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Management Support in Agile Adoption

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As IT becomes ingrained in business processes, it is essential that everyone involved in operating the business be aware of how IT is being used and how it can change daily operations. Senior management can look across silos and teams to impact the throughput of the entire system. IT managers and executives rely on business managers being active participants for their teams to work effectively and efficiently. Management commitment remains a key issue for agile across the company.

The research How Agile and DevOps Enable Digital Readiness and Transformation contains the results of a survey among senior business and IT leaders on leveraging agile and DevOps practices. The survey was done by Freeform Dynamics for CA Technologies.

On the survey question "How much of a priority is it to change the following in order to improve effectiveness?" 82% gave medium to high priority to "More support and commitment from management at all levels".

InfoQ spoke with Tony Lock, director of Engagement and distinguished analyst at Freeform Dynamics, and Ben Carey, senior director Digital Advisory & Consulting Services from CA Technologies, about management support and commitment in agile adoption.

InfoQ: You researched the combination of agile and DevOps to explore how they enable digital readiness and transformation. What makes this so important?

Tony Lock: Our surveys continue to show that organizations report that adopting either agile methodologies or DevOps practices alone provide benefits. This recognition is also reflected here where three-quarters of survey respondents agree or strongly agree that agile and DevOps are far more effective when combined than when implemented individually.

Ben Carey: The fact that respondents see better value when combining agile and DevOps isn’t surprising. The real benefit of combining agile and DevOps is that it gets organizations closer to the end-to-end responsiveness and flexibility required to enable business-level agility and digital readiness. Generally speaking, the terms agile and DevOps can have broad definitions with significant overlap, and both require a shift in culture and mindset. Agile focuses on processes, while DevOps focuses on technical practices like CI, CD, and Automation to improve communication and collaboration throughout the value stream. DevOps is the most effective manner of putting agile methodologies to work, and ultimately you need both in order to deliver value to end users.

InfoQ: One of the conclusions in the report is that "more support and commitment from management at all levels is needed to improve effectiveness". How did you come to this conclusion?

Lock: In the global survey 82% of respondents reported that getting more support and commitment from all levels of management is a high or medium-term priority. In addition to this research, conversations we have with senior IT professionals all report that as IT has become ingrained in most, if not quite all, business processes it is essential that everyone involved in operating the business needs to be aware of how IT is being used and how it can change daily operations. Without management commitment across the organization, things will get better and change, but not as quickly or as effectively as they could.

Carey: Managers at any level, by design, are going to optimize for whatever their containers are -- their department, their function, their business unit, etc. Having senior management buy-in and support means that there is somebody advocating above and across those containers, with a focus on looking across silos and teams to impact the throughput of the entire system.

We’ve seen a few leadership patterns surface in our more advanced customers – specifically as it pertains to how you characterize a "leader". Often, our more advanced customers have advocates who have the power, authority, and resources to inspect the way that things operate and create changes where needed – often leaders both in title, and ability to affect change within their organization. Alternatively, we often see the authentic empowering of leaders a few levels down in the organization. Those leaders are running a program, group or department and are inspirational enough to inspire their peers across other groups to collaborate and begin breaking down silos through mutual cooperation. While these leaders may in fact lead specific groups, they’re also change agents, driving agile from the bottom up.

InfoQ: Who is asking for this support and commitment, and why do they need it?

Carey: In many cases, the push for executive support comes from a change agent that is passionate and driven and has a customer-oriented vision for how to improve their ability to deliver value faster -- but is limited either by environmental/cultural issues that don’t support the change. What makes this challenging, particularly in large organizations, is that individual group leaders are incentivized to optimize their portion of the business. As we see agile practices extending outside of the IT organization and across the value stream, these advocates have to persuade leaders in areas where agile adoption is less mature or even less understood (for example operations, marketing, HR, and finance teams). Additionally, because these teams and groups have different processes and KPIs, these change agents must find a way to translate the benefits of agile into a language that these teams resonate with. This is where having a leader with a view across the value stream to advocate for change is key to driving bigger outcomes.

Lock: IT is part of daily business operations, it is not a standalone silo. IT managers and executives know that for their teams to work effectively and efficiently they rely on business managers being active participants as things develop rapidly. At the same time, business managers now expect IT to be able to respond to their needs almost before they recognise they have them, but the interaction has to be two-way for changes to be made quickly, securely and with minimum interruption to both IT and business operations.

InfoQ: Do higher agility level companies experience the same problems, or have they found solutions to deal with this? What do they do differently?

Lock: All organizations face challenges, and the nature of the challenges manifest themselves in diverse ways in every company. The issue is, at its heart, about people communicating and working with each other. The study did show that those respondents with broader, deeper levels of agility and DevOps, the Agility Masters, are more than twice as likely than their peers to be organizations where the culture of the company supports risk-taking, and be more collaborative. They are also more likely to be companies where IT and Business executives agree on what is needed to drive the business forwards and understand what their customers’ needs are. Indeed, the results show that the Agility Masters are more likely to be working in organizations that are agile across the company, not just within IT.

Carey: Risk-taking and collaboration are symptoms of agility, so to speak. Companies with higher agility tend to be more collaborative because they have learned they need to be more collaborative to drive results. They also take more risks because they can fail faster and learn quickly -- placing small bets frequently versus larger bets occasionally with less downside if something doesn’t work out. Management commitment remains a key issue regardless of whether we are looking at the Masters or more mainstream organizations. For Master organizations, the commitment required is now much more strategic, since it is likely to be affecting the entire organization, rather than just a single departmental silo.

In terms of common challenges, regardless of company size or agile maturity, we know that change is hard, and it takes time. Especially in organizations with thousands or tens of thousands of people where the complexities of any team are magnified at scale. Keeping teams motivated, inspired and focused on why they’re driving change is incredibly important.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for engaging managers in agile transformations?

Lock: I always start by looking at "where are we now, what do we do well, and what do we need to change quickly?" I suggest not trying to change everything at once but to adopt a more agile approach, work out the first priorities, attack them, check if it’s going as expected, revise, return. But the most important element of all is to get good communications working. Explain why things are changing, how they are being modified and how everyone can influence things. And remember, the core of being agile means this will be a never-ending process of change, small changes, often. It’s a continuous loop. There will always be something to transform, but don’t think you can do it all at once. Prioritise, educate, communicate, revisit.

Carey: I agree, and would add that you need to be able to show participants what’s possible. Showing them the possibility of what can exist on the other side of transformation and what your business can look like after adopting these ways of working -- that can be the inspiration to not only get started, but a reminder as to why you’re doing this work along the way. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking through an existing process, like a value stream map, and showing how much time is wasted and can be saved by compressing product deployment. Other times, it’s sharing real success stories from other companies that have adopted these practices, and the results they saw. More often than not, if organizations are taking on a transformation, it’s because they have a compelling reason to change -- either a new opportunity or to fix something that’s broken. There are plenty of stories about organizations and processes that aren’t working. Getting teams and managers to understand these failure modes, and the impact they have on environment, can help demonstrate a viable reason to change.

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