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Agile Transitions That Work

11/19/2013 by Leonor Urena

An Agile transition, whether at an enterprise level or at a development level, is a state of mind that does not waver. This state of mind must be spread across all areas of the organization. It must become a new corporate culture. There isn't a prescription or simplistic solution for a transition. Agile is an ever-changing discipline that grows out of best practices.

My interpretation and application of Scrum is influenced by W. Edwards Deming. "The 14 points for transformation of management" awakens the individual and provides a higher understanding of what is truly needed for any institution to transform. While written for the manufacturing industry, these points can be applied to any transformation. Deming's first step is to transform the individual.

A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management.
-- W. Edwards Deming

I have used this approach to help various organizational transitions. I find the best way to start any transition is to get management and executives to understand what their role in this is -- understanding up front that they are part of the change and it is not only the development team that will need to make the change. Let's explore this.

Management makes organizational decisions. They decide what processes and procedures need to be in place. Resources are restricted to these processes and procedures, often to a point of being stripped of thought. Don't misunderstand me; processes and procedures are necessary. They are part of the organization's system of management. Herein lies the problem, however. Change can't happen if management's system is not modified.

Now let's take a look at corporate culture. Wikipedia defines "organizational culture" this way: "Culture includes the organization values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs, and habits. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving, and even thinking and feeling. Organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders." Management, through their actions, set the corporate culture. If the organizational culture is one of mistrust and division, the transition will be that much more challenging. My solution to this has been to establish a common set of values all can agree on. Respect, courage, openness, focus, communication -- sounds familiar. In my current engagement I had the opportunity to remind the SVP that it is only through these values that trust will be gained. It is through trust that a partnership between the business side and development will be reached. This state of mind is hard to achieve, but worth trying for.

Second, understand the organization's current system. I use it to understand where it is and what is needed to make the transition. Capture, as much as possible, those elements such as CMMI , Sox Compliance, etc., that are already part of the organization. It is the organization's system we are looking to enhance or change. I don't concentrate on forcing the organization to fit into an Agile framework. I try to fit an Agile framework to the organization to meet the organization's needs. So if they are CMMI, I try to address how to satisfy compliance and be Agile. I think many transitions get stuck on terminology (Waterfall, Agile, Scrum, Kanban, etc.). To move the conversation away from this, I take the road that best fits the organization. Agile transitions should be flexible, adaptable, and experimental. Taking the approach that everything needs to come through as Agile, Scrum, Kanban, or whatever, in one fell swoop, is not sustainable. Small steps will lead to sustainable Agile strides.

The system also includes reviewing roles and responsibilities. Address what changes need to be made early on, because this will help avoid confusion. One of the issues I have consistently seen is fear: fear of change, fear of uncertainty, fear of the unknown. All due to transitions not addressing and identifying role changes early on. People can't be forced into roles they don't want to do. In one of my recent coaching activities, I came across this very scenario. The individual was actually promoted from project manager to operations manager. This went so badly that the employee contemplated quitting. Making everyone part of the transition and communicating what will be needed will lessen the anxiety that builds throughout the transition, and it will help avoid situations such as the one described. I encourage setting up an "Agile Transition Team" that represents key areas. Ownership through this is maximized.

Now that we have worked through changing the corporate culture, selecting a framework, and understanding the roles, we need to find a way to monitor and improve. Crucial activities to the success of the transition are baselined. This would include capabilities, team health, training, quality, agility, etc. This provides an opportunity to monitor and drive change where it is needed. I find that the baseline speaks for itself and makes the argument for change.

Change happens, resistance is futile, so pave the way!