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Adopting Agile: Should We Start with the Structure?

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When an organization decides to adopt agile the way it is structured often has to change. An agile way of working also brings along new practices for teams and managers, and usually impacts the organizational culture and mindset. All of these are related, but changing everything at the same time might be a too big challenge for an organization. The question then would be where we should focus on when we start an agile transformation: Culture, practices or structure? Let’s explore what can happen when we start with the structure.

Mike Cottmeyer shared his thoughts on agile transformation in big companies. He described that in agile adoption culture, practices and structures are all related to each other:

The first line of the Agile Manifesto says that we are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. How we implement agile is supposed to change over time, and how it changes should be guided by the values and principles in the Manifesto. The challenge is that the values and principles are supposed to guide the practices and structures we choose to implement. The values and principles don’t live by themselves or in a vacuum. To successfully implement agile, we have to have a system of delivery and supporting practices which enable the values and principles to be lived out.

The question Mike asks himself is how you can start agile adoption in large organizations, which are both big and complex. What do we need to change first: Should we focus on the organization culture, start introducing new practices or modify the structure?

Many of us suggest that ‘big and complicated’ is the problem and that we need to be ‘small and simple’. I agree… but, these companies ARE big and complicated so the question becomes HOW to help them become small and simple. Just saying BIG is bad and you should be SMALL doesn’t help. How do we get there? What is the path from A to B? Is adopting an agile value system enough? In the presence of the right value system, will the right delivery systems and practices emerge? In the presence of the right practices, can I impact the end-to-end system of delivery and make the cultural changes I need to make?

Tirrell Payton wrote a blog post about 5 common problems with Scrum adoption. One common problem he mentioned is that existing structures can hinder the successful adoption of agile:

The biggest pit fall is the organization leadership tries to tweak Scrum to force-fit into the existing organization structure and hierarchy. Some of the tweaks that are like to happen are;

  • Managers jumping to role of Scrum Master still using a command and control style of leadership,
  • Individuals working in silos without a team concept,
  • Product Owners being pushed into the job without knowing the roles, responsibilities, and time commitments.
  • Scrum Master being unduly influenced by managers.

According to Tirrel executive support is needed to change the organization structure where needed for agile adoption:

Executive management need to understand that Agile transformation is a major organizational change and not merely project level coaching. So every support functions in an organization need to support agile transformation.

Lot of executive support and direction may be required for agile adoption, to push the change top down the layers and they have to continuously monitor the progress and remove organizations impediments that surface time-to-time.

Alok Kumar, Frank Castagna and John Maher published an article on the Scrum Alliance website about challenges and considerations on enterprise agile adoption. To adopt agile we need to change the way that an organization structures and manages their operation:

In today's world, organizations lay great emphasis on becoming Lean and nimble so that they can meet customer expectations and remain ahead of the competition. This requires effective collaboration between business, systems, and operations to deliver innovative solutions quickly and effectively. Agile provides the basic concepts of bridging the gaps between business and development. However, scaling these concepts vertically to program and portfolio levels requires a paradigm shift in the way it operates.

According to them top-down training is needed for agile adoption at all levels. The adoption requires changes in the culture and structure of the organization:

Since Agile is a Lean method, exposure to Lean thinking for management at all levels is critical for their shift in managerial approach. The development, care, and feeding of an Agile culture and the necessary shifts in organizational systems and roles to support a self-directed team environment can dramatically reduce confusion at all levels.

Mike Cottmeyer stated in his blog post that we should start agile adoption by changing the structure in an organization:

I’m a big believer that agile culture and agile practices are essential for long term sustainable organizational agility. That said, I don’t think you can train your way into it and I don’t think you can believe your way into it. I think you have to start with a team based organizational design where the flow of value is governed across teams using an adaptive governance model, based on lean/kanban principles, where WIP is limited, capacity and demand are balanced, bottlenecks are identified and dealt with, and management is invested in improving the overall system of delivery. Only within this kind of organization can an agile culture emerge and agile practices thrive.

According to him structure should go first, followed by the practices and then culture.

I’d suggest you begin by focusing on your business goals, articulating a strategy to create a team based organizational model, and model based on iterative and incremental delivery principles, one that uses agile and lean methodologies for delivery and governance, but that operates within the operational and cultural constraints of the existing organization and it’s policies.

Tirrel Payton stated that not changing the structure can hinder agile adoption:

Do not force-fit agile into the existing organization structure and hierarchy, in fact there are many organizations out there, who tweak agile frameworks that fit into their existing structure and hierarchy, which is the biggest pit fall.

Alok Kumar, Frank Castagna and John Maher suggest to start agile adoption with a transformation plan:

"Plan your work and work your plan." As Watts Humphrey, father of the CMM and CMMI, said, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will do." And that means implementation agents are quickly relegated to catch-up, remediation of understanding, resetting of context, and running interference for the teams they're consulting for.

They prefer to change the organizational structure if possible.

If the organization can simplify its structure, advocate for it. If not, plan to integrate across applications at the program level before moving to teams, to reduce dependencies early.

When adopting agile, do you start by changing the structure?

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