Many initiatives to move a company to an agile framework fail miserably. Why? Too many managers don’t realize that transformation is a process, not an event. A transformation requires a step-by-step approach that follows the principle of continuous improvement. A truly agile company emerges from small, steady changes that happen and continue to happen over time. If management believes a transformation can happen overnight, they may apply pressure to teams to accelerate a process that really can’t be accelerated. Shortcuts don’t work.
What does work? While there are many aspects to an agile transformation, organizations can get on the right foot by beginning with three important steps: (1) Understand the problem you are trying to solve, (2) establish a clear agile vision, and (3) identify distinct agile roles.
Understand the Problem
Before you jump in and get every team to start holding daily stand-ups, it is important to stop and understand why you wanted to implement agile in the first place. If you don’t know what problem you are trying to solve and why you are trying to solve it, you won’t get anywhere.
Agile is never a hard sell – who doesn’t want to get to market faster, with lower costs, and more reliability? Everyone wants these things, but agile is not a one-size-fits-all tool. There are many flavors of agile, and to be successful, you need a good understanding of how agile applies to your circumstances. A key agile principle is to establish effectiveness by being situationally specific. So, before you start anything, ask yourself questions like, “What is the nature of the problem I am trying to solve?” “What are the types of products my organization is working on?” “Is this a new development project?” “What degree of uncertainty do we have in our development efforts?” The answer to these questions will influence what type of agile solution you need. The answer may even suggest that agile is not the answer! This may sound like blasphemy, but there are times when more traditional frameworks are more appropriate to the nature of the work you are trying to perform. When you understand the nature of the problem you are trying to solve, you can more successfully identify the right solution.
Establish a Clear Agile Vision
Once you know the problem you are solving, you need to establish a clear vision. Whether you are working toward personal or corporate transformation, you need a solid direction. People are generally better at knowing what they want to avoid rather than what they want to do. For example, someone who wants to ski down a mountain might say, “I don’t want to topple over,” but this does nothing to help them move from the top of the mountain to the end of the run. The skier needs to identify the thing they WILL do to help them get down the mountain smoothly. Similarly, change is better accomplished when we articulate a clear path forward. So rather than leaping ahead, equipped only with the problem you want to avoid, articulate where you want to go as a company and write it down as a shared vision that can then trickle down to keep everyone focused as you implement your change efforts.
Identify Distinct Agile Roles
Once you understand the problem you are trying to solve and you have a clear vision, the next step is to clarify team roles. This is critical for effective team performance. Team members should be given the tools to understand their roles, how their roles fit into the overall structure of the team, and how what they are doing impacts organizational goals. Many managers assume that leaving the roles of individuals open will encourage people to share ideas and wear multiple hats within the team. They also assume this flexibility helps provide the team with greater autonomy. However, the opposite is true. When the roles of individual team members are not clearly defined, team members waste time and energy negotiating roles and protecting turf. As everyone forms their own model of where responsibility falls, gaps will emerge, and dysfunction and resentment will start to creep in as everyone assumes someone else is responsible for a critical task that is slipping through the cracks. By clearly delineating roles and responsibilities, managers can then foster autonomy and flexibility by allowing individuals to define how they will accomplish the work that falls under the domain of their responsibility. When people know what their true role is and they are willing to embrace it, it improves team member satisfaction, avoids team dysfunction, enhances collaboration, and makes it easier for everyone to follow agile practices.
There are multiple other steps organizations need to take to become fully agile, but by understanding that change efforts take time and patience, and by starting with the basics of understanding the problem you are trying to solve, creating a clear vision, and establishing distinct roles, you can get your organization on the right foot.