Agile Top-Down: Striking a Balance

Agile is being evangelized in executive boardrooms and introduced top-down with increasing frequency. Considering that Agile advocates self-management by the individual and within a team, what is the role of senior leadership? My experience from this top-down perspective has given me insight into attitudes and techniques that are successful and others that fail. I assert that there is an effective and appropriate stance for senior leadership that will improve the effectiveness of an Agile transformation. Key to my list of recommendations for making Agile work is the balanced involvement of both senior-level leaders and practitioners in the planning and executing the introduction of Agile practices.

What They Didn’t Know: Agile Stealth Mode

Early application of Agile within organizations has generally been characterized as a subtle, grass-roots introduction that was put forward by a low-level manager. For example, consider the newly-hired technical lead with some previous Agile experience. First, she proposed to her team that they work in regular iterative cycles. Later, she suggested that the team meet daily for a brief status meeting. With time, she began to talk with the team openly about Agile and they worked together to adopt other Agile practices. It wasn't long until members of other teams began to ask about what her team was doing.

In a similar fashion to this technical lead, many early proponents of Agile methods introduced these practices within their organization by using a similar bottom-up approach. {sidebar id=1} Agile was new and relatively unknown and, therefore, had few champions. Much of what these individuals were able to accomplish within their areas of influence required them to operate in stealth mode, so as to not be checked by the leadership of an otherwise traditional organization.

Agile Is Ascending the Corporate Ladder
While this may still occur today, much has changed in recent years. In the six years since the
Agile Manifesto was authored, Agile practices have gained a footing with many organizations. Its success has spawned enthusiasts across all organizational levels.  It is increasingly common to hear Agile being evangelized in the executive boardroom, rather than just in online tech forums. During the past few years, Agile has been introduced into organizations from the top-down with increasing frequency. When the impetus for embracing Agile originates at the executive level, is the resulting top-down approach inconsistent with Agile principles? When it is the senior executive who champions the transformation to Agile, is this a departure from the Agile concept of self-organization?

A Continuum for Agile Top-Down
During the past four years, I have assisted several large organizations with transformational initiatives involving the wide-scale rollout of Agile, all of which were initiated by senior leadership. It has been my observation that top-down Agile implementations can be categorized along a simple continuum (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: A spectrum of top-down approaches

To the left of the continuum are the organizations where a senior leader has attempted to bring Agile practices to an organization without employing a command and control management decree. Instead, dozens of seeds are scattered with a hope that some will take root, with Agile incorporated into the organization from the bottom-up. The leader may introduce Agile in concept, offering it as an interesting alternative. In such a scenario, the leader is not committing others, but rather communicating that, should teams wish to incorporate Agile practices, they will be encouraged in their efforts.

A fair number of undernourished efforts will fall short of their potentia, and most will require a lengthy timeline. This approach is characterized by increased turmoil in strategic decision-making, due to the lack of clear leadership. Additionally, significant challenges will result when teams and projects must overlap because of the lack of core practices. For example, when a project ends and team members join other teams, they encounter a very different set of circumstances and are challenged to integrate quickly into the new team.

Overly Directive
On the right, one finds scenarios where management makes Agile practices mandatory. They may even boost the rate of assimilation through the means of a rapid deployment timeline and the assistance of prescriptive checklists. Perhaps these managers have read about the typical benefits attributed to Agile teams and have decided to transform the organization without delay. It seems simple enough.

Most overly directive efforts will struggle and those that are not reformed will ultimately fail. In large part, this will be because those involved will not develop the commitment necessary to generate high levels of performance and satisfaction. The overly directive approach is characterized by a lack of collaboration with all involved, without which, their buy-in is severely limited. These organizations often encounter significant challenges related to stress, burn out, and poor morale. Too often a result is increased turnover, as staff come to the conclusion that Agile must be just another way to get more work done in less time.

Effective and Appropriate
In between these two extremes are scenarios where the involvement of senior-level leadership is highly effective and appropriate. These initiatives are readily singled out from those at the extremes of the continuum. The key distinguishing factors are the existence of a clear, elevating goal [1] or vision, and increased levels of communication and collaboration. Often, a suitable framework that includes standards and guidelines will be established for use by the teams. This is done to ensure that core practices are commonly applied throughout the organization. With this framework, multiple teams are able to work effectively together where overlaps exist. Team members can also make the transition to another team with relative ease.

These initiatives experience a higher degree of commitment, effort and performance from team members. The organizations benefits from improved financial performance and greater employee innovation and corporate citizenship. Job satisfaction increases as stress and burnout among employees decline. Morale improves as teams achieve their goals, and the organization often becomes a more desirable place to work.

Effective and appropriate senior-level leadership is critically important to the success of any transformation effort. While the drive to embrace Agile may originate more frequently today from the executive level, this does not diminish the importance of the bottom-up efforts of team members and other Agile practitioners within the organization. There is a need for balance in the involvement of both senior-level leaders and practitioners in the planning and execution of the introduction of Agile practices to an organization. Practitioners should be called upon to step forward and aid in leading their organizations as new projects are initiated or converted to Agile.

Effective and Appropriate: Case Study of a Top-Down Transformation
In 2004, the CEO of an innovative financial services firm in the Southeastern US circulated a research report on Agile to a number of managers. He sought their input about the potential of introducing Agile practices to the organization. Following some research, a five-team pilot was conceived and launched. Within 10 weeks, the pilot had been converted to a full-scale organizational transformation, and the number of teams stood at 18.

I trained and coached those teams and provided them with a number of core practices and tools to ensure a degree of standardization. In addition, I had served as a member of the steering committee for the initiative. That committee included the CEO, CIO, CFO, SVP of HR, VP of development, VP of quality, and others. During most of that year, the committee met daily for one hour. The level of leadership commitment to this effort was well known within the organization. In fact, at the quarterly all-employee meetings, the CEO would allocate time for teams to communicate status regarding the transformation. The CEO also took considerable steps to explain to customers the changes and related impacts.

The transformation to Agile at this organization was initiated and progressed in large part because of this top-down leadership. The CEO established the vision and effectively delegated the responsibility. A corresponding bottom-up balance was established as the Agile practitioners responded to the delegated responsibility. The various teams were supported by senior leadership, managers, coaches, and a variety of technical and business experts. The approach achieved was effective and appropriate. While championed by the CEO, his vision was not overly directive. Neither was the initiative undernourished as the teams were effectively supported and provided with a basic framework.

Recognized as one of the largest and most rapid enterprise-wide implementations of Scrum at that time, the organization eventually scaled to 32 concurrent teams in less than 12 months. By the end of the second year, over 100 project teams had been launched. Profitability, timeliness, quality, customer satisfaction, and employee moral had all been impacted positively. Key customers clamored to understand what had been changed. In fact, one customer bought the company. That company leveraged the expertise of the recently acquired subsidiary and began an Agile transformation of its own.

Post Transformation: Lessons Learned
At regular intervals, Agile teams reflect on what has gone well and what can be improved. A retrospective on the transformation at this organization would include the following lessons learned:

·       Senior leaders must provide frequent communication of the vision and the status.

·       Communication efforts must include the customers, who will need to understand the transformation and any impacts.

·       Communication efforts may not adequately convey the fact that Agile is not merely a new IT development process. Rather, the large-scale introduction of Agile into an organization will impact nearly all aspects of a business, including: advancement, communication, compensation, contracts, facilities, goals and objectives, hiring, management philosophy, marketing, metrics, policy and procedures, recognition, resource scheduling, sales, strategic planning, and training. Be prepared.

·       Organizational impediments that impact teams must be escalated to senior management. This information will likely be the freshest and most actionable management information available within the organization. These are the seeds of your future headaches, unless you act now.

·       The capabilities of the organization that result from a successful transformation to Agile will be key strategic differentiators in the marketplace.

·       Agile practices enable an organization to be better, faster, and cheaper than the competition, and this leads to increased customer satisfaction and dramatic profitability gains.

·       Agile capabilities enable organizations to help their customers win in the marketplace too.

·       Some in the organization will be unable or unwilling to change. They will need to go.

Recommendations for Agile "Top-Down"
With the acquisition of the company referred to in the case study, I went on to assist in the Agile transformation at the parent company, and from there to do the same at other companies. In my experience, I have recommended that senior leadership of an organization attempting Agile top-down should:

·       Ensure unquestioned commitment from senior leaders -it must be actively stated and frequently demonstrated.

·       Train everyone in the organization. Develop training content that is need-specific. And, in case management missed the previous item everyone includes you. Get trained.

·       Dedicate participants on the teams-this may require decision-making about what is the highest priority work.

·       Establish a dedicated implementation team.

·       Refresh their knowledge of organizational change-that is much of what a large-scale transformation to Agile is all about.

·       Not underestimate the value of support via coaching, mentoring, and shadowing. Do this now and you will be building best practices early on. Don't do it, and you will be fighting bad habits later.

·       Drive visibility and transparency.

·       Understand that failing is a good thing.

Imagine what increasing the capability of your organization can accomplish across your entire system with operations, hiring needs, and customers?


1) Teamwork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong, Carl E. Larson and Frank M.J. Lafasto, 1998. 


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