What Executives Can Expect from a Transition to Agile: Part 1

Part 1: What to Expect When You Meet with an Agile Coach

So you want to take your company Agile. Welcome to the club; according to a May 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review, not only has Agile innovation “revolutionized the software industry . . . now it is poised to transform nearly every other function in every industry.”

You know you need to work with a coach, and that process is poised to begin. What can you expect from your first conversations, and how can you prepare yourself to take full advantage of the process you’re about to embark upon?

Take the long view

When you begin an Agile transformation, your coach will work with you to understand and define your reasons and goals, not just in the present but far into the future of your company. “I ask executives, ‘What do you think success would look like a year from now, or 18 months from now, and much further into the future?’ and we start from there,” says Michael Hamman, director of Agile Leadership Training and Development for the Agile Coaching Institute.

With that in mind, the first few questions a coach is likely to ask you may be a little more general than you might expect. “I might start out by asking, ‘What’s going on around here, what’s going on with you, with your team, and with the organization?’” says Hamman. “It’s important to have a sense of where you are now before you start talking about where you want to go.”

In other words, from the executive standpoint, a coach is much more than a trainer; he or she is a facilitator for a transformational process. “Think of the coach as a disorienting partner” charged with provoking you into new ways of thinking about your company and mission, says Hamman,

Identify whats behind the need for change

When asked why you want to go Agile, you may have specific reasons, or just a sense that Agile companies are more competitive in today’s marketplace. Either way, your coach will probably want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. “Sometimes organizations start off with, ‘We want to do Agile,’ but what they really need to start off with is what is it that needs to change,” says Bob Sarni, founder and principal of iOnAgility. “I have to explain that you don’t jump straight into implementation. There’s a little bit of groundwork we need to do before that.”

Organizational change models such as John Kotter’s 8-Step Process, ADKAR, and the Virginia Satir Change Model can be extremely helpful in thinking about what’s driving the need for change, Sarni says. “Having some familiarity with these concepts, and some understanding of how these different organizational models work and how all the pieces and parts fit together, will help you have the discussions you need to be having with your coach, whether you’re going to implement Agile in a department or in the whole organization.”

Identifying these drivers usually means drilling down to what’s not working, Sarni says. It may be a general issue: “Maybe they want to increase focus on innovation or create a more collaborative culture.” Or it might be easiest to articulate something very specific. “An example could be: We really need to reduce support calls by a certain percentage to reduce costs,” he says.

“Using these models helps you create a sense of urgency around something that needs to change and helps your employees understand the motivating reasons,” Sarni says. In other words, you want to ask yourself why you are even having these discussions.

Define — and redefine — goals

In most cases, the goals for transitioning to Scrum fall somewhere within the category of doing more in less time and at less cost. But goals can be limiting, too, so your coach may nudge you to use them as a starting point for bigger explorations of what an Agile transformation can do for your company. For example, says Hamman, you might start out saying your goal is to increase speed, because your competitors are beating you to market.

“But while you might think getting there faster will help you beat your competition, that may not actually be what their secret sauce is. And by just going for speed to market, we might miss the fact that, as an organization, we’re not really enthusiastic about our product,” Hamman says. “What you want to look at is, what is our vision as an organization? What are we really here to do?”

Assess how things work

That’s where assessment comes in. As early in the process as possible, the coach will ask you how you do things now and how you’d like to do them differently. “One way that a lot of coaches will work with the executive team is to do an initial assessment, asking, ‘What is the current state of how work happens now?’” says Sarni. Some of the questions Sarni suggests asking yourself and your team:

  • How do we come up with ideas?
  • How do we fund ideas?
  • How do teams deliver those ideas?
  • How do we involve our customers?
  • How do our teams work together?

“We want to get an idea of the current state of the company, then use our experiences and what we know about Agile organizations to see where we can uncover some potential risks and impediments,” Sarni says.

Be ready to learn

As you work with a coach to plan your company's transition to Agile, you’ll need to make many decisions. To prepare for those, it’s important to understand what Scrum can and can’t do. Many executives mistakenly think Agile basically means doing things faster and better, without understanding that these are positive by-products from a more fundamental change — one that will require those at the C-suite and managerial levels to become more hands-off, say Hamman and Sarni. Or, when they understand that Agile requires giving up “command and control” management, some executives fear that the result will be chaos, so they try to institute reporting and authorization systems that hamstring results.

Be prepared: A good coach will emphasize that in reality, Scrum done right can free you to have more leadership power, not less — but it’s leadership at a different level. A thorough grasp of how Scrum really operates and the conditions necessary for it to work will be essential to the success of the transformation.

It can also help to understand some of the most common forms of Agile, which are often mixed and matched. Your coach may note that, in addition to Scrum, which you’ll be using to set up flexible and adaptive team-based processes, you might want to incorporate elements of Kanban, designed to eliminate bottlenecks, or Lean Agile, which focuses on streamlining processes and cutting out waste.

Who’s on your team?

Scrum is all about teams, and that includes the executive leadership, which is where it all starts and ends. “In this kind of work, you need a solid leadership team to lead and manage all the things that need to be done in order to facilitate long-term transformational change,” says Hamman. As part of your initial assessment, Hamman says, expect your coach to ask whether you have the people you need in place to help drive these initiatives, and how ready they are for this kind of deep change.

“The executive or leadership team can help set strategic goals, brainstorm how to move this forward, and, as time goes on, help remove impediments that surface as teams are working through initial pilots,” says Sarni.

Most importantly, though, the leadership team functions as inspiration and model, letting employees know they’ll have the support they need to make such big changes. “The leadership team exemplifies the kind of culture you’re trying to create — everyone in the company is looking up to see, ‘Are they simply giving us orders, or are they with us?’” says Hamman. “So [leaders] need to walk the walk.”

And this is exactly what a good coach is there to help you do.