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What Executives Can Expect from a Transition to Agile: Part 2

Part 2: What to Expect During the Agile Coaching Process

In the beginning stages of a transition to Agile, you may find yourself wondering, “What have I gotten myself into?” That’s understandable as you face the challenge of making such a dramatic change to your company’s management style. Working with a coach, however, you’ll have the benefits of much past experience gained from projects like yours. And having had the initial conversation about your goals, you’re ready to outline the steps necessary to achieve them and get down to work. Here’s what to expect — and what to do — as you work with a coach to implement a successful Agile transformation.

Communicate commitment

One of the most common problems during the early stages of an Agile transition is employees perceiving a lack of commitment to change at the C-suite level, says Michele Sliger, president of Sliger Consulting and coauthor of The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility. “A pitfall we see often is ‘checkbook commitment,’ as in just writing a check for training and coaching and expecting results,” says Sliger.

“The result can be cynicism — employees have seen it all before and think it’s all just a quick fix and nothing will really change. They know the things that really need to happen, like elimination of bureaucracy, product ownership by the team, getting rid of turf battles and politics. But they think it’s not going to happen and don’t buy in.”

Avoid this by showing through your actions and words that Agile is here to stay, and that executives and managers are committed to making changes themselves. “It’s essential to have true commitment on the part of the executive team, communicate that from the top down, and show the strength of that commitment to the company,” says Sliger.

“The message is: ‘We’ve decided to adopt Scrum, we think we need to move faster to remain competitive, and Agile is going to help us do that. This is not going away, and everyone needs to get on board.’”

Train management

Managers don’t always welcome a transition to Agile, fearing changes to their roles that may undermine their responsibilities and importance. “The solution is to have training at the upper-management level in Agile enablement,” says Sliger. “As an executive, you need to explain why you’re choosing to make this change and communicate what the benefits are that you hope will be acquired as a result.”

Your coach can work with you to help transition managers to their new roles. “You need to explain that there will be a transition, that you’re not expecting it to happen overnight, and that there will be failures and no one is going to be fired as a result,” says Sliger.

“You can draw a map and say, ‘Here are possible career paths; we’ll take our time and figure it out together.’ You’ve got to create a safe environment for people to experiment and fail.”

Identify a starting point

While your goal is an Agile transformation that extends throughout the company, it’s usually best to start small with a pilot project or two, to introduce the concept and provide a testing ground to work out the issues that are inevitably going to arise, says Michael Hamman, director of Agile Leadership Training and Development for the Agile Coaching Institute.

“I usually ask executives, ‘What’s a first experiment we could try that would tell us whether we’re on the right track and help us see what kinds of problems we might encounter?’ Because guess what — there are going to be problems, and it’s better to discover them sooner rather than later.”

Some companies elect to start Agile with a “big bang,” and that can be successful, but it’s generally easier to introduce Agile in an iterative way, says Bob Sarni, founder and principal of iOnAgility. “The big-bang approach can work, but I think using Agile to implement Agile is the best strategy,” says Sarni. “We look for experiments that offer opportunities to uncover learnings and impediments, then take those learnings into the next set of pilots. The key is choosing pilots that will help us uncover barriers early.”

Hamman has another analogy: “Think of it as creating a little petri dish. You see what kind of bacteria grows, and you wouldn’t see that bacteria otherwise.”

Plan for potential friction spots

As you form Scrum teams and set up pilots, be aware of the strong likelihood of disconnects between those doing Scrum and those continuing with a Waterfall managerial style. This is more the norm than not — more than 70 percent of Agile practitioners say they experience tension between their teams and the rest of the organization, according to the Scrum Alliance® 2015 State of Scrum Report. Nor is it surprising, given that Agile teams are working so much faster than their counterparts and making decisions in a very different way.

As an executive, though, you have the opportunity to think ahead about where such trouble spots are likely to occur — typically in linkages between one team or department and another. And you can think about ways to relieve the bottlenecks and sticking points that could frustrate those on both ends.

Be prepared to hit a ceiling

“With any system change, you’re always going to run into some sort of institutional ceiling,” says Hamman. What does he mean by “ceiling”? It’s defined as the point at which things seem to get harder and harder. “At first everything’s going well, and everyone’s enthusiastic and producing great results, but at some point that upward curve starts to flatline, or even starts to go down,” he explains.

But here’s perhaps the biggest surprise of all: In an Agile transition, dips and failures are a good thing. “Part of the larger purpose of doing Agile and Scrum is to reveal what’s not working in your organization so you can clearly see where you need to improve,” says Hamman. “A ceiling or plateau doesn’t mean we failed; it’s part of the process. It means we’ve uncovered some sort of dysfunction in the organization that was invisible before.”

This then sets up an iterative feedback loop that’s central to the Scrum process, Hamman says. “By revealing dysfunctions and understanding them and dealing with them, you improve the organization, and in improving the organization you create conditions that make it possible for Agile teams to do Agile better.”

“Often what we find is that there are existing processes in place that don’t allow teams to apply Agile principles because they were built for Waterfall, hierarchies in place that prevent self-organizing teams, or leaderships styles that don’t support team autonomy,” says Sarni.

This is where effective high-level support and commitment comes in, he says. “When teams run into obstacles preventing them from going forward, there needs to be a place for them to bring those impediments and someone focused on resolving them, such as an executive or Agile management team. You need someone authorized to remove roadblocks.”

Adds Hamman: “When it comes to a dip in productivity, how long it takes to get out of that dip really depends on the amount of support for the change itself.”

Communicate the benefits for everyone

Perhaps the biggest challenge for leaders is keeping everyone’s enthusiasm up during this period of upheaval, when there are bound to be sticky and frustrating moments. One thing that helps is to continually raise awareness that this could be beneficial for everyone. “People realize, ‘If I’m involved in this change and this helps our company, I’ll have greater job security, or job satisfaction, or more autonomy and control over my work,’” says Sarni. “People naturally want to work at a company that’s interested in their benefit.” And who wouldn’t want to do something that both increases company success and helps them enjoy their job more?

 

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