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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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