Agile Transformation: 5 Ways to Establish a Sense of Urgency

10 October 2013

Tirrell Payton
Payton Consulting, Inc



When a client engages an Agile coach, there are two common reasons:
  • They want hands-on help through the transformation process, from start to finish.
  • They tried to do it themselves and have hit a plateau in adoption.
Sometimes there is a gap in understanding what Agile is about: Companies think of Agile as "just another SDLC methodology" as opposed to a new "thought framework" that will impact the whole organization.
 
Creating major change in an organization is tough. The change process in the context of an Agile transformation is even more tricky, because it tends to radiate out from the development group, rather than down from executive management. So you can run into a situation where marketing and legal are asking, "Why do we have to know about this Agile stuff? We don't do software." You have to be able to drive that change out, up, then down. And for that, you will need to create a sense of urgency.
 
Creating a strong sense of urgency requires bold, if not risky, actions that we normally associate with good leadership. We typically don't see real leadership because companies are mostly "overmanaged and underled," and having "everything under control (managed)" is the central value. It's hard to get someone to take bold action if they have been rewarded for 30 years for being cautious and prudent. Here are some ways to establish a sense of urgency:
 
1. Create a crisis by making an organizational failure very, very visible. Most companies try to hide, obfuscate, or downplay organizational failures. An example would be missing a key product delivery deadline because of gridlock in the legal department. Instead of chalking it up to "that's just how it goes sometimes," focus on it, talk about it, force conversations about it, and use it as leverage to shock people into talking about change.
 
2. Share data about customer satisfaction and financial performance across the organization. This is another area where I see obfuscation. How on earth will people feel a sense of urgency if senior management is always telling everyone, "Things are fine"? Share this information across the company so that everyone is talking from the same point of reference.
 
3. Insist that people talk regularly to dissatisfied customers, unhappy suppliers, and disgruntled shareholders. "But that's the job of customer service!" We are all customer service. Have developers talk to dissatisfied customers and they will learn more in a five-minute conversation than in a month of customer satisfaction surveys. Have the CEO take a few customer service calls. Have everyone share the pain. Again, this serves to put everyone on equal footing in understanding where the shortcomings are, and it increases the urgency level.
 
4. Put more honest discussions of the firm's problems in company newspapers and senior management speeches. American corporate culture tends to do a lot of cheerleading when things are going well, and a lot of cheerleading when things are going poorly. Your employees are not children. Be honest, air out the issues, and ensure that they are talked about every day and are at the top of everyone's agenda.
 
5. Bombard people with information on future opportunities, on the wonderful rewards for capitalizing on those opportunities, and on the organization's current inability to pursue those opportunities. Make the pain and shortcomings visible. This will serve to incite people to ask why, and this will activate their competitive streak to try to go after these market opportunities. Urgency increased!

Creating a sense of urgency plants the seeds of successful change.

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Comments

Phillip Stiby, CSM, 10/10/2013 1:48:46 AM
I like it, there is a lot of buzz around the term "disruption" this is more so the case now as I find senior management are starting to take on Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters aware that there will be a wave of disruption which leaves a positive change in its wake.
Vignesh Kizhakkanjeri Natarajan, CSM, 10/10/2013 6:51:42 PM
Spot on. Success of any transformation program depends on the level of involvement from senior management. More so in the case of Agile transformation because it additionally requires letting go of the idea that it is an IT focused initiative.
Justin Leader, CSM, 10/10/2013 10:52:24 PM
As a consultant, I can see the "risky" danger in all of these. Even as an employee trying to spearhead this internally, these are dangerous suggestions. I would only suggest these be done by seasoned professionals or those with an innate ability at office politics.

BUT when properly done, I totally agree that these are really powerful strategies. Could you talk a little more about how you've managed to do these things without getting fired or having people retrench and be defensive?
Srinath Ramakrishnan, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 10/11/2013 1:39:38 AM
Nice article. Transformation is not easy - and the pain one undergoes during it, pays off at the end.
Todd Wilson, CSP,CSM, 10/11/2013 1:37:58 PM
@Justin Leader, I couldn't agree more. I'd like to see the results of these suggestions and understadn how they were measured. The suggestions are interesting but in practice would pose to be difficult to implement. I can think of many strategies to implement each bullet statement. Ultimately deciding on which to implement and how to implement each would depend on the goal I was trying to achieve and the culture in which I'm trying to achieve the results.
Terry Floyd, CSM, 10/15/2013 7:27:01 AM
These are some great suggestions. Thanks for sharing!

I also agree with Justin and Todd. The key is getting management involved and willing to share. Then taking a change agent within the organization to foster healthy failure and improvement.

My experience has been that some people just struggle with embracing agility and failure in general. I believe that discussing these points with your team and getting feedback can be a good barometer on how soon / much you should implement. For instance, if you discuss point #1 with your team and there is some skepticism maybe suggest that making some failure visible vs. organization failure very, very visible.
Colin Sweetman, CSM, 10/24/2013 7:28:47 AM
Good article. I think Tirrell understands that this strategy has risk associated with it, but he's being disruptive by being bold in his article, and that sparks debate - very clever. I think the key thing is that a good coach understands they are a change agent, and diplomatically sparking disruption without explosion is part of overcoming corporate inertia. You have to tune your approach to work best within the culture of the client you are working with. However, as a general rule if you are an external coach, you can get away with a lot more than an employee can. I plead ignorance of "the way things are done here" and tend to ask for forgiveness after the event rather than permission before it.
Tirrell Payton, CSP,CSM, 11/20/2013 11:31:10 AM
Thanks for all the comments and feedback. Without a sense of urgency, many organizations fail to change. My job as a coach is typically the guy who "Hands Leadership a Mirror". These are all mirror handing exercises.
Krishna Chodipilli, CSP,CSM, 11/20/2013 1:08:23 PM
This article reminds me that at the top of the intelligence hierarchy isn’t the individual genius, but the genius maker who has the wisdom to lead the experts and evoke the reason to change. Well documented and highly recommended.
@Justin I agree with you but as a seasoned coach one should analyse environment (Internal& external), formulate the strategies (used in the article and or) and work with your team to implement. I have not seen teams change for the sake of Change but with the right reasons then ‘Yes’.
Vijay Wade, CSM, 11/20/2013 10:50:55 PM
Thanks Tirrel for sharing! I believe you may be implementing this in lot more smooth manner than the way you have written it (Aggressively). Your article reminded me of Jack Welch's solution in his book WINNING. However I believe specially in IT companies the Aggression(Loud) has little tolerance than the the one which is controlled. I would like to implement these suggestions but much more in controlled manner like already pointed by Colin Sweetman & Tod Wilson before. BUT one thing is not clear from your article - you are actually telling them what lies beneath but you are not vocal about how Agile will solve it. Unless you do that we must be still in the same boat rather we will create a hole in it. I also agree somehow with Justin Leader and Krishna Chodipilli.
Arunkumar Kamalakannan, CSM, 11/21/2013 3:09:10 AM
Good article. Putting more and honest information to everyone in the organization needs cultural changes. It needs lot of courage to do so. Because it might impact on employees behaviors when people are exposed to bad situations.
Kwaku Ampomah, CSPO, 11/21/2013 6:11:02 AM
Thank you Tirrell - just joined a new organisation and this article really helps ........ and can I just add 'not just in America' - :-)
Dyaneshwaran Periyasamy, CSP,CSM, 11/28/2013 8:33:13 AM
Rocking article!

As some of you have commented, doing all of these is not easy. I tried being disruptive with out a well thought strategy and it didn't work. So having a well thought out strategy for the organizational change management is important. The strategy can be reviewed regularly but there should be one. Else you may be fired :)
Nick Henson, CSP,CSM, 1/17/2014 8:24:31 AM
Good article Tirrell.

My experience of agile transformations within banking shows that some have the belief that agile is just another SDLC method or management initiative.

Many agile transformations are a combination of top down and bottom up approach. Before taking on an assignment I like to ensure that there is a senior manager sponsoring the agile transformation. If there is no appetite from change at a senior level I walk away. It is difficult enough undertaking an agile transformation without senior support giving you backing for change.

I particularly like the visualisation of customer satisfaction data and the sentence we are all customer service focussed in agile projects. It reinforces the agile manifesto principles of:
• Our highest priority is to satisfy customers;
• Business people and developers working together daily throughout;
• Agile processes harness change for the customers competitive advantage

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