This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Manifesto for Agile Software Development , a lot has changed since then both in terms of how Agile is applied, and also where. No longer is it just a method for software development and it is widely (and successfully) applied to all sorts of organisations and types of work. The potential benefits of “going Agile” or doing an Agile transformation may include improved efficiency, collaboration, reduction of waste and increased customer satisfaction.

Above all, it offers a structured way to deal with the unknown, uncertainty and changing priorities. No wonder more and more organisations are looking to do an Agile transformation!

Agile transformations, like any other type of organisational change, can be difficult.

The 15th Annual State of Agile Report (2021) reports that the most common challenges experienced in Agile transformations are:

  • Inconsistencies in processes and practices
  • Cultural clashes
  • General resistance to change
  • Lack of skills and experience
  • Lack of visible leadership support and participation

These challenges are not unique to Agile transformations! They are the common challenges in any type of change and we must therefore ensure we draw upon change management best practice when planning an Agile transformation.

This article outlines 11 keys to success for Agile transformations that will help anyone who is looking to implement, or support, an Agile transformation.

1) Know your WHY

Agile transformations are not “one-size-fits-all”, and neither is Agile itself. Agile is not an end in itself – it is a means to achieve specific goals and objectives. How you do your transformation – and what you transform into depends on what it is you are trying to achieve, or WHY you are doing it. Before you do anything else you must therefore ensure you have a clear WHY.

(It is not good enough to say “just because” or “everyone else is doing it”!)

The WHY will drive your success in several ways;

  • It will verify and confirm that an Agile transformation really is the right thing for you to do
  • It will give you meaningful factors to measure during and after the transformation to ensure you can prove your success
  • It forms the backbone of your communications to stakeholders. Change management best practices teach that people are more likely to resist change (transformations) when they do not understand or buy into why it is happening. If you cannot articulate your WHY how can you expect your stakeholders to understand or buy into it?!

In addition, taking the time to establish a clear WHY is extra important in the context of Agile because (let’s face it:) Agile has become a bit of a buzzword. Many organisations jump on it because it is “the thing to do”.

It is important to establish if you really need Agile with a capital A (a methodology with new processes, tools, approaches and mindsets) or if you just need to become a bit more agile (a way of doing things a bit more quick and nimble)? We can bring agility in our ways of working without changing our methodology.

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2) Know Agile

Is Agile the right thing for you and your WHY? Then it is time for you to take steps to learn more about what Agile is and how it will work in your team or organisation.

Agile is not just one thing, it is an umbrella term that captures many different frameworks and methods. Assuming your interest is in applying Agile in projects, you will most likely use Scrum (the most popular framework for managing Agile projects according to the State of Agile 2021). The rest of this article will assume that when we say Agile we mean Agile with Scrum, but you must think critically about what Agile is right for you and your organisation.

It is also important that you understand what aspects of your current way of working will need to change (the exact change and the degree of change will be unique to your team or organisation and dependent on your WHY)

The PMI outlines the elements of Agile as Tools & Processes, Practices, Principles, Values and Mindset. Typically these are the aspects or elements, that will need to change to some degree in an Agile transformation.

Agile Elements
Agile Practice Guide (2017)
Project Management Institute

3) Align culture

Some bad news first; it doesn’t matter how excited you are about Agile, or how many benefits it could bring the organisation…if Agile doesn’t fit with the culture it simply will not work. If your WHY is very strong it might be worth trying to change the culture but beware that this is a huge undertaking and will require significant effort and coordination across the organisation.

The Agile Manifesto

Some good news though. The Agile Manifesto set out quite clearly what the culture should be like to support Agile:

The Agile Manifesto

Scrum

In addition, Scrum (the most common framework for how to manage projects with Agile) defines three values that underpin all Scrum practices.

  • Transparency
  • Inspection
  • Adaptation

If you are to apply Scrum successfully the Scrum values must run like a silver thread through everything you do. If you have not already familiarised yourself with the values and how they work now is a good time to do so and identify how your team or organisation needs to change. You can learn more about Scrum guides here.

4) Know your people

Culture is critical but so are people! If you do not bring people along on the journey of change, the change will fail. People are creatures of habit and geared towards preferring the old and the known. Any change introduces something new and uncertain, people don’t like that so will often resist the change effort. A big part of the transformation effort must therefore be focused on the people and their needs.

Start by identifying who the people (stakeholders) are and how they will be impacted.

  • Does their role change?
  • Their relationship to their team?
  • Do the expectations on them change or will their expectations need to change?

5) Prepare for change

Prepare people

Based on your stakeholder identification and the impact analysis you have done, now you must take steps to make your people ready for change. This involves identifying what they need to know and what they need to be able to do, both through the change and in the future state after the change. Don’t forget that people tend to resist changes when they do not understand or buy into why the change is happening. Use the WHY you have clarified as a focal point to your communications and engagements!

Without a doubt, preparing people for change will involve some form of training. It is worth taking some time to understand the theory of learning so that you invest in the right training and also build the right type of support around it.

A common model for explaining how learning work is the 70/20/10 model. It teaches us that;

  • 10% of our learning comes from what we hear in the classroom
  • 20% comes from other people
  • 70% comes from experiences, learning by doing

This is very important to bear in mind when we prepare our teams to go Agile. It is not enough to send them to a training course for a couple of days and then expect them to come back and be “ready to go”. You must also give them the opportunity to try new practices, fail and adapt. AND, along the way, they should be supported by relevant coaches.

Pay extra attention to the senior leadership!

The leadership will help or hinder your transformation simply by talking the (right) talk and walking the (right) walk. Ensure they understand and buy into the WHY and that they understand their role and what they must do differently. You may need to address the leadership in many different ways to cater for personality, preference and availability. It can be time-consuming but it will be worth it!

Prepare the organisation and technology too

An Agile transformation can have ripple effects throughout the organisation. For example, a change in how and when project estimating is done might impact both accounting and procurement. Understanding those ripple effects might highlight areas where Agile methods have to be tailored to suit the needs of the organisation or vice versa.

Consider what technology and tools are available. Do you have tools to help teams work in Agile ways or do you need to invest? Use your knowledge of Agile and think about what tools are needed. Consider Kanban boards, burn charts etc.

Make sure the team understand how to use them and that they can use them well – this might require additional training.

6) Manage expectations

Agile takes time and will require cycles of trying, failing and adapting. This can be incredibly frustrating for the teams themselves and for other stakeholders who might have expected an overnight success. Managing expectations around the patience, tenacity and discipline that is required will therefore be key to success.

7) Choose the right approach

There are many different ways to do a change. We can take a “big bang” approach where the change is rolled out “overnight” to the whole organisation or we can take a more gradual or iterative approach, start small and build from there.

Different organisations and circumstances will benefit from different approaches. But in general – why not be Agile to get Agile? Start small. Identify one project or one team to start with. Let them try it out, learn from their experience to scale up.

8) Support, but do not intervene

Development team, Scrum Master and Product Owner

Scrum has some very clearly defined roles and responsibilities that enable the team to be truly self-organising which is vital for them to be able to apply Scrum successfully. It is therefore important that the team is supported but not undermined.

If you are external to the team you have to balance being helpful and not intervening. You must not take on responsibilities or decisions that should sit with the team or the Agile transformation will fail.

9) Know yourself

You may not be an Agile expert (now), but there is a huge amount of information and literature available to help you educate yourself to talk the right talk and make informed decisions. However, there are aspects of the transformation where you will need to help of someone who has practical experience as well as “book-smarts”.  A typical example is Agile coaching. For coaching to be truly valuable you want the coach to be someone who has hands-on experience and who has faced the kind of challenges the team is experiencing.

Scrutinise yourself: do you have both theoretical understanding and practical experience enough to help the team? If not; find someone that does!

If you are hiring an Agile Coach, or for that matter a Scrum Master – scrutinise their experience. Make sure they don’t just talk the talk but also walk the walk.

10) Reinforce the transformation

People are at the heart of change and people are creatures of habit. If change is not reinforced people tend to fall back into their old ways of working.

Things we can do to reinforce the transformation;

  • Keep reinforcing the WHY.
  • Ensure there is coaching for people practising Agile to support them and also help them course-correct if/when need be
  • Recognise and reward the right behaviours. Not just from the team but from the wider organisation as well. That senior leader that got on board first – call them out!
  • Celebrate successes. Got that first jump in customer satisfaction scores? Yay – broadcast it far and wide!
  • Remove alternative ways of working. As soon as the new ways are established make sure there is no option to revert to the old ways.

11) Learn your lessons

Agile transformations will be experienced differently by different organisations, and the end result is likely to differ as well as you learn what to adapt to. Make sure you learn from experience to repeat successes and avoid mistakes. Make sure lessons learned are worked into your processes and practices, and not just for Agile practices but for how the organisation does change in the future.

Finally, bring your lessons learned and record of success with you on the journey to scale Agile through the organisation. You will now know what it takes for Agile to be successful in your organisation – so look for those indicators and start again!

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