Key concepts you need to consider before starting that Agile transformation

by Kirstin Donaldson on 18/10/2018 11:00

More and more organisations across the world are following the lead of IT and adopting Agile practices. It’s worth taking a moment to look at some key concepts and considering whether Agile change is right for your business. In this post I’ll be examining what the following means for your business:

  • Agile change is a cultural change and requires buy in at all levels
  • Agile practices are a way of working that gives your organisation stability while being able to move quickly
  • Cross functional teams reduce or eliminate delays and waiting
  • Over communicating early and often (don't wait until 'ready') ,enables feedback that helps finalise strategy
  • Make work visible and avoid waste
  • Experiment, respond and change to move towards the best result
  • Harness experts - present people with challenges that can potentially be solved by the work they do
  • Define success criteria and test against it - use data to validate.

Agile change is a cultural change and requires buy in at all levels

It’s not enough to make changes solely at team level. To gain the benefits of Agile change your entire organisation needs to change. This isn’t only structural change - but rather - a mindset change. It’s a change to a leaner, more collaborative and flexible way of working. Although devised by software developers for the software industry - the Agile manifesto is a great place to start to begin to understand the mindset changes required:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The manifesto’s emphasis is on face to face conversation, usable output, collaboration and flexibility. These are all central tenets of lean, effective organisations.

It is worth noting that cultural change involves people, power shifts and behaviour. This type of change is complex and if the change is meaningful there will be resistance. The way people respond can impact or stall your change initiative. I explore this human side of change further within the 'over communicating early and often' section.

Agile practices are a way of working that gives your organisation stability while being able to move quickly

The rigour Agile processes bring to organisations gives them stability in the form of resilience, reliability and efficiency. The combination of lean practices and just-in-time planning enables organisations to be more nimble and respond to changing requirements quickly. The challenge then is blending the two seemingly opposing paradigms of stability and speed.The bottom line is that organisations are able to deliver the right things at the right time for their customers and stakeholders while minimising wasted work and delays.

Cross functional teams reduce or eliminate delays and waiting

Forming teams that cross many functions within your organisation enables the team to complete work without needing to rely on outside people. For example, a bank wanted to develop a new lending offering. Rather than just having the IT team build the feature based on requirements, they instead created a team that included lending team subject matter experts, a marketing person, developers, design and front line staff representatives. By including team members from across several functions they were able to iteratively design, develop, user test and market the new offering and ultimately release the final iteration within three months.

Over communicating early and often (don't wait until 'ready') enables feedback that helps finalise strategy

We often see very polished communications created over many months delivered by senior leaders to their teams. These communications often feel like a fait accompli which precludes feedback from the people who are most affected by it. Devising communications quickly and delivering them as soon as possible enables the people most affected by it to give feedback and also to engage with change at a very early stage.The human side of change is usually the hardest part of implementing change within an organisation. Socialising ideas early gives us a far greater chance of achieving change faster. Leaders who are able to socialise ideas early and gather feedback need to be prepared to show an amount of vulnerability and understand how to respond to feedback and how to iterate.

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Make work visible and avoid waste

Making work visible by using information radiators and frequent communication helps to focus teams and leaders on doing the right work (work of value) and therefore avoid waste. Visibility of current work can also encourage collaboration and early feedback, again focussing us on working on items of value.

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Experiment, respond and change to move towards the best result

Change should be approached as an experiment in order to give us the flexibility to respond and change and get the best result. The first iteration of a change should be lightweight, whilst still of use so that we are able to get feedback fast and continue iterating the change with information and data to support the decisions made for the iteration.

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Harness experts - present people with challenges that can potentially be solved by the work they do

Too often as businesses we pre-suppose solutions. Use your great hires, who are experts in their fields to devise solutions to the problems or challenges you present them with.

Presenting teams with solutions gives them little opportunity to consider alternatives, it also results in a lack of engagement with their work. To create happy and engaged teams let them use their skills to solve problems in creative, enabling and cost effective ways

Define success criteria and test against it - use data to validate

Without defined success criteria it is impossible to ascertain whether initiatives or projects have been successful. It’s also very difficult to understand when you have done enough, which can result in one of those never ending pieces of work that consistently has just one more small item to be completed.

It’s not enough to define success in general terms, we also need to use metrics and data to understand when the success criteria has been satisfied. For example a Wellness program may have a success factor of a decrease in sick leave. By quantifying what percentage decrease constitutes a successful return on the wellness program investment we can then measure effectiveness.

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For a more blunt look at why Enterprise Agile typically fails take a look at: Why Enterprise Agile Teams Fail written by Sam McAfee, the focus is on software teams - however many of his points stand for any type of business.

If you’re interested in talking further about Agile transformation, get in touch - via my profile: 

Kirstin Donaldson is a Principal Consultant with expertise in Agile and leadership coaching and training, based in our Wellington office.

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