Successful agile transition in the enterprise? It’s the mindset, stupid!

André Cramer
7 min readNov 8, 2018

When it comes to introducing and implementing agile work methodologies, especially in the enterprise context, I often come across a phenomena that could be called ‘the agile cloud of mixing up tools with mindset’. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people who are new to agile methodologies, get excited and start ‘living’ and ‘working’ embracing agile change. It is en vogue to say ‘we’re agile’ or ‘I’m agile in my workplace’.

Often it looks something like this:

I believe it is crucial for everyone, also and especially for leaders in a transitioning organization, to be aware of how how all of this relates to each other and that there is a coherent and cascading methodology of how it all builds on top of each other. Most of the things you hear from people new to the world of agile can usually be grouped into categories of frameworks & tools. Something like this:

These are key frameworks and tools that members of an agile organization should leverage, but I cannot stress enough that underneath these lies a foundation without which an agile transition is doomed for failure. It is simply not enough to rush everyone through SCRUM methodology crash courses or tell them to which ‘squad’ they belong or send them to a Design Thinking challenge workshop or something comparable.

It is paramount to build and foster the mindset foundation for the organization and its members to have the chance to master their agile transition. Nothing will work if the mindset level is not seen as the foundation of all agile success. In the greater context, it looks like this:

A true agile mindset as well as an organizational environment consists of a firm values & principles based cultural foundation. Values like transparency, openness, respect, courage and self-commitment are the precondition for a successful introduction of principles like self-organization, customer-centricity, learning culture and of course a failure culture.

But how do we drive and foster the right mindset development?

So we need to ensure that as a fundamental pillar of agile transformation we foster the mindset and culture layer as a top priority. But how? What are key ingredients for making success far more likely than failure? Many agile practitioners use the term ‘agile mindset’ without really being able to define it. In my view and experience, this here is a good list to start with and pick from. These are key ingredients to help develop agile mindsets, to help efforts in an agile transition flourish:

  • Put into the center of every action the goal to create an environment of stability and security. These are emotionally comprehensible and perceptible for everyone — so a lack of it weighs heavily. It is extremely important for employees to recognize the healthy human feeling of emotional security.
  • Provide constant, tangible, specific and actionable feedback and guidance to employees.
  • Create a workplace that does not penalize people for being creative, but one that supports them in living their creativity. These can be inspiring environments, space for spontaneous meetings, for break-out sessions, tools for creativity, flexibility to change locations, to name only a few.
  • Encourage open communication. And do not stigmatizing failure. Do not punish for ‘you took a wrong decision’ (at least when there is no repeating pattern). Talk about own failure, own ‘fuck ups’. Foster openness about failure at all levels (individual, departmental, managerial, etc.). This has to start with you! Be open and focus on what you learned as a result of the failure.
  • Ensure opportunities for employees to share their ideas and thoughts about the most effective ways to get their work done. Encourage grass-root initiatives for insights sharing. Foster bar camps and sharing events, inspirational talks and key notes, etc.
  • Encourage teams to apply agile concepts by experimenting with tools and activities that eliminate hindering processes and generate better solutions. For example, promote agile work sessions that ensure everyone in the room has a voice.
  • Empower in particular intrinsically motivated people to be the initial drivers. Incentivize and support such agile first movers. It helps you apply a ‘you don’t push it, but they will pull it’ logic. The goal is for people to start doing, start trying and create a gravitational field that will pull in more people.
  • Foster diversity and make sure that when putting teams together diversity is a key criteria.
  • Nurture the thirst for knowledge by offering learning opportunities and creating space for constant personal development (not being restrictive on training desires, creating space/time for ‘staying-in-the-know’ activities like reading, lectures, events, etc.)
  • Open up thinking to delegate responsibility. Encourage self-direction for teams to unleash innovation, instead of concentrating decision-making in the hands of a select few. “Let go” and grant trust.
  • Foster exchange with other companies and organizations to share insights from their own transition, highlights, but also low-lights. Have external people come in and talk about their experiences, their way, their success, their failures and tips.
  • Make sure you put the right leaders and managers from your source organization into the right spots of the transformed agile organization. Measure executives and leaders with criteria that focus on employee satisfaction around the agile transition. Focus is to foster supportive leadership (watch out for command and control and eliminate if you still find it). Let’s be honest: the role of management is to create a framework for good cooperation, period.
  • Chose existing or hire new leaders who have a clear commitment to agile principles and who are able to be role models in an authentic way. No one has to be perfect in the execution — but everyone must be authentic in their commitment to driving the change and respecting agile principles.
  • Make sure that in the center of change related communications are the reasons for the proposed change. That must be carried over clearly and consistently, in terms that address the needs of the team.
  • Aim to deliver quick wins in the beginning. For sure, the big picture with all its diverse facets is important, but equally important is the benefit of success stories that especially help drive motivation of skeptical or cynical team members.
  • Take a critical look at existing patterns of behavior. Eliminate elements that support competition over teamwork, that favor hoarding information over sharing, that aim at indirect communication over direct communication.
  • Contextualize cultural and organisational/structural approaches to your environment and specifics. Simply ironing something over, superficially, without reflexion and potential adaptation, will not do the job.
  • In the same fashion like agile methods are aimed to be carried out, namely in small and manageable increments, the introduction of this very change should also follow this principle. A start with some positively minded individuals and motivated teams as a pilot makes sense in order to gain experience and to be able to make adjustments if necessary. Fight the tendency to build it perfectly.
  • Be cautious with ‘selling’ everything under the ‘agile’ term. For some people, imposing or over-emphasizing a name with the potential to win the ‘buzzword of the year” trophy can be an inhibitor. It could strengthen a push-back reflex of “I’m sure I will survive this hype here, too”.
  • Trust your employees and use their sense for the business. Some key working level employees oftentimes have more sense of urgency and are more realistic about changing working environments than middle management. The latter tends to see themselves and the company quite well positioned while the people right in the heart of the business know what’s really going on.
  • Get outside coaching earlier rather than later.

I know, this is a long list. But in my view it cannot be long enough. We should not sit still when it comes to supporting and tweaking initiatives that help us strengthen an agile mindset as a firm foundation for the transition. I hope you find some inspiration for things you can push and support in your company.

Pressure without vision kills — authenticity & inspiration wins!

And always keep in mind: a mindset change cannot succeed by shouting to people “we have to move now and if you don’t make it, then these bad thing will happen…”. Because first and foremost, this will only mobilize fear with people reacting by concentrating on their fears, getting paralyzed and not empowered as a result.

Being honest and authentic is key. A successful transition to an agile organization isn’t an easy challenge and it is often times a bumpy road that requires endurance, patience and confidence to overcome the mindset of hierarchies, formal power, micromanagement and command & control. But it is worth it!

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André Cramer

Tech&Innovation Strategist — Consultant @detecon, formerly strategic partner mgmt @yahoo, productmgmt @tmobile, biz dev/partnering/strategy @deutschetelekom