Agile Transformation Approaches: Top Down, Bottom Up, And 360 Degrees — At all levels.

Salam Khan
Nov 10, 2017 · 3 min read

For the last 6 years or so of my decade long professional career, I’ve been working in organisations which travelled (or at least tried to travel) the Agile Transformation journey. Some succeeded, some partially succeeded, while a few failed too. Fortunately, I’ve seen and been a part of those successes and failures which taught me a thing or two about Agile Transformation hence sharing this article.

I learnt that there are 3 common approaches for Agile adoption in any organisation. These are as follows.

  1. Top down approach
  2. Bottom up approach
  3. 360 degrees adoption approach

Top down approach

It’s one of the common approaches where the management wants to ‘implement Agile’ due to a few reasons, commonly:

  • Someone told one of the top bosses that all cool kids are doing ‘Agile’ and they should try it too
  • One of the bosses read somewhere that Agile ‘works’ and teams can deliver ‘faster’
  • A competitor started doing or successfully adopted Agile in their organisation hence top management thought it’s good time to do Agile within their organisation too
  • A change in the top management happened and they brought someone who actually knows Agile and then tries to initiate the Agile movement at the organisation (not so uncommon these days)
  • Company management is afraid that they won’t be able to beat a competitor hence they should try this new way of working

As per my experience, usually the following happens (there are exceptions in every case though).

  • As teams are asked / forced to do Agile, it feels like a forced thing to do and people typically respond negatively to it
  • People are usually sent on Agile trainings or are asked to learn by reading hence everybody usually have their own definition of ‘Agile’ and what ends up being adopted is not Agile
  • Even if Agile coaches are hired to lead this transformation, it doesn’t work well due to the lack of strategic alignment of Agile with organisational vision and long term plans
  • So usually, this journey becomes tiring and less fruitful for both the teams and the top management

Bottom up approach

I’ve seen this approach sometime work and sometime fail. It’s when a few Agilists, including the middle management, initiate Agile adoption in the software development teams. Usually these people have seen and been a part of successful transformations before and know the benefits such transformations bring.

It commonly brings following results.

  • Teams take time to form, storm, norm, and eventually start to perform well
  • As the movement is started bottom up, teams are usually fully bought into this journey and do their best to adopt Agile completely
  • Teams are under continuous pressure to perform so that the management sees the value of Agile adoption and buy into it so that they fully support it
  • As top management doesn’t believe in it (yet) or is skeptical about Agile’s success, teams still need to follow business cases and the deadlines that come with it (which usually are decided one level up and are often unrealistic)
  • At some point usually either of these two things happen: A) Management sees the value and start offering the required support for Agile teams. OR. B) Teams get demotivated and continue doing Agile just for the sake of doing sprints and user stories!

360 Degrees — at all levels

It’s the case where management believes and truly understands Agile and fully supports teams who are empowered to adopt appropriate frameworks or methodologies as per their needs.

This one brings the best results.

  • Teams are empowered and autonomous
  • Teams start lean, iterate on stuff, do retros, and learn from their mistakes which builds a learning organisation culture
  • As it is supported by the management, small failures are often tolerated as long as teams learn from those
  • Due to the appropriate level of autonomy teams are given, their morale is often high and the work environment is very positive which creates great culture
  • Right things are built which are driven by customer needs, data, and teams’ learnings
  • Quality of products built is often high as everybody has already bought into those
  • Which ultimately brings the benefit every business want — faster delivery

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article. Do you have different experiences or would like to learn more about mine? Feel free to contact me.

Cheers guys — happy Agile-ing.

Salam Khan

Written by

Iteration Manager / Agile coach by profession and a harmless humorous humble human at heart. I’m interested in People, Agile, Lean, and Product Management.