So you want to be Agile…

In the last article of this series, we talked about some of the different frameworks, like Scrum and Kanban, that allow you to be Agile. Once a framework is selected, the next step is to begin planning for the upcoming change because it’s not as easy as flipping on a light switch.

While individuals may have innate agility, for an individual to become professionally ‘agile,’ it takes years of practice, intention, and preparation. If called onto an NFL football field from their seat in the stadium, would a fan be able to execute a slant, hook, or post? As you can imagine, the chances of success in this situation are slim. Yet, many executives think they can make their companies ‘Agile’ without taking the necessary steps to prepare for the change.

When thinking about Agile from this perspective, it’s obvious why so many companies fail when attempting to “be” Agile. This article will explore the differences between “doing” Agile and “being” Agile and how to prepare for the change by looking at the top three challenges of adopting Agile as identified by the 13th Annual State of Agile Report:

  •  Inadequate Management Support
  • Organizational Resistance
  • Misaligned Culture

Inadequate Management Support

According to the State of Agile report, 44% of respondents stated that inadequate management support and sponsorship was a barrier to adopting Agile. It’s unfortunate when leadership gives employees a task yet fails to provide the means through which to complete that task. Management can support their employees during this transition by committing to the process, supporting the upcoming changes, and aligning employee incentives accordingly.

For an Agile transition to be successful, both leadership and employees have to fully commit and buy-in to Agile. If leadership doesn’t fully understand the problem, what Agile is, or how Agile is the solution, it will be virtually impossible to implement the necessary structural changes to practice Agile. If employees don’t buy-in, then they’ll never want to “do” Agile, much less “be” Agile. There should be a commitment from the top-down and conviction from the bottom-up.

Management commitment will be evident through actions like providing the appropriate organizational structures for the new policies, procedures, and performance management changes. Doing Agile requires minimal procedure changes. However, truly Being Agile requires significant changes to policies and procedures, among other things. Management must support these changes and provide adequate time and resources to implement them.

One of the changes should be realigning employee incentives. Why should the employees care about Agile when their incentives are still aligned to the old way of doing things? Are they being incentivized to do what they’re being told to do? If an employee is being told to go to a daily scrum but is being incentivized to submit a report on a tight deadline, what are they more likely to choose? If you want the implementation to succeed, incentives and responsibilities must be aligned.

Conviction from employees happens when they’re brought into the process early, allowed to participate in the decision-making process, and empowered by leadership throughout and after the implementation.

Organizational Resistance

In the State of Agile Report, 48% of respondents reported that organizational resistance to change was a barrier to adopting Agile. This statistic speaks volumes about the importance of managing change effectively. As mentioned in the first point, management must enable the development of new organizational structures, which begins the process of breaking down organizational barriers. To further breakdown these barriers, leadership must engage employees and build structures that allow for the new policies and procedures.

As we pointed out in an earlier blog, “an imperative for leading organizational change is to identify and engage the influential change agents as ‘delegates’ for the business.” Because the employees will be enacting the changes and required to perform their jobs differently, they need to be involved in creating these new processes and shaping what the organization will look like. The employees selected to participate in these activities will become change agents who act as advocates for the change to their departments and the rest of the organization.

Depending on the Agile framework you choose, there could be new roles, new responsibilities, and new teams. These are things that aren’t easily transitioned into without a set of new procedures and the subsequent training on them. What organizational structures will allow for these new policies and procedures to be conducted by employees with new roles? What internal and external communication channels will promote transparency or facilitate continued engagement of Product Owners with key stakeholder groups? New roles will most likely mean hierarchy changes or changes in how teams are funded. Scrum requires teams to be autonomous groups with decision-making authority. How will your company give them that authority? Can your organization handle these types of changes?

Companies that try to implement Agile without going through these change management exercises fight an uphill battle and often end up returning to business as usual.

Misaligned Culture

The number one barrier to adopting Agile, as reported by 52% of respondents to the State of Agile Report, was an organizational culture that was not aligned with Agile. Creating the right culture, or set of behaviors means embracing and adapting to change and being user-focused. Culture change is the indirect effect of implementing the previous steps, not the direct effect. The correct approach to this change is paramount to success. If you want a culture change that lasts, the employees need the right support systems in place to change along with the organization.

Throughout the transformation and afterward, pay special attention to employees internally and customers externally. The organization and its employees will experience several stages during the transformation to Agile: status quo, chaos and resistance, integrations and practice, and new status quo. These stages are similar to Tuckman’s stages of group development (i.e., forming, storming, norming, performing), but at the organizational level. As the organization goes through these stages, support systems need to be present to reinforce Agile concepts and offer support. Additionally, customers and other external stakeholders can’t be forgotten as the methods for addressing their needs change too. Communicating with them and building new levels of trust will be paramount as you transform your business processes.

Agile is a strategic, organizational change that enables changes in policies, procedures, and structures. When implemented successfully, behavior changes will follow. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for implementing Agile, but if you follow these steps, you’re moving in the right direction.

Next Steps

As part of our series on Agile, we’ve discussed how to determine if Agile is right for you, which frameworks to choose, and how to effectively manage the change. In our next article, we’ll dive deeper into building successful teams in an Agile environment.

For those of you that are still in the research phase, remember that Agile methodologies, frameworks, techniques, and buzzwords have little effect if they are not built on the foundation of Agile values and principles. We encourage you to read the Agile Manifesto and invite you to explore the Agile principles and values in our eBook, The Agile Imperative: 5 Questions to Guide You to Agile Excellence.

Sense Corp offers a variety of consulting services across data, digital, and business transformation. Our team of skilled consultants offer insights and solutions to the most important problems facing business and government. To learn more about the services we offer, contact us.

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