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Management Buy-in and Support in Agile Adoption

by Ben Linders on Jan 30, 2014 |

Adopting agile is an organization change which involves management. It is said that management buy-in is crucial for agile to succeed and that a lack of management support can be a barrier in agile transformations. There are different ways for management to support agile in enterprises.

In the blog post prescriptive Scrum Arijit Sarbagna talks about the importance of management buy-in and support in agile adoption:

Let's assume we are working on an Agile project, where our Agile rollout has not been top-down but rather a futile attempt at "bottom-up." In such cases, it's likely that we are missing out on that crucial element called "management buy-in." Lacking this support, we are probably stepping into a state where most of our good intentions of creating a self-organized team will hit a dead-end. And as a ScrumMaster or a coach, we will be spending most of our efforts convincing management (or our client, for the matter), rather than actually guiding our teams.

According to Arijit supporting self-organizing teams can be difficult for managers to do:

(…) management teams suffer from the dilemma of deciding how much leeway their teams should have in becoming "self-organized." This is the fun part, where we have to deal with management to explain how Agile works, and that in order to make it work, they should trust Agile. At times we do have to remind them that even Waterfall will not succeed, if we never trust our people. Trust is the pillar to success, and then we add our engineering practices around it.

He suggests that managers should not enforce Scrum:

But if we are suffering from Prescriptive Scrum, most likely we are being instructed by management as to how Agile should be done (or how it should not be done) -- this by a group of people who probably have not done Agile but have only been through theory and, to make things worse, some "failure stories."

Instead Arijit suggests to “preach and encourage others to understand Agile and, accordingly, embrace the practice”.

Zvonimir Križ wrote a blog post dear management, we’re already agile in which he questions if a lack of management support is really a barrier for agile adoption. The real problem might be the perception that, when focusing on the practices instead of principles, a top-down approach is the only way to implement agile:

Starting directly from practices like Scrum could make you believe that you need deep organizational changes to start your agile journey. And organizational change needs, you guess – management support. What’s even more interesting that another reason is waterfall itself. To be more precise waterfall’s big upfront planning rule. It’s a kind of thinking legacy built into our brains that everything, including agile adoption, should be planned in details to succeed. And such big upfront planning and big decisions need, again – management.

He suggests that you can also apply a bottom-up approach to adopt agile:

People sometimes forget that bottom-up approach to agile adoption is all legal.

Everyone should be aware that adopting some agile principles DOES NOT depend about management. (…) You can start tomorrow. No excuses!

Jeff Sutherland did an interview about agile done right and agile gone wrong where he talks about leadership and teams. Jeff shared this interview on his Google Plus page where he mentioned that management can support agile by doing it themselves:

It is not about management buy-in. It is about Agile management being Agile and leading and demonstrating the change. In some fairly large companies we have senior management functioning as a Scrum team. They don't give permission to do Scrum, they do Scrum themselves and expect the teams to do as they do.

What about middle management support in agile adoption? Em Campbell-Pretty wrote about advice for agile coaches on "dealing with" middle management. She explains why management buy-in is so important:

When working with development teams, the buy in of middle management is critical. Middle Management can be either a force for good or kryptonite to an agile transformation effort. If teams perceive that management does not support agile, how will they ever feel safe to experiment and risk failure? I have seen agile adoption attempted in organisations where management still holds a traditional mindset. It can be devastating for teams that have invested in agile values like transparency, to be reprimanded by management for exposing the truth.

She gives a suggestion on how to deal with resistance from middle managers:

Some managers are going to find Agile threatening. Implementing agile most likely means change and no one likes having change done to them.  In this scenario, rather than “pitching” Agile to resistant managers, perhaps consider the advice Dennis Stevens and Mike Cottmeyer, gave at Agile 2013 and don’t talk about Agile. Instead, focus on the objectives of the business and how you can help management achieve their goals or alleviate their pain.

Often middle managers are in a difficult position in organizations. According to Em agile coaches should take that into account and look for ways to work with them and support them:

The life of a middle manager isn't easy, they are essentially the “meat in the sandwich” between the organisation's Senior Executives and operational staff. It is not unusual for middle management to have more responsibility than authority.  This can be immensely frustrating and it makes me wonder if the prevalence of command and control style management is a direct consequence of how dis-empowered middle managers feel in large, bureaucratic organisations. Shifting the focus of middle management away from frustration with organisational red tape to improving the lives of the folk who work for them can be rewarding for both the manager and the teams. Don't forget, middle managers are just as prone to the WIFM (what's in to for me) factor as anyone else.  They have to understand how agile will make them successful.

Mike McLaughlin wrote a blog post about the agile coach on patience, where he talks about the impact of agile adoption for middle managers:

Many middle managers seem to have a difficult time letting go of the controls. They still feel the need to intervene. They’ve been micromanaging for years, possibly decades, so breaking these practices is tough. Even if they’ve been trained on the importance of giving more authority to their team, in the back of their mind, they’re not sure the team can handle it, so they find themselves continuing to micromanage.

It can be difficult for middle managers and teams to adopt self-organization:

[Middle managers are] effectively preventing their teams from developing into a self-managing, self-organizing team. As a result, the teams continue to look to them for direction, or for the authority to do something they could on their own. I call this the Middle Manager Trap. They carry on making the decisions, all the while questioning why their Agile teams aren’t as responsible as themselves. A vicious cycle.

Mike suggests that middle managers can support agile adoption by showing that they trust teams and have to give self-organization time to develop:

Being able to take that leap of faith, to trust, to delegate, to be patient, is really an investment you make in other people. It will probably take a while to get a good ROI on your new Agile team. The team or certain individuals may struggle out of the gate. Occasional hiccups are OK. We need to think long term here.

Brian Erwin wrote an open letter to executives leading agile transformations. He proposes to management that they should trust that their employees are good, honest, and hard-working people, and suggests that management supports agile adoption with an environment that helps their employees to do their work:

Rather than simply introducing and mandating agile methods such as Scrum, eXtreme Programming (XP), or Kanban, create an organizational environment where agility is the path of least resistance for your employees and colleagues to get their work done.

His open letter contains a plan of action that helps executives to create an environment. Some of his suggestions to management are:

Start demonstrating the behavior you desire in your organization. One of the most powerful ways to build momentum is to first change yourself and your behavior. You really can’t force change within others, but you can inspire it. (…)

Don’t mandate a methodology at the team level. Rather than requiring teams to do Scrum, or any other methodology framework, put the ingredients in place for agility (…), provide and demonstrate your personal support and commitment to the removal of organizational obstacles and dysfunction, and stand out of the way. (…)

Invest in your workforce and your teams and they will invest in you. (…) If you create an environment that inspires workers to give their all, run a company that gives to the community, and demonstrates that it values its workforce by investing in them, you and your organization will have a much greater chance of competing in the marketplace for a long time to come.

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