Agile Transformation Strategy – Top down or bottom up?

Over the past couple of years, I have worked with a variety of organizations to help them adopt Agile practices. One of the most interesting things that I have learned through the Agile transformation experience is that no two organizations are the same due to their unique cultures and ways of working. This is one of the reasons that I find it fascinating to work with a new client – to discover how an organization behaves is very similar to solving a mystery or a puzzle. Despite the differences between the organizations, I have realized one common challenge that nearly all organizations that wish to adopt Agile face – how best to approach this complex change. This may sound like an over-simplification, but from my experience, most organizations consider the two main approaches which I will explore further. Let’s take a closer look at these two common strategies and evaluate how they might fit for your situation.

Agile Transformation

Strategy 1 – Top-down approach

By “top-down”, we are injecting the Agile transformation into the organization through some type of directive from the senior leadership. This could be framed as a vision or mission statement, something akin to “We shall be able to …..within the next…years”. While a top-down approach can often be seen as a “command and control” approach, there are significant benefits such as:

  1. Alignment of goals – The organization needs to rally around a central purpose and mission in order to embark on a meaningful change initiative. Having sponsorship from leaders within the company will provide the necessary moral and emotional support that is often key to a successful process improvement initiative.
  2. Alignment of resources – To implement a major change, people will need support in the form of training, workshops, coaching, etc. This will require the organization to commit potentially large sums of funds as well as time for people to learn new ways of working and acquire new skills that they currently do not possess.

One thing to keep in mind is that this approach for agile adoption may induce some fear and resistance from the employees who may feel like they are forced into an environment that they don’t agree with due to lack of understanding. Hence, consistent and clear messaging is essential to help the staff understand the objectives of the change and assure them that they will be given the opportunity to adapt and become proficient in a reasonable amount of time.

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Strategy 2 – Bottom-up approach

Many organizations implement change through a “grassroots movement” which originates from the teams without management mandate.Often times, this type of change can become more inclusive and sustainable because the people doing the work is pushing to make things better for themselves, instead of being pushed by an external force to make a change. In my experience, bottom-up initiatives can be very exciting and fund if sufficient momentum is developed through positive outcomes. Conversely, if the Agile transformation process does not provide visible, tangible benefits in a short period of time, it often vanishes into thin air. One analogy I can think of is planting a flower using seeds – it is important to give the seeds plenty of water and care on a consistent basis if we want it to sprout and eventually grow into a flower. Just like planting a tree or flowers, a long-term, sustained effort is necessary to nurture a team that is experimenting with new processes and tools. On its own, a bottom-up approach has a very small chance of achieving meaningful success.

Agile Transformation

So, if both top-down and bottom-up present problems, what should you do to maximize the chances of successful adoption? Based on my experience, the approach to consider is to address all levels of the organization. This may sound daunting at first, but it is important to think about the key value proposition prior to taking on this change. Many studies such as the annual State of Agile Report have shown that executive sponsorship is vital to successful Agile transformation. Keeping that in mind, it’s also important to inspire the people on the “front line” to commit to the change because they are the ones most heavily impacted.

Is it possible to inspire at the top as well as within the lower ranks? I think it won’t be easy, but this will greatly improve the chances of success by rallying the entire organization around the need to change. The key is to find the “burning platform”, the sense of urgency that will motivate people to move away from status quo and mobilize to make a change in mindset and behavior. This will likely take a sustained effort, just like growing a tree, because change is hard and people need time to adapt. The simplest advice I have is: be patient, seek guidance from experts, and stay positive where possible.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai