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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 Scum 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?

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.