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Organizations Going Agile: Tread with Caution

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Most organizations hire Agile coaches to carry out an organization wide Agile transformation. The intention is to have a lean and fit organization by the time coaches walk out of the building. Often, the transformation begins with a pilot team. However, it is very difficult to achieve transformation that improves the end-to-end delivery process and is sustainable if the transformation just begins at the team level and the surrounding organization is not involved.

Agile coaches share their thoughts on what goes wrong with organizational transformation. Dave Nicolette categorizes the problem into two meta failure modes.

One is the “Agile community problem” which focuses too much on individual teams, software and testing disciplines and helping the teams improve. Most coaches are hired to help teams and not to focus on organizations. The other meta problem is the “Not our fault” problem.

I've observed a general tendency for management to dump all of their fire-suppressant directly on the point where they see smoke emerging from their process, without first discovering where the fire itself is located. Since traditional organizations are characterized by (among other things) blame-shifting and information-hiding, any problems in the delivery process are shunted downstream, and any metrics to be reported at a given point in the process are sanitized. The scorecard always looks beautiful until the work reaches the end of the delivery process.

Dave mentioned, that the teams might not be the best place to start the improvements. Coaches should by themselves and should be allowed to investigate the organization for finding out the potential weakest links in transformation and they should start addressing those.

Rob Myers suggested a list of pitfalls, which are identifiable pretty early in the transformation process. Rob suggested “Training the leadership team early” as one of the most critical precursors.

According to Rob, the management should be trained in Agile before the entire process begins so that they have an idea of how the teams should work and understand the true concept behind “servant leadership” and “self organizing teams”. Jean Tabaka also put this as a critical adoption failure. According to her,

An executive who announces "We are going agile," but does not provide rich resources, rich commitment, and readiness to change measures of success, simply demoralizes teams. Successful adoptions of agile can be associated consistently with a passionately engaged executive sponsor.

Rob, further made the following recommendations for the organizations going Agile,

  • Let Coaches Deliver Their Training – Instead of asking for commoditization right away, let the coach take his tried and tested approach.
  • Let Coaches Interact with Teams – Teams would always be against the wall with some deadlines. This should not be a deterrent for the coaches.
  • Don’t Micromanage the Efforts - Time does not equal productivity, especially when creativity and thinking are involved. (Software development, like agile coaching, requires both.)
  • Don’t Define Process without Experienced Feedback- Many organizations would define a process because they heard about it or read a book. It does not mean that it is best suited for their conditions.

Thus, the organization has a lot to keep in mind. However, sometimes it is also the Agile coach who is at fault. Lyssa Adkins suggested an interesting list of seven coach personalities which are sure to create problems in the transformation process. Her list has the following persona's for Agile coaches who lead to failed transformations.

  • Spy – spends just enough time observing the team, just for the retrospective.
  • Seagull - swoops in for some meetings and flies away again.
  • Opinionator – has an opinion and gets attached to the opinion thus leading the team to lose interest in the discussions.
  • Admin - becomes an unnecessary middle-man for meeting logistics and other admin jobs.
  • Hub - acts as the center for communication between team members.
  • Butterfly - flits around from team to team and is not focused enough.
  • Expert – very detail oriented but loses the big picture.

Thus, it is imperative both for the organization and the coach to tread with caution. The key lies in rising above the pilot team and look at the organization as a whole. As Dave summarized,

What we should stop doing is dropping onto "uh team" in the middle of an ocean of dysfunction, as if from a rescue chopper, and expecting meaningful and sustainable organizational change to occur just because we stick a few story cards on a wall in some conference room cum team room. It ain't gonna happen, my droogies.

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Community comments

  • support for tread with caution

    by Debbie Brey,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I agree with your article wholeheartedly. I started Agile on a single team in my organization without the rest of the org adopting or being trained. We were successful, but not without a lot of effort on my part to continue to push back on traditional practices.

    After 3 years, and a very successful product launch, we are now taking Agile up to the full organization. Here again we are struggling with changing the organizational infrastructure. There still has not been an effort to train the organization, and that is making the transition more difficult. People are reading a phrase or two out of an Agile book and thinking that makes them an expert.

    If you are considering adopting Agile at the organizational level, heed the cautions offered in the article.

  • Don't stop at training the leadership team early...

    by Dave Sharrock,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    In many cases, after training the leadership team and (if you're lucky) changing some practices in the leadership team, attention seems to turn almost entirely to the team transitions. Unfortunately, this can be even less effective than just starting with bottom-up transitions.

    The leadership team still needs attention through coaching and support. Yes, the leadership team is talented, influential and sees the whole picture. That is why they are there. But the sheer number of decisions and distractions means often change is harder to establish, even with well-intentioned teams. Often, the fact that coaches are establishing self-organized teams translates into a view that leadership can ignore the transition when this is often not the case.

    The leadership team has two clear responsibilities: To set an example by following through on any changes they may decide on to better understand agility (typically, transparency at the very least); To be vigilant in identifying and removing organizational impediments that threaten acceptance of the change.

    Therefore, the focus on the leadership team doesn't stop until the transition is complete.

  • Re: support for tread with caution

    by Agile Academy,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Vikas, thanks for the orginal article and Debbie for your reply. At Suncorp (a financial institution in Australia) we started the Agile transformation of our 17000 people across numerous subsidiary companies and locations in late 2007/early 2008. We were lucky though as we did have support, energy and a true believer in our Group Executive, Jeff Smith, who drove the change from a few successful and motivated teams to the whole organisation.

    When we couldn't find quality Agile training in Australia to support our experiences, Suncorp created their own training organisation, the Agile Academy ( in conjunction with trained internal coaches as well as eliciting assistance from our partners with external coaches to support the transition. This has seen 3000 internal staff trained and hundreds of external people undertaking our external Agile courses through the Academy over the past 2 years.

    Without a doubt though, training was one thing, but as you said Vikas, management have to be on board and understand what's happening in the first place to support their teams. For us too, coaches were and are essential to our continuing success. Sorry for the plug for the company but as you can tell, even though our journey has not always been smooth, success has been high and we are seen as one of the leading Agile organisations in Australia. What this has come to mean is that many if not all of us at Suncorp have joined the ranks of the true Agile believers too.

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