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Agile 101 for the C-Suite

What is it, why you want it, what to expect from a ‘transformation’

What is it?

Agile is a philosophy underpinned by the manifesto and the principles (Feb 2001), originally for software development.

In the last two decades, it has been widely found that these principles can apply beyond technology — anywhere that needs teams to co-operate toward larger shared outcomes — in human resources, in product development, in marketing; even in holistic design of companies. It has been used in industry contexts from retail to finance, from government to telco; and at scales from startup to global multi nationals (see some examples below).

To re-interpret the philosophy in a modern, tech-free format:

As complexity increases both inside and outside organisations, ever greater competitive advantage shifts toward the organisational ability to respond quickly and well to rapidly changing environments.

Organisations that respond quickly and well to rapidly changing environments exhibit:

  • de-risking, particularly capex expenditure with shorter cycle times, market testing and ongoing live refinement of products and services (one of the huge benefits of the incremental and iterative approach).
  • customer-centric learning cycles (which often includes unlearning previously held assumptions about why they want).
  • internal emphasis on learning culture (which includes acceptance of failure).
  • deep investment in people and teams, particularly in their mindset (which may include positive attrition).
  • highly visible and measurable value-to-customer mechanisms.
  • leadership by empathy, intent, and environment-setting; as opposed to leadership by position, micro-management, and process/tools.

When might we NOT use agility?

The Cynefin Framework models a “prevailing operative context” that teams and organisations can operate in. Within even medium size organisations, all four contexts exist, and thus require a range of ways of working approaches matched to appropriate cases:

  • simple contexts “known knowns” often can be automated; and where not, they can be executed with straightforward management and reporting. This is not incompatible with an agile transformation, but is not the target domain.
  • complicated contexts “known unknowns” require experts and analysis. Traditionally the target domain of classical Project Management. Complimentary processes such as the Toyota Production System, and the Lean family of ways of working approaches can help teams and organisations optimise for this environment whilst avoiding common pitfalls such as “analysis paralysis”. In modern contexts, many lean techniques are employed in teams where suitable in agile transformations.
  • complex context “unknown unknowns” is the domain of emergence and constant flux; and here is where agile approaches such as Scrum thrive. In these contexts, we cultivate team-level creativity instead of command and control; and run experiment playbooks instead of central, static long term planning.
  • chaotic context: requiring rapid response, organisations can create success patterns by finding smaller contexts in which to invest in moonshot-type innovation and, on the flip side, practice crisis management. Whilst not strictly the domain of agile; having an agile operating environment can help support chaos-context ways of working.

A good transformation team will collaborate with the organisation to pattern match team contexts to a playbook of ways of working approaches matching that context.

Why do you want it?

Some common starting observations I hear from the C-Suite eager to “be more agile” are:

We want to invest in our people, their culture, their ways of working; and build better teams with a common language.

We want to be a learning organisation.

We are working hard, but I’m not sure I we are getting much done.

In hindsight, X project should have been stopped much sooner, why couldn’t we avoid costly effort and money sinks like that?

We are losing customer perception for innovation, have increasing staff retention issues; and we operate in an era of cost cutting across the industry.

Others (some of them clients of mine) who have undergone transformations operated in these contexts:

  • Commbank: Finding ways to direct effort toward value; building a management operating system, helping “busy” turn into “productive”. Stopping work early when it makes sense.
  • Netflix: talent retention difficulties for high skilled workers in an ultra competitive Silicon-Valley environment; whilst growing at breakneck pace and scaling.
  • Zara: Re-designing the supply chain to revolve around modern, hyper-fast changing customer needs (which in turn helped incidental dysfunctions and profit depressors such as markdowns).
  • Coca Cola: Building a smaller, innovative learning organisation inside a storied and highly successful organisation attempting to innovate and widen its century old mission, from four time billion dollar soft drinks company to a total beverage company.

What you’ll actually get

Agile is not a silver bullet. So doing a transformation in and of itself won’t solve the ills that plague organisations. That said, implementing a mature change management approach that involves staff at all levels from management to line staff, and creates a positive feedback system as the organisation evolves a way of working suited for their context — being agile about adopting agile — often sees these initial results:

  • a huge learning opportunity for the previous designers of the organisation, often accompanied need to have clear owners for the transformation itself. Ideally, this is the CEO and their team — learnings can be actioned into appropriate environmental changes and context setting role modelling for the rest of the organisation.
  • problems, failures and mis-matched expectations. These are the learnings. Everything that was not great about the organisation becomes even more visible, encouraging leadership to take action to address the environment, whilst teams focus on learning and delivering outcomes, which go hand-in-hand. During the transformation, there will be projects that fail, missed deadlines, unclear scope, poor customer contact. A good transformation encourages a positive and constructive response to this and uses it to further refine the approach and the target state.
  • change pressure on product management and scope management, as often there is a power-information dynamic between the areas, roles, and teams that manage scope versus people who execute the scope. Many approaches, such as Scrum, seek to put both expertise areas in the same team.
  • cultural dissonance, between the new intended culture and values of the organisation being communicated and the existing culture.
  • two-speed organisation, as the parts of the organisation adopt the philosophy whilst others operate as-is during the transition.

What to expect from a (successful) transformation

Successful transformations are better understood as Change Programs rather than purely agile programs. This means looking at classical change theory and practice with an agile light; as well taking change skills into account when composing the transformation team.

Signs of a poor transformation

  • “doing agile” instead of “being agile”, where the focus is on implementing say, the Scrum framework or the Scaled Agile Framework instead of coaching culture and mindset.
  • training and certification without coaching follow up. Training and certification might be the most expensive capex component of many transformations, but teaching staff new theory without helping them embed it in day to day practice will cause the change to fail.
  • no end state in mind.
  • no metrics to assist. Note that metrics for the sake of metrics are a bad idea. But transformations do need real reasons why they want to invest the changes long term, and not having tangible changes to show for the investment once leadership inevitably changes disrespects the vast changes that have often been made to arrive at even a transition state.
  • change fatigue.

Characteristics of success

Some typical milestone markers that emerge during a transformation:

Credit: https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making
  1. A leadership mindset and behaviours change. New language, behaviours and role modelling (see diagram). Where efforts to make this change don’t genuinely come from the top, the transformation will not succeed.
  2. A focussed change team that assists in articulating the end state vision, the target values, the cultural expectations; and asks for staff of all levels to practice and buy in to the change.
  3. Focus on retrospectives or their equivalents, to embed a culture of team-based learning.
  4. A set of people who have full accountability of the volume, quality and outcomes of the work (and are thus able to say no!); embracing the art of good Product Ownership.
  5. A single view of work, e.g. in a system like Jira.
  6. A metrics informed approach.
  7. A strategy for positive attrition.
  8. A plan for in-house culture custodians, to ensure that the right people, culture and mindset stay long term within the organisation after the transormation focus moves elsewhere.
Using the Scrum at Scale model, implementing Ways of Working (WOW), Scrum of Scrums (S2) and Executive Action Teams (EATs)

Typical things you could see

These aren’t always present in a transformation, but some sample real changes (note just how many of them are cultural):

  • A psychologically safe workplace — i.e. for individuals to put themselves at personal risk in order to mitigate company risk; to tell their “bosses” that a given change or idea or project is not as good as it could be. If this feedback is listened to and actioned, a virtuous cycle begins as staff are even more prone to raise and remove risks: high levels of engagement and shared accountability for risk across and within teams.
  • Non traditional leaders, leading. People of high engagement, great initiative, especially good growth mindset begin to truly shine in the changed environment. They may have not been leaders or high performers in the previous cultural context. Finding suitable places for them in the organisation should be planned for!
  • Uni-skilling — A culture of doing one thing at a time until it is finished, leading to huge increases in productivity over long periods of time.
  • A team cadence of delivering value in small (weekly to fortnightly) value-to-customer increments and learning at the same rate.
  • Cross-skilling, creating people with deep expertise in one or two areas, but team members who are curious about and make attempts to learn and do a little of each other’s work (pi skilling).
  • A habit (also a culture) of mapping the work to value, resulting in focussing on the things that bring the org value. This also means a lot of ‘pet projects’, ‘make work’, and ‘good but not supported by market insight ideas’ get discarded.
  • Staff reporting feeling more valued in their day to day.
  • A long-term dedication of people to each other, their teams and their organisations, as engagement is unlocked.

Things a good change team should do

An incomplete list of things my teams and I do regularly to assist the organisations in transformations, as well as some samples of different views of the change:

The change roadmap should be flexible and respond to change; and must address all levels of the organisation as well as different environmental factors.
  • Executive Coaching, helping the senior-most people understand the behaviours and mindsets to encourage the transformation.
The change roadmap should be flexible and respond to change; and must address all levels of the organisation as well as different environmental factors.
  • Team Coaching.
  • Upskill in-house staff.
  • Pilot teams on ways of working.
  • Train and certify widely.
  • Assessments, both activity and behavioural.
  • Metrics, to be used by practicing teams for monitoring and feedback; not as performance for leaders to reward and punish
  • Language and culture.
  • Coaching daily practices.
  • Building Ways of Working Playbooks.
  • Positive attrition and re-hiring support, as culture cycles in the intended direction. This can be scary for organisations as people opt-out of agile cultural values; yet it is an absolutely fundemental part of a committed cultural change — not everybody in the organisation will want to go on the journey.
  • Support in continuously re-designing the organisation as agile practices take on scale.
  • Investing future long-term centre of excellence capability.

Note: none of these items are must do. Many of them are useful in different ways at different times throughout the transformation. The danger is to avoid replacing one unchanging, unresponsive pattern of working with a new one that is also unchanging and unresponsive!

Conclusion

I trust this gave you a good initial insight into what a typical “agile transformation” is, why organisations seek to implement one, and what good looks like as you’re executing.

Do let me know if you’d like to learn more! steven@nomoss.co

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Steven HK Ma

Steven HK Ma

Chief Purpose Officer of No Moss Co • Executive Agilist • Non-Profit Optimiser • Purpose Maximiser • Speculative Fiction Author