequence right. Do not proceed with changing org structures, delivery cadences, and product mixes until the management has good understanding and realistic expectations of the next steps - short- and long-term.
Those differ in each specific situation. Feel free to share yours, and we will brainstorm together.