Agile transformations can be undertaken for a myriad of reasons, but the fact is, no matter the reason, the changes that are required to transform the organization are largely the same. There are organizational changes, roles to be created, incentive plans to be reworked, financial planning re-evaluated, leadership, and then finally, the teams.
Most organizations start with the teams and decide that a top-down supported bottom-up transformation will work, but this is a fallacy. If you want a transformation to work, the entire leadership team needs to be bought in, from the board of directors down. This is no mere way of changing the way teams work, this is changing the way the whole organization operates. The teams are the easy part, but the change within the teams is going to highlight the problems that they encounter on a daily basis, and it’s going to require a lot of hard work by the people at the very top. If they’re not bought-in to an agile mindset, you’re going to have a bad time.
Let’s look at the way most organizations start a transformation. The original plan may have been put together by a middle manager that’s been tasked with the transformation, but not empowered or understanding of what they’ve been asked to do. For that matter, the people at the top that want the 35% increase in productivity don’t really understand how that’s achieved. They’re going to start planning it like they would any other project, build out an MS Project plan in excruciating detail from start to finish. The plan will have a lot of goals that may or may not be at all achievable. They’re going to start working with teams and having some degree of success, but they’re also going to uncover a lot of the built-in problems that the organization hasn’t been acknowledging over the years. These problems are going to have to be dealt with, they’re going to have to be resolved if the teams are going to continue to move forward. As these problems aren’t resolved, teams will start to be discouraged, and morale will drop significantly. People will stop reporting problems because they know nothing will be done about them. It’s back to business as usual and teams will revert to what they’re used to, and the previous success will be long forgotten. Management will look at the situation and determine that the fault lies within agile and not necessarily their organization. They’ll put the agile transformation in the pile of failed management initiatives.
Now let’s look at what could be possible If the leadership does embody an agile mindset from the beginning. Start at the very top of the organization by helping them adjust their leadership style to embrace agile values of empowerment, psychological safety, safety to fail, optimizing the whole, intent-driven leadership, etc.; these changes alone will reap benefits for the organization. They’ll start creating company and product visions that will excite their teams, make them want to come to work because they have a purpose. The leaders will start to see the problems that are inherent in the organization, and start solving them. They’ll see how their structure is built to maximize efficiency in any one area, at the expense of making it more difficult to get things done overall. They’ll see the cost of centralizing command and not pushing decisions to the place where the information is. They’ll see that there is no chance of innovation without psychological safety and freedom to fail. They’ll also recognize that by setting intent instead of directives, they are embracing the creativity of the entire organization rather than relying on 1 or 2 people to come up with all the ideas. Some of these problems are BIG and will take a while to resolve, but will provide immense benefit to the organization when they are.
This is where we start pushing it down into the levels of middle management and the teams. They’ll see their leaders acting in this new way, and they’ll be more receptive to changing how they’re thinking and behaving. The teams will see this new space they’re given to start deciding how they’re going to solve issues, and as they see the changes, they’ll start stepping into this new ownership over their experience.
By starting at the top of the organization and their mindset, we’ve avoided the trough of despair and pushed enlightenment forward. Expectations will be more realistic, and teams will fully embrace and buy the change that they’re seeing at all levels above them. This will create a sustainable change within the organization, and reap the benefits of agile for the organization that goes far beyond productivity. This will create an engaged workforce that’s willing to try new ideas, push the envelope of what’s possible, and teams that will go the extra mile willingly when necessary.