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Eat the Agile Elephant

Agile transformation

2 September 2015

Vasanthan Philip

If management is 200 percent committed to creating an Agile business, the company is likely to survive in the 21st century's global economy. Let's be clear: Agile is here to stay. It is well known that people, not processes and tools, drive change. The challenge organizations face today is how to motivate people to embrace change while keeping current priorities intact.

Software development is not what it was ten years ago. If you don't iterate, you die. Leaders are the enablers for change, so the onus is on them. Leaders at all levels, not just top management, need to embrace change. Of course, Agile has brought about its own set of challenges. Cascading these challenges top-down and enabling decision making, with casual oversight at various levels, leads to a better outcome.

Transformation can only occur when there are changes in behaviors and mindset. What is important to consider is how to introduce this change to people with different skills and experience levels. Common sense might suggest it's easier to change people with little or no experience, but therein lies the challenge. If change does not happen at this level, everything else fails. Therefore, the organization must empower managers to lead change. However, we also know that in the context of Agile, there is no traditional role for a manager. He or she needs to be a servant leader, a role that your managers must understand well. What have you done to promote this concept of the role? It's easy to say to your managers, "Be a servant leader." However, do a few days of training and mentoring make one a servant leader? Is there a metric or yardstick by which to measure your managers to determine whether they are successfully transforming into servant leaders? These are tough questions, but you must ask them.

Not everyone can become a servant leader. Some managers are very good managers; they get things done and produce results. Retain this talent within the organization, but don't waste time trying to transition them to become servant leaders. Be bold and move them around. Agile is a religion, at least at the beginning. If someone cannot imbibe this new religion, move them to another team where they can succeed. There are others who will make a natural transition to becoming a servant leader, a coach, or a mentor.

Also remember that external coaches make significant contributions to help drive Agile transformation. Define the yardstick for them, support them, and trust them. Listen to their advice, and learn from what they preach and practice. When these coaches are good at what they do, they are true servant leaders. Let your new managers mirror them and emulate them.

If Agile is not embraced first, your Scrum, Kanban, or eXtreme programming will fail. Therefore, you must first understand what Agile is. Then you will be able to conduct Scrum or any other Agile event. Eating the Agile elephant is not easy, but, with a little patience, you can take one small bite at a time.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4 (2 ratings)


Robert Day, CSM, 9/2/2015 4:37:06 AM
In a number of knowledge-based organisations I've worked in or with, managers have often been put in that role not because of their managerial skills but because of their technical skills. Those technical skills give them a certain degree of status, and the managerial role goes with that.

The trouble is that technical and managerial skills are two very different things, and people who are good at one won't necessarily be good at the other. This can end up being a source of difficulty in traditional, command-and-control organisations with hierarchical managerial structures.

I think that Agile presents the opportunity to break out of this model, because the role of servant leader is so different to traditional management roles. Although organisations will require a person to be a "manager" for the administrative purposes of distributing pay and rations, using the old matrix management model can help convince senior managers that the servant leader can fit into an existing structure.

In time, as Agile teams get comfortable with selecting one of their number to be the servant leader, based on their own perceptions of each team member's skill strengths and weaknesses, the pressure to embrace Agile will arise from the ground upwards.

Here in the UK, I have seen many companies advertising 'Scrum Master' jobs at quite high salaries; these appear to be attempts by senior people to map a Project Manager role onto Agile roles, and a few moments spent looking at the job descriptions shows that in a lot of cases, the senior management haven't grasped the ideas behind Agile, Scrum and self-organisation and are just treating the Scrum Master job title as a new label to apply to an existing job. That sort of thinking is one of the things that will change in time as more teams and more people come to understand the changes that Agile will bring about.
Vasanthan Philip, CSP,CSM,REP, 9/3/2015 2:47:12 AM
Thanks Robert for your candid observation. Like you say, fitting in someone from a traditional PM role to an Agile role has been the biggest challenge that companies face today.

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