10 Things Business Leadership Should Do for Successful Agile Adoption

13 December 2013


Agile adoption is a collaborative effort. Leaders of technology, business, and corporate functions should work in tandem to adopt Agile ways of working.Typically, the IT organization leads the Agile transformation journey. However, to sail smoothly and arrive at the desired state, business leaders have to commit their support throughout that journey.

Here are ten things that business leadership should do to help the company successfully travel the Agile-adoption path.

1. Understand Agile methods and their benefits.
Agile is not just another model. Business leaders should understand that it is a way of working that calls for mind-set changes and operational swiftness. The business teams should be encouraged, and at times even mandated, to work at the pace of the tech teams that have embraced Agile.

For the leaders to trigger these changes in their business teams, they need to understand the benefits of doing projects using Agile methods. The IT organization plays a key role in educating the business team on these benefits and has to work with the key stakeholders to identify value indicators for the business. Business leaders should, in turn, engage closely with the tech teams to appreciate how Agile can help them realize business benefits in shorter cycles.

2. Believe in the change.
With an understanding of the Agile method, business leaders should develop a conviction that Agile practices will indeed result in faster deliveries and improved quality. They should encourage their tier leaders and managers to explore more deeply with the tech teams and clear the cloud of pessimism in embarking on a new way of working.

Here again, tech teams play a major role in enabling better understanding of Agile, specifically the role of business leaders and the responsibilities of managers and subject matter experts. This understanding will improve the confidence of the business stakeholders and help them see the benefits of the Agile way of planning and executing projects.

3. Fund for experimenting.
Traditional ways of working can condition business leaders to expect the last level of detail in the business case and to look for reaffirmation of benefits from multiple angles before funding a project. At best, for new technology solutions or risky proposals, business leaders may release limited funds for a proof of concept. This approach usually results in drawn-out planning, estimating, and convincing procedures before actual solution development can commence.

However, in the Agile world of solution development, it is all about inspecting and adapting: Start with a high level understanding, build the solution piece by piece, and make inflight course corrections along the way. Thus the solution development process is a cycle of experiments at every decision point. If the series of experiments fails, the solution is declared infeasible -- but this happens before wasting time and money. Business leaders should appreciate the value of these experimenting cycles and fund them. After all, successful experimentation will result in valuable functionality with built-in quality sprint after sprint, and business will see the returns on the funding.

4. Empower the product owners.
The product owner (PO) is almost the face of the business for the tech teams. It is imperative that business leaders identify the right POs, who are not only functional experts with a clear understanding of the business strategies but are also good at communication, motivation, and teamwork.

Business leaders have to empower the POs to make key decisions at different points during the development cycle. These decisions could relate to functionality, feature prioritization, release timing, solution alternatives, and so on. An empowered PO who enjoys the trust of the business leaders will be in a position to provide the right direction to the tech teams and own the responsibility of maximizing business value.

5. Actively participate in development.
While POs will continuously engage with the tech teams, key business stakeholders should participate in product demos -- even in the case of work in progress -- and contribute with ideas for improvement. They could also bring in key people from the end-user community to see the demos and provide real-time feedback.

As a means to build in quality, business stakeholders could even ask for offline validation of critical features at a separate time -- without disturbing the rhythm of the sprints.

6. Encourage tech awareness of business domain experts.
Leaders should facilitate improving the tech awareness of the business stakeholders. Often what business perceives as a simple workaround could in fact be a technical challenge for the technical implementation team. Business leaders should encourage their representatives to listen to tech challenges/feasibility issues and positively approach alternative solutions proposed by tech teams.

Where the technical alternatives proposed by the development team are costly, business leaders should be willing to budget for them or be open to defer or drop certain functionalities.

7. Gear up to take in more from the tech teams.
When done right, Agile projects develop functionality in shorter intervals. If the business teams are used to semiannual or annual release cycles, they may be in for a surprise when they find they can accommodate quicker releases. Leaders should enable business teams to adapt to this change. Some key steps for consideration could be:
  • Orienting the business teams to Agile methods
  • Articulating new/changed responsibilities
  • Training in new/changed ways of engaging with tech teams
  • Providing time and budget for user trainings
  • Supporting tuning/expanding deployment environments
  • Guiding vendors to work at a changed pace
While working at the changed pace and taking in more functionality, business should also be flexible in terms of scope, release, and budget for a given set of functionalities. Here the insights provided by the product owner are critical to making major release decisions and planning for funds.

8. Reward success but don't penalize initial setbacks.
Agile adoption leads to reduction in time to market and provides quicker value to business. While business leaders may celebrate successful Agile deliveries, they should also appreciate that Agile is about discovering infeasible alternatives earlier in order to protect and better use the remaining budget. Therefore they should expect course corrections based on initial "failure" instead of taking a hard stand on a "failed" project.

9. Communicate and foster adoption within business teams.
Leadership communication is one of the key pillars of any change management initiative. The Agile way of working calls for several changes in the way the business, tech, and support teams work. Business leaders should articulate this change in their communications to their internal teams and their external stakeholders. They should also bring on board their corporate teams, such as finance and HR, and enable them to adapt to the new ways of working.

Through branding and constant communication, leaders should foster adoption in their organizations and make the changes stick in order to achieve sustainable results.

10. Demand faster value demonstration!
Finally, business is entitled to a fair return for investing in the change. Leaders should develop the necessary governance and periodically review the key milestones in Agile adoption. They should demand tangible and sustainable business value from the tech teams when the Agile methods stabilize. Tech teams are accountable for providing visibility into Agile adoption and should articulate the value delivered to business.

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Comments

Eric King, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 12/16/2013 12:00:23 PM
Hello Ravishankar. This is an excellent article and I do appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experiences. I especially liked items 5 and 8, which frequently get overlooked by teams and companies starting their first Agile journey. I'll always encourage active participation at various levels in the organization. In addition, management teams can have a very positive impact at the team level by encouraging teams to succeed as well as to fail. Nice job once again.
Ravishankar N, CSM, 12/23/2013 1:16:41 AM
Thank you Eric for the comments. You are righ, management teams should encourage and motiave scrum teams to work to their fullest.

Happy to discuss this topic further.

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