Agile Transformation: Are You Ready?

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Agile Transformation: Are You Ready?

I have long given thought to why some Enterprise Agile transformations are successful while others seem to go on for an exceedingly long time.  It’s one of my favorite topics to discuss, and I’ve had the benefit of working with some amazing fellow Agile coaches who have given me their opinion, as well.  I base this blog on my own experiences at several Fortune 500 clients, as well as feedback I’ve received from numerous other Agile enthusiasts.

1. Support from Executive Management

I guess I got lucky in my first role as an Agile coach at a Fortune 500 company.  The 100+ year old company began their Agile transformation journey the same week I started.  It had a “burning platform” problem, so there clearly was an incentive.  But most importantly, it had the support from the very top – clear, unambiguous support.  This support was instrumental in removing obstacles and establishing a common goal that was clearly communicated.

I have been at client engagements where the Agile transformation was being driven by mid-management.  This created its own obstacles, as it forced us Agile coaches to go shopping for support among the various senior management teams.  It became more of an Agile transformation of subsets of the company instead of being a transformation of the enterprise itself.  It’s well known that optimization of the subsystems does not equate to optimization of the system. That is, when you optimize only a smaller business unit, that business unit (along with other business units) will have to change once again when you focus on a company-wide adoption of Agile.  This includes revisiting the processes, tools, and more to better support this level of transformation.

2. Stay Above Politics within the Client

One of the beautiful things about being brought in from the outside as a consultant is that we can honestly say we’re not a part of some political faction.  Most Agile coaches know to stay out of the politics and remain neutral.  Our success (and the client’s) depends on this.

However, this isn’t to say we’re not impacted by politics.  I’ve been told by more than one client not to talk to a group — for example, the PMO — or even another set of Agile coaches working at the same client location.  While we seek success where we can, these sorts of instructions can be quite disheartening, and it inhibits the transformation effort.

3. Agile Coaches Need to Report to Very Senior Management

I started alluding to this in the above sections, but I wanted to clearly specify this.  As Agile coaches, we propose changes.  I believe these changes should be discussed with the impacted parties and within the guardrails to which we agree.  However, I can occasionally be hampered if not outright blocked by politically powerful people.  If an Agile coach doesn’t report to an individual high enough in the organizational structure, then we have to come up with alternatives — which is not the best use of an Agile coach’s time and additionally results in less-than-optimal progress in the transformation.

4. Recognize We’re Changing the Company — This Isn’t a Checklist Activity

From my own and other Agile coaches’ experience, as well as my many discussions with potential clients, I’ve discovered that a fair number of companies are treating the Agile transformation process more as a “checklist.”  For example, if you have a project, you bring in project managers.  Once you bring them in, you can check that activity off your list of to-dos and move onto something else.

An Agile transformation is a transformation.  It’s a transformation of how you do things, how you talk about and address problems, as well as significant changes in the corporate culture.  Many companies bring in an Agile coach, check the checkbox that they completed this activity, then forget about it — except for an occasional follow-up on progress.  This approach lessons the effectiveness of the Agile coaches and — unless addressed — will stall the transformation.

5. Know Why the Client Is Doing an Agile Transformation

This is my favorite question for any potential client – why do you want to go through an Agile transformation?  While I have my opinions, I’ve been amazed at the wide variety of responses.

In short, the reasons don’t matter too much, as long as an Agile transformation can address them.  I’ve seen responses that are essentially asking the Agile transformation to address other issues, such as to change how employee performance is measured.  While Agile (and for example SAFe) does discuss the topic of how to measure an employee’s progress within an Agile environment, this shouldn’t be the main driver.

6. Use Metrics — But Keep Them Productive

Following the old adage, “People respond to how they’re measured,” you should use metrics that reflect the goals of the Agile transformation.  I’ve seen a lot of metrics that are very development-focused, such as cycle time, defects, velocity, etc.  Even though many companies want to undergo an Agile transformation to respond to changes in the market, I have never seen this discussed or measured, which I find quite interesting.

Just as important as what metrics you use, it’s also important not to overdo the metrics.  I’ve seen people use metrics as inflexible guardrails.  For example, if a team has a single P1 (most severe) defect in production, it is automatically assumed it’s a poor team.  This sort of approach creates a culture of fear, which is the opposite of what we want to achieve, and it will impact productivity quite severely.

7. Advocate Agile, But Remain Practical

I’m an Agile coach.  I make my bread and butter by helping companies become Agile.  However, I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors if I said that Agile is always the solution.  Sometimes it’s not.  One of my favorite discussions is to ask about this opinion with other Agile enthusiasts. A few will take this question as sacrilege, but to me it’s simply being practical.

I would suggest a highly customized approach to Agile in certain situations.  The first one that comes to mind is when I heard about the PMP (a project management certification) structure being developed from the processes they used to build nuclear submarines.  I would imagine building something like this would require significant portions of the requirements to be identified and flushed out upfront.

More recently, I was in discussion about companies in highly regulated fields.  One example was software for the medical field, where both the federal government and each state have a say about what it can, should, must, and mustn’t do.  In this situation, you can’t just go into a room with a high-level concept and walk out with ready-for-development stories, which one Agile framework suggests you do.

8. An Agile Transformation Should Be Incrementally Introduced

It’s advisable to incrementally introduce your Agile transformation.  While the goal of an Agile transformation is generally the ability to react to changes in the market (i.e., needs active business engagement), it’s not uncommon (and is usually a good idea) for your company to initiate the Agile transformation with the technology teams first. Get that piece humming, then bring in other parts of the company.

I’ve been on one Agile transformation where they decided the entire business unit would “go Agile” overnight.  When I stepped in this effort after two years of “going Agile,” they were still unable to release software reliably, which was an indication of multiple other issues that were never previously addressed.  They were following a framework without realizing that the framework made some assumptions that simply weren’t true for them.

In Conclusion

As you consider an Agile transformation for your client, it’s important to understand some of the elements to improve the chances of success, as well as issues to look out for. If you have more questions about hiring an Agile coach for your own enterprise, you can reach out to GlobalLogic at info@globallogic.com or by filling out the “Let’s Work Together” form at the bottom of this page.

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David Highbarger

Principal Agile Coach

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