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How to ensure Agile transformation succeeds: two experts weigh in


Anna has written about experience design, product development, and workshop facilitation. She has been working in distributed teams for three years, and she is passionate about helping these teams to succeed.

What does it mean to be an Agile organization? How can you grow your team’s Agile maturity? Experts Mary Thorn, Agile Practice Lead at Vaco, and Bob Galen, Principal Agile Coach at Vaco, share their insights gleaned from decades of coaching high-performing teams.

These are key takeaways from a panel discussion Bob and Mary hosted at Distributed 2019, the biggest virtual summit for enterprise product teams. You can also watch a full session.

What makes a great agile organization

Bob
Galen

What makes a great Agile organization is joy. It’s a soft and squishy term, but it means that leaders in the organization try to set up an ecosystem where people come in and they have fun doing what they do. There’s a buzz at a team level, and they’re delivering great things and solving the customers’ problems. The team is knocking down the doors of their clients, they’re exceeding their expectations.

Another important aspect that we’ve found is that the best way to make a transformation is top-down. We want leaders to be trained first. We want them to be coachable. We want them to understand what Agile is and is not, what good metrics are, etc.

Transformation goes up and down in the organization. It’s really hard for grassroots adoption without some leadership alignment as well. I mean, you can get grassroots bottom-up adoption in the beginning, but the leaders have to get on board because if they’re not bought in, they can be so disruptive.

Book recommendation
from Bob Galen:

Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love

How to start transformation when you don’t have leadership buy-in

Bob
Galen

To start Agile change from the bottom up, your team can be a role model – you can lead the leaders and show them what Agile looks like. You can lead them with metrics, you can lead them with the value proposition, and get them excited. One of the Scrum values is courage – the teams can show courage to go to a leader and have a hard discussion with them about how they’re not supporting the Agile initiative. You can adopt a flattened mentality – yes, you report to them, but look to them as a colleague and have a really challenging discussion.

Mary
Thorn

This only works up to a certain point. We have seen what I would call the J curve adoption. You try to have some bottom-up teams, they start to do Agile themselves, they get into the bottom of the J curve without leadership adoption. Then the leaders look to them when things are getting tough, and they say to stop. You end up worse than when you started.

Image source: RevCult

If you don’t have the whole leadership team bought in with you, when things go bad, they’re going to make you go back to the way things used to be. So you need to think about how, at a Scrum team level, when things go bad, do you not revert back? It’s really hard to do that if you don’t have some leadership alignment to help you get through those failures.

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What are the conditions you need to start Agile transformation

Mary
Thorn

It’s important to start with the “why.” You need to actually understand what behaviors you want to change, and what this transformation is going to do. An entry condition to me is having a way to sell the “why” so people want to follow you.

Bob
Galen

In my opinion, an organization needs to be in pain. It can’t just be, “We read an HBR article about Agile, and it says we get a five times multiplier, and we’re going to do that.” There has to be some self-awareness, pain recognition, and some humility.

Then there needs to be a people centricity. This goes back to joy – what I’m looking for is an organization that really respects and values their people. They understand that it’s not about pointing at the managers or leaders, but it’s people first, their teams first, to delight the customer. Then leadership follows that. So where are they on that curve?

It’s also critical for an organization to have a vision and a strategy to get to that point. One of the things I’ve seen in a lot of organizations is that they don’t know what their vision is, or where they want to be in 2-5 years. So the first thing they need to do is to align to that mission of vision for the next 6, 12, 18 months.


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How to re-energize the transformation when the organization has hit a plateau

Bob
Galen

At some point in Agile transformations, people burn out because continuous improvement is so challenging, and they might flatten out a bit and take a pause. They’re really recharging their batteries. How do you accelerate in this situation? I worked at one organization where over three years, we had several of those plateaus. I think they’re natural, so don’t overreact. Agile transformation can be exhausting. A three-month flat line where people are just getting a feel for themselves and re-energizing is fine. I noticed that you have to then change the inflection again.

Agile coaches can be change agents. In this role, we have to be really cognizant of what re-energizes us. Some people like public speaking, others feel better after talking to their mentor or finding people that they enjoy working with. I participate in local Agile groups, go to conferences, and write blogs. Where do you get energy? Yoga, exercise, walks in the park – whatever it takes. You need to manage your energy levels.

What to do if the agile team has too many projects at once

Bob
Galen

Stop the madness. One of the problems I see is people biting off more than they can chew. They have too much work-in-progress (WIP). In the most loving way possible, show the leadership the effect that has on churning the organization. Run a pilot project where you limit WIP in just one team, from ten things per team to two-three things per team. Then show your manager the difference that it makes in productivity and in team health.

Mary
Thorn

I used a Miro online whiteboard once to show how many team members were on each Scrum team, as well as the number of projects on each team. Just having a list and an Excel spreadsheet was not enough to illustrate the issues, but Miro provided visibility and was a really great way for me to show that we have 15 projects on one team or one project on one team. When you break down tasks that way, you see the perception of team productivity changes.

How to improve communication in Agile teams

Bob
Galen

Start telling stories of success and continue to share stories with everyone — at a leadership level and at a team level. Even share stories of failure and share how teams responded to failure. Become a storytelling organization.

Don’t focus on story points or any of the tactics – focus on behavior. Don’t reward running Scrum or running Kanban, look at how we’re reducing WIP and look at what it’s doing – someone courageously moved a team from 20 stories in flight to two, and they got them done for the first time in a century. Talk about behaviors, I think that keeps the momentum going.

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