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How to Become an Agile Organization: Learnings From a Consultant's Own Journey

This is a guest article by Subramanyam Reddy, Founder, KnowledgeHut

As an organization that has advocated and imparted Agile training and consultancy to thousands of professionals and guided enterprises through successful Agile outcomes, we often get asked the question: “Are YOU a truly Agile organization?”  And the answer, of course, is, “Yes, very much so!”

That’s certainly the truth—but even for us, like so many others, the journey to becoming a Lean-Agile enterprise was not all sunshine and roses. While we have been Agile consultants for over a decade, we had not implemented a large-scale Agile adoption in our company. Teams that believed in Agile worked in silos-- but there was no real connectivity, and no common Agile culture that ran through all the levels of the organization.

In order to understand, first-hand, the travails our clients went through in their own transformation journeys, we took a calculated decision to do the same. From a top-down hierarchy that was part waterfall and part Agile, we took the leap of faith to embrace Agile and Lean principles and practices across the entire company.

While we would love to say that it was smooth sailing, it proved to have quite a few rough patches. Old ways of working were too deeply ingrained to be shaken up easily. In cases where reporting structures had to be redefined, there were some who did not take to the change easily. And just like most organizations seeking to adapt to innovation, we found that the culture shift was the biggest challenge.

Many of our employees had never experienced Agile before, and so the experiences we are sharing here could be used as a yardstick for any company attempting to adopt these practices from scratch.

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Why do most Agile transformations fail?

“47% of Agile transformations fail!”

-- Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum

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As Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum, summarized, 47% of Agile transformations inevitably fail. And what’s more, out of this 47% statistic, 67% of these failures are terminal and the companies either declare bankruptcy or are acquired. (source: Forbes Insights and MIT Sloan Management Review )

But at the same time, 0% of leading companies are NOT agile. They have arrived at the secret sauce to a successful transformation— the perfect combination of leadership mindset, culture and practices that can catalyze change.

There are several reasons why organizations fail in their Agile implementation:

  • Incorrect mapping of Agile processes to organizational needs.
  • A rushed transformation approach.
  • Lack of leadership commitment to drive the transformation.
  • Organizational culture blocks to Agile adoption.

Companies that have achieved mind-blowing success, like Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, are all Scrum companies. 

In order to stay at the top of their game, these companies must continue to find new ways to achieve competitive advantage, by reinventing their processes and continually adapting to industry advancements.

Challenges Faced During Agile Implementation (and What we did to Overcome Them!)

#1. Creating an Agile Mindset

“ We don’t need an accurate document. We need a shared understanding.” 

—Jeff Patton, Agile trainer

While most of our leadership and employees believed in Agile in principle, when it came to the actual nitty-gritty of following processes and advocating 100% agility in practice, there were quite a few stumbling blocks.

Teams that were used to waterfall looked to the Scrum Master as a Project Manager, and did not treat them as a servant leader. When they were rushed for time, the Scrum Master would bypass the Daily Stand-up, shrinking it to an online group summary on Teams chat, which did not have the same outcomes. What’s more, not everyone was on board with agile ways of thinking.

However, we had an agile coach and mentor who had anticipated these hiccups, and was able to successfully find ways to work around these obstacles. By connecting the dots between our pre-existing culture and the aspirational goals, he was able to articulate the pain points and clearly advocate the behavior shifts that were needed to make a difference.

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#2. Shifting to an Agile Culture

An agile culture is an environment that is underpinned by core values, behaviors and practices, enabling all levels of an organization to better adapt to cultural, strategic, and other changes.  

—Agile Business Consortium

Business Agility is all about adopting new processes, new tools and new technologies. Any transformation starts only with changes in the mindset, and a culture that is not open to new ideas and new techniques can severely hinder Agile adoption.

We found this out early on in our transformation. Radical shifts to the organizational structure and a sea change in processes and technologies used could only happen with complete buy-in. Everyone has to be wholly invested in the change, needed to understand the ‘why’ behind the adoption, and had to have a genuine belief that it would work.

To make this happen, we held hands-on Agile and Scrum training workshops across all levels of the organization. Starting from basic foundational principles to Agile Leadership workshops for our leaders, every single employee was on-boarded to the agile transformation journey.

#3. Creating a Clear-cut Strategy

“Keep your roadmap simple and easy to understand. Capture what really matters; leave out the rest.”  

— Roman Pichler, Agile trainer and author

As every Agile company knows, large transformations cannot happen overnight. There must be a carefully implemented roadmap that has to be rolled out in parts.

Enterprises must align the change strategy to their business, organizational, cultural and technical domains. A very large organization with multiple departments also faces the danger of using the wrong agile approaches that lead to transformation failure.

In order to do this, we set a clear vision, detailing out our goals and purposes, and laid out a step-by-step strategy for conveying and enforcing this vision from the C-suite to interns. We allowed employees to talk about this culture to their managers, and opened up weekly discussion forums where anyone could communicate their concerns and a resolution could be sought.

By including every single employee in the culture shift, we increased engagement and ownership. Everyone was made to feel that their contribution was important, and we were able to successfully move the needle on change.

#4. Measuring the Change

“If you don’t collect any metrics, you’re flying blind. If you collect and focus on too many, they may be obstructing your field of view.” 

—Scott M. Graffius, AgileScrum: Your Quick Start Guide

One of the fundamental principles of Agile is “inspect and adapt.” At every stage, teams must inspect the work done, reflect on what went wrong, and adapt the process so that they can improve in the next stage.

In order to track the improvement in productivity through the change, we used an approach where we tracked two main quantifiers: the time to market, and the return on investment.

What we found was that as the teams inculcated the required Agile mindsets and behavioral changes, team performances and ROI steadily improved as well. This was a clear measure of adoption success.

#5. Giving it Time

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try, and try again."

— Thomas H. Palmer

A rushed transformation is a recipe for failure. Patience is the key, and you should be aware that slip ups can happen but should not be taken to heart. Agile is not for the fainthearted, it takes an incredible amount of resilience and perseverance to make it work.

Just like an organization will fail in transformation if a proper strategy is not followed, it will fail if the transformation is not done in parts. A successful transformation takes years of painstaking work and is visible when not just processes but even the culture of the system changes.

Over the past three years, our implementation roadmap is constantly evolving, and is still a Work In Progress. As tools and technologies change, we take the time to see if they would be a value-add to our processes. We involve ourselves in conversations with Agile leaders, share experiences and adopt new strategies when old ones fail.

An agile implementation is just that: always agile.

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Lessons Learned

What we understood from this transformation experience can be summarized here

  • Ambiguity has no place in an Agile transformation. A clearly laid out implementation strategy that is aligned to the vision must be in place, with overarching guidelines and goals.
  • Cultural shifts are at the core of the transformation.
  • Mindsets and behaviors must undergo radical change.
  • Have some metrics in place to measure and document the change. Inspect and adapt at regular intervals.
  • Patience is key, and collective and consistent effort over a period of time must be sustained.

While many teams find that lack of leadership buy-in is often a problem, our leaders were fully invested in Agile long before it even became a buzzword in the industry! This is one challenge that we did not have to face.


Ensuring a Successful Agile Implementation

The benefits of Agile transformations are real and tangible. Under pressure during the recent pandemic, many organizations have accelerated their Agile adoption as it was imperative that they should cope with changing markets and economic conditions.

Two of the main drivers of Agility, as reinforced during the pandemic, are increased flexibility and faster product deliveries that can easily adapt to changing customer expectations.

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More often than not, however, ambitious enterprise-wide Agile transformations often go awry and lead to disastrous consequences. This has led to the myth that Agile works only for small teams and not on the enterprise-wide scale.

While Agile transformation challenges can creep up and ruin your implementation efforts, taking the right steps can put you back on track. Leadership buy-in, adopting the right strategy, helping team members transition through new agile tools and processes, and above all changing the organizational culture to make it more transparent, open and inclusive can greatly help in making Agile implementation a success.

The big picture is very clear, indeed!

About the Author

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Subramanyam Reddy is the Founder of KnowledgeHut, an ed-tech company that has trained over 250,000 professionals across 70 countries. Since 2011, KnowledgeHut has been helping individuals and enterprises across industries and sectors develop new capabilities and enhance growth.

Their training programs and workshops shape future-ready talent that is aligned to the needs of the evolving technological landscape. KnowledgeHut’s immersive learning platform, PRISM, is charting new territory in experiential learning with skill assessments, social learning tools and advanced insights that map skills progress. www.knowledgeHut.com

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Last updated: 09 Jun 2021

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