Many organizations are adopting agile as the de facto way of doing business. But it’s all too easy for teams to revert to their old behaviors and the organization to return to its original way of working.
When coaching teams on transitioning to agile workflows, I originally started with team practices. But I soon realized teams had systemic impediments, such as the separation of front-end and back-end teams leading to an integration delay and delayed releases; or teams didn’t know what to expect for the next quarter; or no one prioritized issues across teams, which led to interteam dependencies. I realized the teams wouldn’t be able to reap the results of iterative and incremental delivery unless we could resolve the underlying impediments. It became clear that we should start with the end in mind.
I needed to set the stage for a change journey.
Assessing Team Culture and Identifying Pain Points
Now, my process for coaching teams in an agile transition has a different mindset. In order to get the context of the organizational environment and ecosystem, first I spend time with everyone—including leadership, management, and teams—to assess the current processes, practices, and policies.
The purpose of these working sessions is to understand everyone’s workflow, the team structure, and the culture of the organization. These interactions help everybody recognize what is working well (and what isn’t) when it comes to team interactions, reporting hierarchy, product and business strategy, release and deployment practices, and prioritization mechanisms. All these discussions help me evaluate the organization’s current state.
Examples of common pain points I hear are that the team lacks a big-picture view of what is coming up next, lots of handoffs happen between individual functions, and conflicting priorities across teams.
I use the Schneider culture model to understand the current organizational culture—the interactions between people, how they behave, and how they collaborate. I also lead a team engineering health check by assessing technical practices like continuous integration, continuous deployment, and automation. These practices are vital for teams to deliver a potentially shippable increment every sprint.
I deliver an observations report based on the data in a presentation format to the management in the organization who will be leading the transformation efforts. This is one of the important phases in an agile transformation journey because managers often get information they weren’t expecting. For example, senior leaders may be unaware of why teams often miss deliverable dates, and they are surprised to hear that it’s due to too many handoffs, frequent changes in the requirements, or lack of clarity. These discussions help get managers and teams on the same page in order to formulate a common purpose and objectives for the change journey.
I give some initial recommendations based on my observations. Armed with their new knowledge about the realities their teams are facing, management can start discussing these recommendations and what changes can be made to foster agility in the organization.
The next step is to create an environment where everyone can collaboratively solve the problems. This leads to the road-mapping activity.
Translating Ideas into Action
Road mapping is coming up with the execution plan for the change journey. In this phase, managers formulate a high-level plan with different activities to initiate the change journey.
Managers commit to the changes they planned for the organization. Some examples of change initiatives are creating cross-functional teams, changing the reporting structure so that agile teams report to one person rather than individual test and development functional heads, collocating teams or designating a team space for collaboration, developing mechanisms for impediment resolution, investing in technical practices to build the necessary infrastructure, identifying internal people or hiring external people to fit in key agile roles, and changing the high-level processes and policies to ease the agile adoption. These initiatives make up what I call the transformation backlog.
Leaders should be able to appreciate every aspect of the change journey, starting with what it means to have a cross-functional team focusing on smaller product increments. They need to identify all organizational enablers that would ease the agile journey and work toward establishing them. They should strive to create a culture that promotes transparency, openness, collaboration, decentralized decision-making, empowerment, and commitment.
It’s important to remember that this is an investment. It will yield results in the long run, but the journey takes time. It is not an easy path, but it is totally worth it.
Once the roadmap is in place, management should form an organizational agility team of all the key people who will lead the agile transformation efforts. This team will meet at a regular cadence to review the transformation backlog and resolve any impediments that are hindering the journey. Considering agile is all about continuous planning, the roadmap should be revisited often as the team learns and changes and as the ecosystem around it evolves.
The executive leaders in an organization play a key role in making a change journey sustainable. Some of the reasons I’ve seen for failed agile transformations are a lack of effective sponsorship, buy-in from management, vision and transformation goals, a well-formulated change backlog, or plan for continuous improvement. Consequently, I perceive the main driving factor in any change journey to be the organization’s leaders committing to undergoing self-transformation first before transforming others in the organization. A successful agile journey starts from the top.