Critical agile transformation success factors

The only constant in life is change

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, is quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life”. And while that’s true, it’s also really hard. Nowhere is this truer than when you are attempting a cultural transformation across an organisation - such as an agile transformation.

I want to explore some of the critical success factors that I’ve seen make the difference between success and failure for organisations attempting to adopt agile. I’m going to split these into three areas; cultural, structural and process.

Cultural Transformation Success Factors

  1. The most obvious success factor is for an organisation to understand the nature of agile. Agile isn’t Scrum or Kanban or SAFe. Agile is a set of values - a culture of collaboration, adaptability, engagement and accepting (and leveraging) uncertainty. In many cases this is a fundamental change in the way an organisation operates.
  2. Because it’s a cultural change buy-in and commitment from across the organisation, and the differing perspectives they bring, is needed. And I mean across the organisation - both vertically (from the do’ers to the organisational executives) and horizontally (from IT to Finance to HR).
  3. With buy-in from across the organisation, an organisation can begin to transform the supporting processes. This makes the difference between local agility and business agility.
  4. A cultural transformation also means understanding the purpose of agile. It’s not about doing more with less or working faster. Organisations need to be able to accept, embrace and leverage uncertainty and unpredictability for their (and their customers) competitive advantage.
  5. Organisations need to come out of their comfort zone and not just take the agile practices that seem easiest based on their current processes.
  6. Organisations that fail fast, and use that as a learning opportunity, generally have the most successful transformations.
  7. At a fundamental level, organisations that align their KPI’s to the values and principles of agile are setting themselves up for success.
  8. Finally, organisations needs to start the transformation for the right reasons. This means where there are dysfunctional teams, high attrition or teams with low-morale, attempting to transition to agile won’t work. Organisations need to focus on solving these issues first and, while there are some elements of agile that may help, not make the mistake of assuming agile is the answer.

Structural Transformation Success Factors

  1. Organisations that are serious about creating a culture of collaboration need to invest in enabling it. Teams need a collaborative work environment that supports interaction as well as quiet focus time. This goes double for distributed teams - one of the biggest mistakes I see is where organisations do not provide the right technology and assume that collaboration can occur over email.
  2. Provide transparency to all team members about the transformation; both the activities being undertaken and the reasons behind them. As Simon Sinek famously said “start with why”.
  3. Training and coaching is also necessary, but too often organisations focus on training (because it’s cheaper) and assume that a 2-day course makes their teams agile “masters”. Sadly, it takes a lot more than that to master anything. 10,000 hours seems to be the popularly adopted duration. Ongoing support, such as coaching, can make all the difference for teams. It also helps if teams invest in training the soft skills such as communication.
  4. Finally, there must be a focus on structural agility. Organisations don’t have to go all the way to Holocracy and Teal Organisations, but at least start to break down the functional silo’s and create cross-functional and empowered teams. Teams who are accountable for outcomes rather than outputs.

Process Transformation Success Factors

  1. Let’s start at the top-end; most organisations have very poor portfolio management processes. A successful agile transformation brings agility into portfolio planning and limits the number of projects being delivered simultaneously. Effort should be focused on bringing a small number projects (the most important projects) to completion before teams move onto the next project. Higher maturity organisations can start to move away from project portfolios towards product portfolios.
  2. Agile isn’t one size fits all. As more teams and divisions take part in the transformation, different types of agile frameworks and practices need to be adopted and applied. Preferably this decision should be driven by the teams themselves.
  3. One of the critical roles in agile is the role of the Product Owner. Teams need to ensure they have the right PO’s with the training, authority and availability to perform their duties. The PO should also be able to accurately represent the end customer (or users) and their requirements.
  4. Leaders need to trust teams to make decisions; to delegate the outcomes they want them to achieve, rather than the actions they think need to be done. An agile leader will give their team the trust and authority to decide on the right set of actions to achieve the given outcome.
  5. Organisations need to invest in the technical agile practices as well as the business practices. I may talk about business agility all the time, but technical agility (for software teams at least) is critically important. If all you think about when someone says agile is Scrum, and not XP, TDD or Pair Programming, then you are missing a significant success criteria.
  6. Finally, organisations and teams must start with the retrospective. If nothing else, organisations must be invested in continuous improvement. That also means that the actions that come out of the retrospective are owned by someone and implemented.

Final Thoughts

I want to thank Jeyaprakash Rajaram, Dmitriy Bibikov and Nirmalya Sengupta for their input in this article. What are your critical success factors? Let me know below…

-Evan, Singapore

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