As I was interviewing this past Fall/Winter, I answered many different situational questions. There’s one good question that sticks with me now, especially as I’m faced with the real situation of what that question represents.
When you join a big agile transformation in progress as an Agile Coach, where should you start? I’ll share with you my answer and some opinions in case it’s helpful.
Understand the Vision and Scope
In order to make sure you are being as affective as possible, you need to know where the organization is on its journey, obviously. But specifically, that means understanding the vision of your leadership. Everyone knows that an agile transformation can only be as successful as however high you have leadership support. If your most senior agile evangelist is a Director of six teams, you’ll be challenged to instigate change outside of that area of influence. Likewise, if your transformation is only sponsored (understood and supported) by a technology division leader, you may be relegated to only creating change within IT and tech. The goal of every transformation should be to expand quickly outside of technology so as to increase collaboration with the other areas of the business. Business leaders and champions outside of technology, reporting into different executives, can only accelerate your organization’s transformation.
Learn the History
So, as you understand the vision and scope from your most senior agile leader, you’ll start imagining where your skills will be most helpful. But before you consider diving in, don’t underestimate the amount of effort you should take in understanding the history of where the company has been. Tried and failed attempts at agile. Prior consultants. Cultural impact of prior leaders. Corners of lingering command and control leadership. Early successes, etc. As you settle in, be sure to learn the stories of what has transpired previously as it will help you relate to the challenges and struggles of the individuals and teams you will be coaching.
Assess the Greatest Need
There are some big picture ingredients every transformation needs to be successful. As you learn the vision, scope and history, you will start putting the pieces together of where the organization needs to focus. The obvious starting point is usually to focus on the agile foundation and level of maturity within the teams. You may also consider the other layers of servant leadership, program / portfolio management and senior leadership as areas to focus, potentially at the same time with different coaches and leaders.
But the layers of SAFe are not the only way you should think about transformation progress and adoption. In fact, the larger your organization, the greater disparity there will be between the laggards and early adopters. So consider the cross-section of adoption patterns as well. There is tremendous benefit to building awareness and a training regimen for those who have not yet been exposed to agile, for example.
Focus on Product
One of the most challenging aspects of a large transformation is the shift to a product mentality in a sea of existing, funded waterfall projects. You can’t snap your fingers and get everyone working a new way, so be realistic about how you address the shift to products. In particular, expect there to be individuals who are obligated to support and even contribute to existing and prior projects. Carve out a meaningful list of early adopter teams that are passionate about change and willing to work towards establishing a product focus with enough leeway from their managers to deal with the ambiguity of working on two things at once if necessary. The change has to start somewhere. As soon as possible, however, form long-standing teams that are dedicated to your agile efforts to build products.
A Coaching Plan
Given all of the above and whatever circumstances your organization faces, come up with an adaptive plan and approach to how your coaches will attack the various challenges and needs of your organization. You might decide to just build one shining example to showcase as a case study and create more champions to help build and expand an Agile Community of Practice. You might decide to adopt a small number of teams to colocate in an open space so that your coaches can more efficiently spend time actively working with the teams. This Dojo strategy, made famous by Target in Minneapolis, is a great way to tackle a very large number of teams with a small number of coaches as you get started, especially if you have geographic challenges with the teams being physically separated in different buildings.
I hope these high level ideas are helpful to get you started, should you be in a similar situation as I am, working with a new company tackling a large transformation and working to figure out the best approach to making progress.
About the Author: Brian Link is the owner of Practical Agilist, LLC and author of AgileMisconceptions.com. Brian provides leadership and coaching services as an Agile Delivery Consultant and Business Agility Coach at LeanDog. Follow Brian on Twitter @blinkdaddy or LinkedIn or subscribe to his AgileColumbus.com newsletter. If you’re in Columbus, come join Brian at the monthly Business Agility meetup or upcoming Business Agility Midwest Conference.