5 Things Management Must Do for Successful Agile Transformation

Successful agile transformation requires significant changes in how an organization works. Those changes require altering the way people do their work every single day. Getting people to change the way they work is (theoretically) simple. You have to explain the change you want to see, get them to buy in, give them what they need to execute, and support them in making the change. If you’re reading this blog post, I’m guessing you know that change (in the real world) isn’t that easy. Successfully getting through those steps requires excellent leadership and discipline in change management. In this blog post, I’ll share what I believe are the 5 essential steps needed for management to lead a successful agile transformation.

1. Light the Torch – Evaluate and Establish the Urgency for the Transformation

a person leading the way through a dark tunnel

The first part of change is establishing why the change is necessary. Without this rallying cry driving the change, people will be indifferent about changing.

To illustrate this, let’s go to the oracle of knowledge – The Matrix!

Agent Smith clearly wants something from Morpheus – the codes for Zion. His reason? Agent Smith is stuck in the matrix fighting the resistance and wants to get back out to the world of machines.

Agent Smith clearly wants something from Morpheus – the codes for Zion. His reason? Agent Smith is stuck in the matrix fighting the resistance and wants to get back out to the world of machines.

“I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality. Whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I must get out of here. I must get free.

And in this mind is the key, my key. Once Zion is destroyed there is no need for me to be here, do you understand?

I need codes. I need to get in Zion, and you have to tell me how. You have to tell me, or you are going to die.”

Agent Smith, The Matrix

Obviously (most) managers are not going to strap their people into chairs, inject them with truth serum, and tell them they are going to die if they don’t change. But in this example, we can see how Agent Smith articulated a clear (and graphic) reason for Morpheus to give into what he wanted. Unfortunately for Agent Smith, what he missed was giving Morpheus a reason that handing over the codes would benefit him. And if you’ve seen the Matrix (has anyone not seen the Matrix at this point?) you’ll know that Agent Smith’s unsuccessful attempt at extracting the codes from Morpheus didn’t end well.

Step number one of agile transformation is lighting the torch. Give people a fiery reason for change, make it clear how it benefits them and, most importantly, get feedback! Make sure your spark for change resonates with people and makes business sense.

2. Light More Torches – Identify and Train Leaders

You can’t go it alone with agile transformation. You will need help from people that are as fired up about the change as you are.

The requirements for becoming a member of your transformation leadership team as well as how many leaders you need will vary depending on the scope of your transformation (team-level, department-level, or organization-level). These leaders need, simply put, the ability to lead. Many organizations have an overabundance of managers and a lack of leaders (read Leading Change by John Kotter to learn more about this), so it may be difficult to identify the right leaders. These leaders also need the ability to servant-lead: to see their role, first and foremost, as growing others and ensuring others have what they need to be successful. Why is that so important in agile transformation? Check out the video below and you’ll see why.

As a collective, the group of agile transformation leaders you identify need expertise about the people, product, and process that your organization is composed of.

Although you must have some leaders that have formal authority, it can be beneficial to include informal leaders as well – the people that others in your organization follow even though they aren’t in management ranks. Minimally, this group of leaders needs to have enough collective authority and influence to get others to follow them.

The best way to determine if someone is qualified as a leader for your agile transformation is to do the torch test – do you have to light their ‘torch’, or did they excitedly light their own after hearing the ‘why’ behind the transformation. Do they have the ability to fire others up and light their torches? If so, you’ve found a good leader.

Once you’ve identified your leaders, you must equip them to be successful. These leaders must be familiar enough with agile change management and agile transformation to guide others on their transformation journey. The leaders do not have to be experts, but they do need to have enough knowledge to be dangerous. If you don’t have a transformation expert within your organization, you can enlist the help of an organization like us who can train and advise your transformation leadership team.

3. Light the Lighthouse – Craft a Vision for the Future

black and white lighthouse

This may sound shocking, but the top thing that almost every organization forgets when beginning their agile transformation is describing how their organization will be different after the transformation. This is absolutely vital for successful change.

In step #1, you should have identified the ‘urgency’ for the change: what will happen if the transformation doesn’t occur or is if it is unsuccessful? That may be enough to get people to follow you (just like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater), but it’s not enough to align people throughout the change. You need a clear vision of how your organization will be different after the change. How will things be better for you, for the leaders you identified in step #2, and for everyone else that will be impacted?

Imagine the following. Three groups of ten individuals are in a park at lunchtime with a rainstorm threatening. In the first group, someone says: “Get up and follow me.” When he starts walking and only a few others join in, he yells to those still seated: “Up, I said, and now!” In the second group, someone says: “We’re going to have to move. Here’s the plan. Each of us stands up and marches in the direction of the apple tree. Please stay at least two feet away from other group members and do not run. Do not leave any personal belongings on the ground here and be sure to stop at the base of the tree. When we are all there . . .” In the third group, someone tells the others: “It’s going to rain in a few minutes. Why don’t we go over there and sit under that huge apple tree. We’ll stay dry, and we can have fresh apples for lunch.”

John Kotter, Leading Change

I recommend that your transformation leadership team ‘start with why’ when crafting your vision. John Kotter excellently explains how to craft a vision in his popular book, Leading Change. After you craft your vision, test it with a wide representation of people in your organization to ensure it resonates with them and will be effective in getting people fired up.

4. Chart a Path – Create a Roadmap

At this point, you have a vision, but a vision isn’t actionable. You need to translate your vision into a strategy that aligns everyone affected by the transformation as well as provides a launching point for the transformation.

A good transformation roadmap will indicate where you’re heading in the next month, the next quarter, the next few quarters, next year, etc. And like any good roadmap in a complex change environment, the roadmap is a forecast that will need to be updated as you learn more about how your organization responds to the transformation.

Creating this roadmap will be much easier if you did a good job selecting the right leaders during step #2. Having formal and informal leaders that represent the various functional areas impacted by the transformation will bring multiple perspectives to the creation of the transformation roadmap.

The ideas in this roadmap must be validated by those affected. Engaging focus groups of those affected is one way to validate the ideas. An even better method of validation is to put your transformation into practice and see how your people respond. Organizational change is inherently uncertain. Leaders often make the mistake of trying to blindly copy the practices of other organizations without testing how their own organization will perceive and adopt those practices. A pilot that tests your transformation with a small but cohesive area of your organization allows you to test the urgency, the transformation leaders, the vision for the future, and the roadmap before continuing to roll it out to the rest of the organization.

An effective transformation roadmap must be ordered based on perceived value and effectiveness. Rather than tackling everything at once, order your roadmap by the best opportunities to take advantage of this transformation. This will maximize the transformation impact with limited spend and give you quick early wins. A very common item at the very beginning of a transformation roadmap is a pilot transformation as described in the last paragraph. Other items commonly at the beginning of transformation roadmaps are crafting and testing communication plans to align everyone around the vision and roadmap that have been created.

5. Start Moving – Execution

You now have urgency for the transformation, transformation leaders, a vision for the future, and a roadmap for implementing that vision. Now it’s time to put it into practice.

As mentioned in #4, organizational change is inherently uncertain. You can’t predict all of the ways that people will misunderstand, misapply, ignore, or undermine the changes in the transformation until you begin. You also can’t predict what messages will resonate, what practices will spread like wildfire, or what wins will occur. We call this a complex environment with many ‘unknown unknowns.’ In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know, and it’s not possible to predict what we might not know regardless of how much time we spend trying to do so. And even if it were possible to predict the unknowns, it almost certainly wouldn’t be cost effective to try to do so.

To deal with this complexity, you need empirical process control that enables your transformation to be adaptive (this is the theory that popular frameworks like Scrum are based on). You need to make your agile transformation agile. You need to incrementally roll out changes to your organization to see how your people respond. You also need open lines of communication to get honest feedback about what is and is not working. And, most importantly, you need to frequently adapt your roadmap based on what you find.

The empirical process we apply with our clients while executing changes from the roadmap is the 4As: Assess, Align, Acquire, and Apply.

Assess

We assess what is needed to execute a change from the transformation roadmap. We explore the who, what, where, when, and why to determine the feasibility and potential cost of the change.

Align

We align those needed for the change to ensure there is enough buy-in to begin implementation. We also ensure that those impacted by the change are aware of why the change is needed.

Acquire

We help people acquire the knowledge, tools, skills, and practices needed for the change. This often comes in the form of classroom training, such as our Professional Scrum courses and tailored workshops such as a user story mapping workshop.

Apply

In this step, we take the theory and concepts that have been acquired and apply them to people’s real-world context. If we’re launching (or re-launching) teams, we run team launch workshops. We then visit teams frequently after the launch and work with them in their environment to help them apply what they’ve learned and resolve any impediments.

Repeat the 4As

After a change has been implemented through the 4 As, we review the impact, collect feedback, and use what we learned to guide the implementation of the next item on the transformation roadmap. We then repeat the 4As for each item we will implement from our roadmap.

Things you’ll need along the way

Communication

Your urgency, vision, and roadmap are alignment tools. The goal is to get everyone running in the same direction and mitigate the risk of people misunderstanding or undermining your efforts. You must communicate the urgency, vision, and roadmap frequently even though it may seem repetitive. If people aren’t sick of hearing about it the transformation yet, then you’re probably not communicating with enough frequency. You can quickly test the stickiness of your communication by asking anyone at the team level why the transformation is necessary. If they can’t state the reasons or if they state the wrong reasons, you’ll need to improve your communication.

Create open feedback loops

I’ve worked in many agile transformations as an outside consultant. It is very common for me to have people open up to me about what they really think about their leaders and the reasons behind the transformation. Unfortunately, it’s often more negative than positive. If you fail to go through the above five steps, negative watercooler chats will be a common side effect.

What saddens me is that the leaders in these organizations are often unaware of how their transformation efforts are being perceived. They do not have an open door where people are free to give honest feedback and what is and is not working.

As a leader, it is paramount that you foster an environment where you can get real, honest, raw feedback about what is working in the transformation and what is not working.

Inspect and adapt

As mentioned in step #5, agile transformation is inherently uncertain. You will need to adapt your plans based on your wins and losses during execution. As a leader, you must lead the way in ‘thinking agile’ by opening lines of communication, gaining transparency, taking a hard look at what’s happening, and adjusting based on what you find.

Grow a learning culture

Agile transformation is culture transformation. The primary goal is increasing the pace of learning across your organization. This must start with you and your transformation leadership team. Be prepared to share stories of mistakes you’ve made and what you’ve learned from them. Share new things that you’re reading, learning, and trying. Encourage others to do the same. Create a safe environment for experimentation with new practices and processes. Encourage people to bring their learnings to wider audiences in your organization.

If you don’t even know where to start with building a learning culture, check out An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. There are some fantastic examples of what a learning culture looks like, scientific evidence of the benefits, and concrete practices you can use for inspiration in your organization.

Summary

Agile transformation requires urgency, excellent leadership, vision for the future, a roadmap of how to get there, and empirical execution. In this blog post, I gave a brief overview of each of these items and what you as a manager must do to ensure successful agile transformation. If you want to learn more, reach out, check out our Leading Agile Transformation workshop, or read more about how we help with agile transformation.

Jordan Job

Jordan is a Managing Advisor with Responsive Advisors and a Professional Scrum Trainer with Scrum.org. He specializes in agile change management, engagement management, and Professional Scrum adoptions.