I’ve been very fortunate lately to have been asked to speak at a few upcoming meetup groups in Columbus. You know what everyone wants to hear about? Agile Transformations! And well, it is a hot topic. By my count, there’s about 22 companies in town of significant size that are in the midst of some kind of (supposed) agile transformation. I don’t even really like that word. Transformation. It has this very strong connotation that your work has a beginning and an end. As if you have some monumental amount of change you’re trying to accomplish and with enough effort you might just be able to accomplish all those things and be finished at some point. It’s not right. Well, the large amount of work is often right. But it’s ongoing. Change never stops. And change isn’t some defined list in a project plan or roadmap you can check off one by one until you’re perfect. That’s why all your agile friends call this agile stuff a “mindset” instead.
You have to commit to a new way of thinking. Change is constant (It’s a VUCA world! Today’s business environment is “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous”.) We should always be looking for and prioritizing what the most important thing is to do next. At the scale of your organization, that’s described well in Evan’s Theory of Agile Constraints. There’s always somewhere you can focus to gain further improvements.
So, faced with talking to a large crowd of people interested in learning about “agile transformations” who likely have a very diverse set of backgrounds, varying from those beginning with no agile experience to possibly knowledgeable managers to expert agile coaches and scrum masters, my task is to build the right talk to ensure anyone and everyone can learn from and apply something I share. No pressure.
My plan is to try to tackle a lot of content in 45 minutes. Never a great way to start, I realize. But I suppose, if the one thing I help someone learn is that the agile universe is huge and that they have a lot to learn, then I’m cool with that. With a big and unknown variety of people, I need to start with the basics. But not in a way that is obnoxious. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m using this blog post to help form my own thoughts about this talk! Do click through on the links in the next few paragraphs though to get the gist of what I will talk about.
First topic. Agile Basics
So, first cover the basics. Something perhaps like my recent post, reminding people to simply re-visit the roots of agile. How well do you know your agile basics? Other basic topics I think I need to cover (besides the Manifesto, Principles and Scrum Guide) include managing risk with an iterative mindset; building long-lasting, autonomous teams (a picture of one such team working with a delivery manager is in this post); and talking about agile misconceptions and misunderstandings that get in the way of people embracing agile. That’s my book, by the way: AgileMisconceptions.com. A short thing I put together because I’m sick of people spreading incorrect statements about agile, lol.
Second topic. Agile Transformations.
Then, as requested, I need to explain a point of view around transformations. What are transformations? What are the ingredients for a successful transformation? I wrote a post on this too (how to forge your own path to business agility), explaining how transformation progress leads to the future and my third big topic for my talk: Business Agility. Areas to focus on in a transformation include Leadership and Organization, Customer-Value Prioritization, Persistent Culture & Communication, and Product-Market-Fit Mentality. And the ingredients to success there include these activities in which to focus your effort:
- Portfolio Transparency — what are all of your initiatives and what teams are working on which products, projects or programs?
- Product Management — a central organization driving business priorities to match the company vision and mission partnering with technology
- PMO Evolution — PMOs often need to embrace iterative mindsets too and learn to balance different approaches when agile or waterfall may apply
- Financial Focus — annual budgets, detailed project tracking, funding milestones and business case analysis are often the biggest bottlenecks
- Collaborative Progress — if a transformation is only technology-focused, only so much progress can be made. Other divisions need to participate.
- Cross-functional Teams — scrum teams only cover technical roles. To scale and integrate more tightly, teams need to include business partners
- Executive Leadership Support — a transformation can only be as successful as its highest level of management support allows
Culture is that other, omnipresent and mysterious thing everyone knows is required to make an agile transformation successful, but no one knows how to exactly address. The Agile Mindset and iterative mindset is a key ingredient. Change Management practices, excellent communication plans and transparent sharing of successes and learnings are critical too. But one easy to understand thing to get you started is the building of an Agile Community of Practice. This is a foundation element to changing culture because if you invite everyone and use some sort of Open Spaces format, it tears down walls and encourages everyone to share and ask questions without judgement, which does a lot to help an agile culture grow and mature.
Third topic. Business Agility.
The third big topic in my talk, as I said, is Business Agility. But frankly, even though I’m passionate about it and focused relentlessly on educating people about it, it’s still only slowly emerging and reserved for the most progressive of companies today. It’s probably easiest to describe as the next step or the goal of an agile transformation. Unfortunately, way too many people think they’re working on healthy agile transformations but are really only working on a fraction of their technology or IT divisions and not even involving other areas of the business. So, I find its best to describe Business Agility as “making whole companies agile”. The scope is really big, and it implies that every division in the company is aligned with the vision, mission, goals and objectives set by the executive team, focused on eliminating waste and employing modern iterative practices to work in tight coordination to experiment with adaptive changes to the business. Agile Companies are sometimes described as “teal companies”, based on the work of Frederic Laloux and his book Reinventing Organizations. It requires a refocusing of a companies perspective on finance (best represented perhaps by the book Beyond Budgeting by Jeremy Hope and Robin Fraser). And it requires a new perspective in HR too (people frequently recommend the book Agile People by Pia-Maria Thoren to introduce a new radical approach in HR). For more information, I encourage you to explore the Business Agility Institute and the Business Agility Report they produced last year (everyone still sucks at it, which is encouraging, right?)
If you’re in Columbus, you might also consider joining our meetup group to continue learning and sharing about Business Agility in general.
So, I hope this tour through agile basics, transformations and business agility is helpful. The agile universe is very big and while it’s been evolving rapidly for about 20 years now, in some ways it’s only just beginning.
About the Author: Brian Link is the owner of Practical Agilist, LLC and author of AgileMisconceptions.com. Brian provides leadership as an Agile Delivery Consultant and Business Agility Coach. Follow Brian on Twitter @blinkdaddy or LinkedIn.