Over the past decade, I have worked with several companies to assist them with their Agile transformation initiatives. Each experience enabled me to learn new approaches and allowed me to refine my toolbox of tricks for a future client. Through this journey, I discovered that there are patterns that revealed themselves which offer signals that often leads to familiar paths. Within the context of a change initiative, specifically, application of Agile principles and practices, I have found the following patterns which significantly increase the likelihood of an organization failing to meet its desired outcomes. It is my belief that if we can learn to avoid making major mistakes, we can increase the chances of success tremendously. Hence, by seeing the pitfalls early, we can side-step them and continue down the path towards a positive outcome.
When it comes to transforming an organization, whether it is a single team, a collection of teams, or an entire enterprise, nothing is simple and straight-forward since we are dealing with human beings and engrained behaviors. With that said, I have found the following tell-tale signs to be accurate predictors of the future when it comes to changing how an organization plans and executes work.
1. Focus on activity rather than outcomes
Real change is very difficult for most people, which translates to even bigger challenges when we consider organizational change. When it comes to changing how we plan and execute work, which at its core is in essence a cultural change, it is often difficult to make it a tangible undertaking for many reasons. An Agile transformation effort can be very mysterious because it is usually difficult to see whether change has actually occurred. As a result, organizations tend to focus on more tangible activities (such as how many people have been trained) rather than measuring outcomes, which requires much more involved assessment and understanding of how work flows through the organization and where the inefficiencies lie.
To avoid making this error, one possible strategy is to define what success looks like from the perspective of the end-users and/or customers. While this may not be a simple task, understanding how the change will impact the customer should help the teams rally around the end objectives, and avoid focusing on making trivial change that amounts to no benefit in the end.
2. Blindly following mandates from senior leadership
Another easy mistake to make with regards to implementing Agile practices is to blindly follow directives from senior management without understanding the “why”. This can contribute to a very mechanical approach to reshaping how work is organized, and could stifle creativity.
To avoid making this mistake, one approach is to gain a real understanding of the vision of the initiative. Invest time to understand the benefits that your leadership team is desiring, which will most likely not be based purely on “doing Agile for the sake of doing Agile”. The end goal will usually be more important than how the change is implemented.
3. Sponsors are seldom involved or heard from
If you have a sponsorship team that delegates the authority and decision-making regarding your Agile initiative, that usually spells trouble. A strong and persistent leadership team is critical to any Agile transformation, and an absentee sponsor sends the wrong message to everyone else who is working to make this transition.
If the sponsor is unable or unwilling to commit time to support the initiative, it may be time to challenge the priority or desire to move forward on this effort. Some organizations will only make drastic change in the face of a crisis, so it is possible that the timing is simply not right for the team to move forward. If this is the case, it’s not necessarily a negative, but it may be a good time to consider postponing the initiative for now.
In conclusion, no organization enjoys failing, so being able to see the warning signs of a stalled Agile transformation early can save you and your team time, effort and money. Because change is hard and often fraught with frustrating, stress and anxiety, it makes sense to be on the lookout for these situations so you can take appropriate action to either commit or re-engage at a later time.