“Agile is great on paper but it does not work in the real world.” ― A few days ago I had a session with executives from an organisation wanting to adopt agile ways of working. During one of our breakout room discussions, some attendees were adamant that though agile concepts are great in theory they don’t work in the real world. This is not the first time someone has expressed scepticism over agility. This got me thinking whether leaders really understand their role in an agile transformation or the importance of their leadership during this organisational change.
Most organisations are either on the agile path or are planning to embark on it, some of these firms constantly struggle to make a successful transition and a large part of it comes down to five key steps which are not implemented or understood by the leadership in the initial part of the journey.
1. Have a clear leadership agenda
Leaders who embrace agile to solve delivery problems or for cost-saving measures in the short-term cripple the transformation agenda even before it begins. They must realise that agility is not an end state, rather it is a journey and there is no short-distance finishing line. The goal should be cultural transformation which delivers continuous value and pivots the organisation towards long-term efficiencies rather than short-term cost savings. This will mean investing time, energy and money without expecting any immediate returns. The focus must be on building a strong foundation for an innovative organisation that can stay ahead of the market trends and provide higher returns in the future.
2. Define the problems with transparency and clarity
A top-down or laissez-faire management approach prevents honest conversations about problems affecting the organisation (cultural, delivery and processes). This often leads to differences in perception of organisational problems by leadership teams and employees. In such situations, an impetus to embrace agile might be perceived differently by different people within the same organisation due to their disparate understanding of the problems that need to be solved. Thus, an organisation needs to arrive at a consensus on the key problems or they risk institutional resistance and political game-playing.
3. The systems need to change, not only individuals
It is essential to train employees in agile ways of working but this is not enough. Leaders need to create psychologically safe environments for their teams to implement their learnings. Such safe spaces can only be created if senior executives decide to work as a team and acknowledge the need to change their own behaviours as well. Agile transformations are most successful when the communication style between managers and subordinates is an open dialogue rather than that of an order giver and receiver. Psychologically safe environments are a prerequisite for agility.
4. Organise around value rather than focussing on terminology
You might see an instant change in terminology when an organisation decides to go down the path of agility. Suddenly, deliverables become features and project managers become scrum masters. However, leaders who consider only this as the change which is needed in their ways of working do so at their own peril. Change does not happen overnight and simply changing the terminologies will not impact the value delivered. Leaders need to nurture change and reorganise their teams and tasks around value rather than job titles and arbitrary deliveries. Agile transformations that focus only on renaming/cutting roles or terminology seldom achieve anything more than short-term cost cuts which can hurt long-term productivity.
5. Shutting out agile sceptics
Amidst the euphoria of embarking on an agile transformation journey, it is easy for leaders to neglect the sceptics. They are often seen as team members who want to drag their heels and slow down others. However, it is crucial to hear their voice as this will help leaders understand the organisational readiness to change and address some of the issues that lie ahead on the path to change. Vocal sceptics are a huge asset in a change programme (agile is a change programme) as they can unveil the deeply entrenched behaviours and policies of an organisation which might deter the transformation. The pessimism of sceptics could actually be a boon in disguise as it can help leaders prepare better for issues they might face on the road to change.
Change is never straightforward and the same is true for an agile programme. Even if you make a great head start, it is essential to constantly pause, monitor your progress and adapt as you move forward in your transformation journey. A fundamental shift in culture is the foundation of an agile programme. Define your change agenda and problems clearly, get your people on board (even the sceptics), adjust and realign your systems and organise around value. All great things take time, so is the case with agile transformations. Look closer to tighten the right bolts before you dismiss it as another passing fad!