Agile done right: overcoming key transformation roadblocks

30.06.2020
7 min.
title

Published in 2001, Agile Manifesto was rich in promise for software development companies. Down the line, the appeal of the harnessed workflow chaos, eliminated organizational silos, accelerated and predictable delivery, mitigated project risks, and process flexibility has made Agile popular among non-IT organizations. Today, the methodology is a go-to, with the increasing number of enterprises stepping up to adopt it beyond project management in orchestrating the work of separate departments or even entire organizations.

Agile adoption by industries

The failed expectations of Agile adopters

Today, despite being on handbooks for C-suite and mid-level management for almost two decades, Agile transformation is still no small feat. According to the 2020 State of Agile report, only 16% of respondents reached the satisfactory level of Agile maturity, while the whopping 54% of enterprises are still perfecting their practices, despite following Agile from one to five or more years.

Agile maturity
How long have organizations been practicing Agile development

Along their Agile journey, companies may face a plethora of roadblocks, most of them rooted in corporate culture and human factor. Indeed, a meaningful transformation requires more than just structural and technological changes (not that it is easy). Above all, Agile introduces a radical shift in management mentality, as well as individual and collective responsibility for the outcome, and this is what many enterprises tend to founder on.

Not everyone recognizes the need for change is that deep. As a result, some companies try to figure it out on their own or turn to IT consulting to guide them through the pitfalls, while others may abandon their transformational efforts altogether, convinced Agile is not the right fit for them.

Challenges experienced when adopting and scaling Agile

In the meantime, Agile transformation setbacks should not be an excuse for throwing in the towel. Let’s see why some Agile transformation roadmaps, while elaborate, fail to live up to their promise. We’ll also look at how you can empower your organization to embrace Agile ethos, mindset, and workflows.

Roadblock #1: general resistance to change

Cited as the most common barrier to the transformation, resistance to change is not inherent to Agile but instead rooted deep in the human factor. People tend to be wary of new things, and when something as disruptive as the approach to work and corporate culture is at stake, initial pushback is understandable.

Nevertheless, the management should never leave the staff to figure it out themselves. When swept under the rug, such attitudes threaten to translate into degraded performance, miscommunication, workplace conflicts, and even increased employee turnover, not to mention a failed transformation.

The good news is that rejection of Agile in most cases is the fruit of human feelings — anxiety, skepticism, reluctance, disorientation, and so on — rather than intentional malice. Therefore, the leadership’s genuine involvement coupled with proper educational efforts can reassure employees of personal and organizational gains of the transformation.

Address employees’ apprehensions

It is often the case that the pessimistic view of change stems from the fear of the future. For instance, some managers may resist Agile transformation since it can undermine their status, while others are concerned with their diminished ability to control the team. Employees of all positions may be unwilling to learn new hard and soft skills required in an Agile environment, or concerned about their job security and promotion prospects.

To dispel these anxieties, you should clearly define the capacities and responsibilities of each job role throughout and after the transformation, as well as outline learning opportunities and career paths it opens up. The management also needs to encourage feedback, so that the employees could ask questions, share opinions, and voice concerns over such dramatic changes in their work life.

Invest in coaching

Executives typically begin organizational transformations with big words about the principles, attitudes, and gains of Agile and expect their employees to miraculously put this value-driven methodology to use right away. Although inspiration and encouragement are truly indispensable for success, it is not enough for employees to build appropriate Agile workflows, skills, and attitudes. To make this happen, it is a good practice to hire an Agile coach — the person who can support your personnel on their journey.

Agile coaches offer to match stakeholders’ transformation vision, goals and desired outcomes with the relevant methods for each department. To help employees get a good grasp of Agile workflows and build confidence, coaches can overview teams’ work and follow it up with feedback or conduct hands-on training workshops for employees to get a better grasp of novel techniques. These instructors can also ensure the sustainability of your Agile transformation in the long run by routinely reviewing teams’ and departments’ working processes.

For BBVA, a Spanish multinational financial services company that completed its Agile transformation journey in October 2019, coaching proved one of the main success components. The company relied on eight experienced coaches to help their numerous teams transit from their legacy work methodologies to Agile, and teach employees how to work independently with the focus on deliverables and quality.

Roadblock #2: lack of leadership buy-in

You’d think that senior managers recognize the business value of agility and thus should be the most invested in carrying it through, putting the transformation on the company's strategic agenda, and setting the example to their employees. However, stakeholders’ lack of participation turns out to be the second most common obstacle regarding the Agile transformation roadmap.

As stated in the 2019 Survey on Agility by KPMG, only 13% of respondents indicated their top management fully supported corporate Agile transformation efforts, while more than a third saw no leadership endorsement. In such an unfavorable climate, driving a bottom-up transformation is a particularly thankless job that has high chances of going astray or being abandoned.

To what level does the top management support an Agile ambition

To avoid becoming the greatest impediment to Agile, senior management should not only carefully craft company- and team-wide transformation strategies, making data-driven decisions, but also seriously refine their own attitude. Consider taking the following steps to mature into a stronger leader for your company in the times of fundamental changes.

Adjust your mindset

A person who steers their employees toward Agile principles and values while keeping to their traditional, long-established attitudes and ways of management, sets a poor example and threatens to undermine the success of the entire endeavor. In this event, accepting and developing ‘an inner agility’ is an executive’s top priority in the face of Agile transformation.

The underpinning of Agile leadership is a creative, not a reactive, mindset, channeled through innovation, value-creation, and collaboration. Whereas a traditionally-minded executive treasures certainty and control above all, an Agile leader experiments with ideas, being mindful of risks but not put off by them. A leader developing a creative mindset needs to cast away the win-lose approach to business and recognize the gains of customer-centricity and partnership. Last but not least, one cultivating an inner agility should realize the flaws of the traditional siloed hierarchy and learn to prioritize a management model focused on trust and personal accountability.

Narrow down your vision

Another misstep on the senior management’s side is to approach Agile transformation with nothing but abstract ideas of a greater good. Not tailored to the context of a particular enterprise and supported with no viable strategies and steps, Agile principles are highly likely to find no proper practical application.

Thus, an executive needs to formulate a goal for transformation that will prove both relevant and compelling. For this, one should not only build upon personal ambitions and ideas but also take heed of employees’ expectations. Beyond that, effective leaders should translate the general concepts of Agile into the particulars of their corporate culture and operating model, finding the balance between a discombobulating radical change and a shift away from a static siloed system.

Seek competent guidance

There is nothing wrong with being ignorant about certain aspects of Agile. Yet commencing an Agile transformation while unsure of your competencies and expertise can lead to confusion, discouragement, and potentially botched outcomes.

By embarking on a dedicated training course or hiring an Agile consultant, executives and mid-tier management can build up a set of competencies and skills which are indispensable for an Agile leader. Doing exercises modeled after real-life experiences, stakeholders will learn to foster their creativity, apply Agile in practice, and cope with the challenges that typically arise during a transformation.

In the case of healthcare and biotech company F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG, a leadership training program became the cornerstone of their Agile transformation success. Roche’s executive team participated in a custom-made four-day Kinesis program. It included an initial mindset assessment, exercises in challenging traditional leadership attitudes, and a think tank, where participants came up with their ideas about hands-on agility. The training’s results exceeded all expectations, as their senior management fully embraced the values of Agile and realized the methodology’s potential in the context of their enterprise.

Roadblock #3: inconsistent processes across teams

Another factor that commonly impedes companies’ Agile transformation is the struggle to find a balance between flexibility and uniformity. As Agile promotes the culture of individual freedom and responsibility for one’s performance and results, executives, following Agile principles to the letter, expect teams to self-organize and establish optimal mechanisms of governance and management on their own.

Yet these good intentions often lead to process inconsistency, as each team interprets Agile and puts it into practice independently. This may not so much adversely impact enterprise performance and efficiency as instill disarray and eventually undermine corporate unity.

Thus, implementing Agile requires a certain degree of centralized enablement. To render their Agile ecosystem stable and effective, senior managers should take action to foster the following aspects.

Set up a goal-oriented structure

First of all, Agile calls for restructuring. An average Agile-led enterprise has a solid top-bottom structure but, instead of rigidly formed departments, it involves breaking down the workforce into a network of smaller, more decentralized teams. Agile teams are then arranged to align with the company's activities and support specific tasks, with each team member having a clear and accountable role.

ING Netherlands is one of such organizations. Motivated to undertake the transformation by customers’ fluctuating needs and behaviors, this Dutch banking group set out on their Agile journey in 2015 and has seen only success so far. One of the key transformational aspects for them was the reorganization of teams into so-called ‘squads’ made up of nine people with different job roles but focused on solving the needs of a single client.

Ever since, the company saw visible payoffs of this transition, such as decreased time to market, enhanced employee engagement, and improved productivity. In their 2019 Transformation update, ING claimed that such restructuring also helped them ensure better regulatory compliance and considerably cut structural spending.

Empower team self-governance

In Agile, teams are expected to make decisions by themselves and organize the working process as they see fit. Yet not every team member possesses the skills and expertise to do this consciously and independently.

To help their employees become self-sufficient, executives can support Agile coaching sessions with lessons on strategic thinking, emotional maturity, and discreet negotiation. Since the role of mid-level leadership should shift away from controlling daily activities to empowering, guiding, and supporting their teams, managers also need to undergo re-education and up-skilling.

Roadblock #4: internal culture at odds with Agile values

What makes Agile particularly disruptive is that it calls for a reformed corporate culture. Typically, organizations foster their internal cultures for years, cementing unspoken rules of employee conduct and dress code, as well as the hierarchy and shared values. Agile, in its turn, requires negating old ways and embracing a new approach to management and collaboration.

Yet such drastic shifts are not meant to happen overnight. When Agile culture is enforced in short order, the organization is highly likely to fall back into its old patterns, since confused employees will rely on their ‘muscle memory’ instead of the new Agile ways. Thus, the leadership should emphasize an ongoing, step-by-step cultural shift and give the process their constant attention.

The most significant cultural change demanded by Agile regards project management. Below are the key differences between Agile and Waterfall, the traditional management methodology, which can be acknowledged as the first steps of an organization-wide Agile transformation.

Shift responsibility from the manager to the team

In the classic Waterfall management model, a manager is accountable for the entire project and is to blame if issues arise. Managers, in their turn, often react by blaming the team, exerting their power. This method doesn’t guarantee the team will do better next time; on the contrary, offended by the accusations, they are highly likely to lose their motivation to make an effort in the future.

In contrast, in an Agile workflow, the team is in charge of iteration results as well as the end product in general. This way, the manager is neither a scapegoat when something goes wrong nor is he or she solely praised for the project success. Creating a team culture of equal rights and duties allows conscientious employees to prove their mettle and to gradually discipline others lacking a sense of duty.

Establish a product-centric approach to delivery

In an Agile environment, the highest priority is the end product's quality and meeting users’ needs. As for a project plan regarding timeframe, scope, and other aspects considered rigid in the traditional delivery model, they are seen as variables and are easily adjusted to current needs. This approach is currently a focus of attention for Agile-minded enterprises globally. Gartner predicts that the share of product-centric model adopters will exceed 80% by 2022, a double increase from 2018.

Thus, working on a product, the team should either fix the date and do so with the floating scope or fix the scope with only an approximate deadline that can be shifted. The alternative commonly suggested by Agile professionals is to set the product's fitness for practical application as the major criteria for measuring the project completeness.

Highlight the importance of communication

Agile thrives on team communication, preferably the one happening face-to-face or via video conferencing. Efficient Agile frameworks support a combination of communication modes, both formal and informal, and tools to enable them. Co-location in the same space also gets critical for igniting ad-hoc discussions not tied down to meeting slots. Such an ongoing exchange of ideas and opinions is helpful for teams’ self-organization.

Approaching Agile from the project management side allowed Itransition to swiftly nurture a sustainable working culture in the challenging environment of the burgeoning outsourcing market. As our company grew bigger and our teams more geographically distributed, the leadership felt the need to commence transformation by revamping the working process. Gradually, the principles of personal accountability, continuous skill-building, unhindered communication, and end-product value were embraced company-wide, which facilitated further Agile transformation steps. Today, we can with certainty call Itransition’s corporate culture fully Agile.

The sweet payoff of successful Agile transformation

Indeed, Agile transformation is no walk in the park. Requiring a top-to-bottom workflow reformation and a dramatic shift in corporate culture and mindset, it demands a lot of work, effort, and time from the management.

Still, when done right, Agile is set to yield outstanding benefits. Adopters across industries report being empowered by flexibility in the face of changing priorities, increased team efficiency, workflow visibility, shortened time to market, unhindered communication, and healthy cooperation culture. These deliverables are what makes Agile an imperative for those businesses that are looking to become cost-efficient and future-proof.