Agile Transformation in 4 Acts

I’m a big believer in agility, and I often help my clients find ways to take steps in growing their agility. Unfortunately, that means I also get tangled up in “Transformations.” Here’s how I typically see it play out, and some things I’d rather try instead:

Act 1: The Spark

The spark happens when one of two things happens. Either an executive comes in and balks that the organization isn’t agile yet, or there are a few teams that have had remarkable results that they attribute to agility.

Here are some qualities of this moment:

  • A decision is made to transform the organization
  • Consultants are sought out as experts in agile transformations
  • The group with great results is propped up as an example but otherwise ignored
  • A sponsor in the executive group is selected
  • Leadership discusses goals like productivity, efficiency, and time-to-market

Act 2: Pilots Begin

Everyone realizes that you can’t transform everyone all at once, so the idea to work with a few teams sampled from across the company comes up. This idea has a name like Pilot, Tiger, or Beacon. Either way, these teams are going to get rockstar treatment to prove this transformation and agility works.

Here are some qualities of this moment:

  • Employees are anointed as agile coaches
  • Coaches (Consultants and employees) are embedded with pilot teams
  • Pilot teams are given every reason to succeed, including ideal projects, increased budget, and the ability to poach individuals
  • Coaches and teams discuss goals but never set a direction
  • This continues for six months to a year
  • The next act begins as nothing terrible happened, but neither did anything great
  • Some consultants show they’ve never really worked with teams before, but the realization that they have no idea how to hire excellent people to do this is a distant thought

Act 3: Training, Bootcamps, and Dojos. Oh my!

With resounding “Meh” results of the pilot program in hand, the decision to roll out the full transformation happens. The idea that you can’t transform at once from Act 2 is abandoned in favor of an assembly line of training. This act lasts years.

  • More consultants and employees arrive
  • A multi-day training for whole teams is developed
  • This training is rebuilt, tweaked, debated, and argued about the entire time by the trainers and coaches
  • Coaches are split between training teams during part of the week and coaching trained teams the rest
  • Successful transformation is strongly associated with the number of trained or certified teams
  • The trappings of Scrum arrive as things take new words, estimates become story points, people accept titles of Product Owner and Scrum Master
  • A great war begins about what tools the company should use to support the teams. Jira is chosen and configured terribly.
  • Projects are dutifully chunked up into sprints
  • The realization that Product Owners and Scrum Masters have no idea what they are doing sparks the idea to create more training
  • Coaches form a team but insist on working individually, and struggle to find common ground, shared goals, strategy, or direction
  • Realization that training isn’t sufficient prompts a maturity model roll-out. Everyone hates it
  • Coaches struggle to figure out if coaches can do Scrum or Kanban as a group and struggle to show their work transparently
  • Somehow, every team is a 4 out of 5 maturity. It’s a miracle.

Act 4: What Have You Done for Me Lately?

Under pressure from everyone else, the executive sponsor is asked to show the results of this transformation. This creates a massive demand for data and evidence that something has changed or improved anywhere.

  • Budget for consultants, training, materials, and a coaching organization is questioned
  • Someone says that they should be focusing on DevOps instead. The coaches still ignore them
  • The realization that story points and velocity still don’t matter, but its the only data anyone has
  • A skeleton crew of coaches and consultants refocus their effort in a few key areas
  • The argument that new or different training continues to be said
  • The coaches have split into factions between the trainers, the ones that believe that you have to work with leaders only, and the pragmatists

Epilogue

Many transformations go through these acts, the question about whether they continue or not depends on the leadership’s commitment.

So What?

Well, hopefully, this was way off base for you and what you’ve seen, but if it isn’t, then maybe you can have a chuckle and realize you’re in great company.

So what would I do differently? One of the major things that happen in this little play is that everyone gets swept up into doing things without checking results or even having a hypothesis about what might change.

What I’d recommend doing a bit differently for each act is:

Act 1:

  • Do a deep dive into that successful team. They had to solve for every major obstacle that will come up. They will show you how tough of a mountain you have to climb
  • Identify, not in agile terms, what good looks like with the sponsor. Drill into metrics. Use something like an OKR if you don’t have any other idea

Act 2:

  • Don’t touch existing groups and reshuffle them. It is a fantastic way to create resentment among everyone who wasn’t selected
  • Use those same OKRs from the first act to guide the areas of focus for the pilot groups
  • Create vertical agreement for each pilot. Team -> Manager -> Director -> VP, etc.
  • Do sprint reviews as publicly as you can

Act 3:

  • Skip this act if you can by creating a pull-based model for teams
  • Create consumable resources like newsletters, podcasts, videos that teams can consume
  • Build a funnel of people who want to transform instead
  • Coaching organization maintains OKR, collects data, and operates like a consultancy picking their client teams, building case studies, etc.

Act 4:

  • With Act 3 taking a different path, there will be results to show
  • Demand for transformation, backed with results, will likely increase the budget
  • Deeper engagement with a few teams will better highlight who needs to be hired instead of taking whatever consultancies give

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