People of a certain age might remember a television show in the early 1980s called The Greatest American Hero. Ralph, an unassuming school teacher, was chosen by aliens to be mankind's next best hope. They gave him a super-powered suit and an instruction manual, the latter of which he promptly lost. The series revolved around Ralph trying to do good without a solid understanding of how to use the tools he had at his disposal.
I’ve felt a lot like Ralph in my journey as an agile coach. I had all these agile “super powers,” but I lacked a full understanding of how to use them. For Ralph, simple things, like stopping bullets, were easy, while the more complex art of flying usually ended with him crashing. For me, coaching a handful of teams was easy. The challenge was moving beyond a few teams to scaling agile across a large, enterprise organization.
So I set out to create an instruction manual for an enterprise agile transformation. However, I quickly realized that what I really needed wasn’t a set of “do this, then this” instructions. With more than forty teams, one single set of instructions wouldn’t work. Instead, what I needed was a cookbook. Themed cookbooks focusing on a certain cuisine, such as barbecue, Thai, or Southern, typically revolve around key ingredients and give you several recipes for how to put those ingredients together.
The Agile Coach’s Transformation Cookbook allows me to move from helping a handful of isolated teams to enacting an organization-wide agile transformation, regardless of the scaling framework being used.
A Recipe for Success
The analogy I use to describe the agile transformation cookbook is making a hamburger. The construction of a typical burger starts with the bottom bun. Then you put on your meat, your lettuce, your tomato, and, finally, your top bun.
The construction of the perfect burger does not use the same steps as cooking the perfect burger. And not everyone likes the same ingredients; some people want pickles and no tomatoes, or maybe even a veggie patty instead of meat. And so it is with the recipe for an agile transformation.
There are five key ingredients that are rolled out in one order and prepared in another:
Bottom bun: Organization-wide education
Meat: Observation phase
Lettuce: Assessment phase
Tomato: Engagement phase
Top bun: Inspect and adapt cycle
Here is the standard recipe from the cookbook:
- Start your observation phase (put the meat on the grill)
- Deliver organization-wide training and lay the groundwork for the inspect and adapt cycle (toast your buns)
- Conduct team assessments (put your lettuce on the burger)
- Engage with the teams to help them with specific goals and impediments (time for the tomato)
- At regular intervals, inspect and adapt in order to improve (put the top bun on)
Let’s Get Cooking
Below is a summary of each step in the agile transformation “recipe” and their key points.
Education is a key to any transition. I’ve learned that education normally needs to happen early, and it needs to be organization-wide for it to be most effective. If teams are trained differently on what agile means, it can lead to what essentially amounts to language barriers. Educating everyone at once leads to shared understanding and support.
The principle here is "Do no harm." When you first start an agile transformation, be it as a new hire or in a new project, you are almost always an outsider. You need to build trust before you can make a difference. The best way I’ve found to build trust is through asking questions and listening. Until you understand, you can not help guide change.
People in an organization have a driving need to know how they are doing. In the case of an agile transformation, we always want to know two things: When will we be done, and is this agile thing working? To this end, metrics provide a vital service to the health and well-being of an organization. And be consistent. If you measure one car in miles per gallon and the other in feet per second, you just end up confusing things. A common set of measures allows everyone to track the same progress.
I think it’s also important to note that as an agile coach, I use metrics as a lagging indicator of whether the team may need outside assistance, not as a goal-setting device.
This phase is what most people think of when they think of an agile transformation: the agile coach rolling up his sleeves and diving in to help individual teams. Doing hands-on facilitating with one-on-one coaching is a vital part of a transformation.
The key component of the agile transformations I’ve been part of was focusing on one thing at a time. After engaging with the team, it’s typical to come away with a dozen observations as well as the team's own reflections from their retrospectives. When faced with a huge list of things that can be "improved," it can be very easy to start tackling it all, but you should fight that urge.
In agile, we coach teams to focus on one user story at a time, and it's no different for improvements, impediments, and blockers. Start a team backlog for things the team wants to improve. Have them pick only one thing to work on at a time, and when they reach that goal, move the “story” down the backlog.
Inspect and adapt cycle
One of the most underused agile tools is the retrospective. We tend to limit retrospectives to the team level, focusing only on the previous sprint. If you replace the tires on your car alone and ignore all other maintenance, it won't matter how great those tires are—eventually, the car will stop running. Retrospectives need to move beyond the team to the entire organization. You must apply the principles of continuous improvement to all levels of the organization on a constant basis.
And remember, inspect and adapt are two separate steps. We can be really great at finding problems, then do poorly on fixing them. Without the follow-through, inspection is pointless. You need to create an organization-level impediment backlog that is tracked and managed by the leadership team.
Become a Master Chef
Let's step away from the burger analogy now to address some realities.
An agile transformation never truly ends. Agile isn't a new process, a new management model, or something that can be finished. Agile is a continuous learning cycle, and if we recall what Albert Einstein said about learning, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” A company needs to recognize that "going agile" isn't something you do and then you're done. It is an ongoing process of continuous improvement that can lead almost anywhere.
And a transformation is not a linear event. While the burger analogy lays things out in a step-by-step order, the reality is that a transformation is more like the Olympic rings: five interlocking and self-supporting tools. The observation, assessment, and engagement phases overlap one another, forming the top row of the rings. You don't have to finish the observation step to start assessment, and there are times when a team can dive straight into engagement. Education and the inspect and adapt cycle form the foundation of a transformation. The goal is to be able to say that you are are better than you were the last iteration.
Finally, we need to address the important reality of the results. How do you know if the cookbook is working?
In the case of the teams I worked with, I have metrics from before and after the agile transformation, as well as a look at changes after a team went through training. The overwhelming majority of teams saw 30 percent or more improvement in predictability, cycle time, and velocity, regardless of whether they used SAFe, LeSS, or another framework. They all also saw strong improvements in organizational maturity. Yes, I saw bumps in every team’s process, but for many of them, productivity skyrocketed after their training.
Of course, The Agile Coach’s Transformation Cookbook is never done. The concept will continue to evolve as I work with new teams and businesses. Today, the cookbook can be credited with helping drive one enterprise organization to improvements in value delivered and in team happiness. We'll see where the next iteration leads and what the impact on the organization is as time passes.