How to Achieve a Successful Agile Transformation

Great news! You’ve decided to move to Agile product development. Before you pop open the Champagne, here’s the bad news: 47% of Agile transformations fail. An immutable cultural mindset, lack of methodology training, too much technical debt, and a lack of vision and strategy are some common reasons. How can you avoid being part of this discouraging statistic?  

 In our recent webinar, we explored the 5 Phases of the Agile Anti-Patterns Immaturity Model to Avoid:

  1. Discordianism – Agile is not practiced consistently 
  2. Cargo-Cultism – Agile is installed, not instilled 
  3. HyperScrum-dementalism – Process and tools take a priority over people 
  4. Command-and-Controlism – Agile teams are using a Waterfall process 
  5. Agile Scapegoatism – The process is weaponized 

Surprisingly, backwards thinking can add momentum to an unhealthy transformation. Unhealthy transformations don’t just suddenly fail, they devolve.   

The proof is in the numbers 

However, when these regressive anti-patterns are avoided, Agile delivers numerous benefits. For example, Accenture reports that Agile organizations realize a 16% increase in long-term EBITDA growth compared to just 6% in non-Agile organizations. And AgileSherpas’ 2020 State of Agile Marketing Report cites a 31% increase in employee satisfaction in Agile organizations. What’s more, McKinsey found that Agile transformation reduced time to market by about 40% and operational costs by 25%. 

Let’s discuss some strategies and frameworks for avoiding the anti-patterns listed above that hinder a successful Agile transformation. 

What is an Agile Product Organization? 

Agile organizations feature cross-functional teams, an empowered workforce, and a culture that rewards learning and innovation. They focus on outcomes and psychological safety, and train leaders to be enablers. This environment differs starkly from so-called “Taylorism” which is characterized by a top-down mindset, a focus on output and a fear of failure. 

We like to say, organizations are organisms, not machines. When an organization runs as a machine, there’s a top-down hierarchy and lots of bureaucracy, and teams operate in silos, taking detailed instructions. However, in organizations that work as organisms, leadership shows direction and enables action. Teams are built around end-to-end accountability and can accommodate quick changes with flexible resources. Boxes and lines are less important; instead, there is a focus on action. 

There are multiple maturity models for Agile transformation. We believe healthy transformations are instilled, not installed:   

  • In Alistair Cockburn’s “Heart of Agile” model, teams progress from Shu to Ha, Ri and Kokoro – from learning the rules to departing from the rules, transcending the rules, and delight in the radical simplicity. 
  • In the Dreyfus Maturity Model of skill acquisition, individuals move from being novices who blindly follow rules and make poor-quality decisions toward becoming experts who no longer need rules to make optimal decisions. 
  • A model described in Peter Coning’s book, The Agile Leadership Toolkit, leans heavily on the power of team collaboration. As teams learn to collaborate effectively, team autonomy and accountability increases, resulting in more reliable forecasts and the ability to make a higher customer impact. 

No matter what model you choose, healthy transformations require building a team culture and providing “psychological safety,” where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable. 

What’s Your Trajectory? 

With the maturity models in mind, it’s important to determine which trajectory your Agile transformation is following. Are you moving toward psychological safety and optimal performance standards, or are you moving in the wrong direction? The chart below will help you determine where you’re headed: 

Becoming Agile Begins with Change Management 

At the project level, change management is the application of a structured process and set of tools for leading the ‘people’ side of change to achieve the desired outcome. But at the organizational level, there’s a leadership competency for enabling change, and a strategic capability designed to increase change capacity and responsiveness. 

Here are five considerations for effective change management:

  1. We change for a reason. Why are we changing? 
  2. Organizational change requires individual change. Who has to do their job differently – and how? 
  3. Organizational outcomes are the collective result of individual change. How much of our outcomes depend on adoption and usage? 
  4. Change management is an enabling framework for managing the ‘people’ side of change. What will you do to support adoption and usage? 
  5. Change management is applied to realize the benefits and desired outcomes of change. How will driving adoption and usage improve results? 

It’s critical to get individuals in your organization personally invested behind change. You must understand and communicate about who has to do their job differently and what are the expectations of them moving forward. From there, it’s about working together as a team to achieve the desired outcomes. 

You have to manage the ‘people’ side of change. What can you do as an organization to support adoption and usage before change management can be effective? 

We recommend a three-phased approach to achieving that goal, including preparing the approach, managing the change, and sustaining outcomes: 

  1.  Leveraging the ADKAR model – Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement – you can build employees’ understanding and knowledge about where they fit into the Agile transformation, and how they can build the skills and behaviors necessary to sustain impactful change. 
  2. Take an Agile Approach to Transformation 
  3. A necessary aspect of change management is agility – and instead of taking a Waterfall approach to change, you must learn, execute and reflect multiple times as you transform. Another best practice is to start small and expand. Experiment with two teams, and once they are collaborating effectively, expand. 

Here are 5 additional best practices we recommend for an effective Agile transformation: 

  1. Iteratively inspect patterns and practices. It’s important to iterate on patterns and practices, and align them with progress and warning signals. Remember, Agile is about transparency. Run retrospectives to determine progress and warning signals and identify the patterns that are dragging you down – the anti-patterns to Agile. Determine what patterns are working that you should reinforce, as well. As you reinforce desired practices and coach teams toward empowerment, you’ll move toward having highly empowered teams that deliver high value.
  2. Map out the transformational journey. The stages of mapping the transformational journey are: Do, Digress, Depart, Delight, and Disrupt. As you move through these stages, you must be intentional about the journey.
  3. Align on Agile values to empower teams. The Agile Manifesto provides four key values to work with as you transform:
    • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    Working software over comprehensive documentation
    Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    Responding to change over following a plan
  4. Empower your team with servant leadership. To reach the “sweet spot” of optimal team empowerment, servant leadership is essential. Research shows you get the highest amount of change when teams feel highly self-directed. Leaders should be supportive directors of behavior rather than directing behavior.
  5. Measure for outcomes, not output. It’s important to translate the outcomes you’re seeking – customer value, innovation, predictability, process improvement, productivity, quality, readiness, stability, and team autonomy – and revisit them frequently. You must also ensure they’re transparent to empower stakeholders upstream with the data they need to make decisions. Figure out what outcomes you want, then measure them with the right tools.  

Get the Agile Skills You Need 

280 Group recently launched a new and improved Agile Product Management: Live Online course, updated to incorporate the latest thinking on how Product professionals can support their Agile development team, and how they can reap the benefits Agile teams can deliver. The course leverages contemporary examples drawn from multiple industries.  

Register for an upcoming training to learn how you can apply the concepts of Agile to empower a successful transformation at your organization. 


About the Author

Dean Peters is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at 280 Group. Dean offers nearly twenty years of experience in product management with a prior decade as a software developer for real-time system integration. Dean has led a number of innovations in the areas of AI, NLP, and Mobile across various domains, including healthcare, energy, education, law enforcement, and news media. Along with this work, Dean has presented on agile and product management topics at events such as ProductCamp, ProductTank, Pendomonium, and Red Hat Agile Day.

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