Why it’s important to understand that agile is radically different to what went before

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking recently about the introduction of agile methods into organisations using non-agile methods such as PRINCE2.

In this context, I, like many other coaches, often see friction between agile delivery teams and the organisation around them. There can be many reasons for this friction, but I want to focus here on one thing:

Agile ways of working are radically different to the non-agile ways of working that preceded them.

If you work in delivery and you’ve worked for any length of time in an agile team and in a non-agile team, you’ll understand this already, as you’ll have experienced how fundamentally different an approach agile is. However, if you’re on the edge of delivery work or even further away in the organisation, you may just think that agile is a bit different to what’s gone before. You may not be close enough to delivery to experience just how radically different agile is.

This is important, because, if you think agile is not radically different to what’s gone before, you might believe that the processes and ways-of-working used in the enabling functions around delivery (e.g. Governance, Change Management, Finance, Facilities, IT etc.), that have evolved (and been optimised) to enable non-agile delivery approaches, do not need to be changed to enable agile delivery.

If you believe that, you will not empathise with agile teams that are pushing back on existing processes and ways-of-working. Those agile teams will not understand why you are requiring them to follow processes that don’t enable them to be agile. This leads to friction for everyone.

Reducing the friction

Here are some things you can do as a transformation leader:

  • Explain why it’s essential for the organisation to adopt agile methods;
  • Explain why agile is radically different, so people not directly involved in delivery can see more clearly the need for change;
  • Acknowledge the friction caused by introducing a radical new way of working;
  • Reassure people that nobody is at fault — friction is to be expected when the organisation is making a radical change like this;
  • Let everyone know that you need to revisit processes and ways of working outside delivery teams as these may not enable agile delivery and indeed may frustrate agile delivery and negate the benefits the organisation is looking for;
  • Explain that agile teams will also adapt to reduce friction — although not in ways that significantly reduce agility; Agile teams and Enabling Function teams should work together to co-design new processes and ways-of-working that are better suited to the new environment.
  • Note that adaptation is an on-going process — as you learn more about working together you should continue to adapt together in light of that learning. You shouldn’t expect to get things right first time;
  • Empower people and give them support — including time & money — to adapt to the new ways of working (and thinking).

Making these things explicit takes heat out of the situation and gives the organisation a new model for collaboration between agile delivery teams and those enabling delivery.

I’d love to hear how you’ve dealt with similar situations…