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Blog May 31, 2017

Why Your Organization’s Agile Transformation is Failing

Colin Ceperich
Agile BacklogWhen a data management section at a Fortune 500 client started to scrum as a sprint team, it took only a short time before team member's doubts about the odd ceremonies and methodical practices of writing, scoring and grooming stories, gave way to a fresh view of planning and managing their work. They were soon energized by having clear priorities and the freedom to solve their customer's problems, support their teammates and expose the causes of delay and rework in their processes.

The reactions to the changes were so positive that the teams around them started iterative planning too. And soon the team's example was being viewed as the template for tackling all strategic initiatives in their division. Agile was scaling up and transforming everyone's work planning activities.

It's not how the transformation starts that determines success, but whether organizational norms can be harnessed to reinforce Agile.

At an appropriate point, division executives began participating in planning sessions where they touted Agile as the answer to better prioritizing work. Leadership's unstated hope was that it would enable the data management section to finish their enormous backlog of audit work by a key deadline. Unfortunately, the executives did not make it their priority to remove key impediments causing delays.

It was at that point the team's perspective about Agile started to change. Instead of solving customer problems, supporting teammates and refining processes they were seeing Agile as a vice with which executives could squeeze more work out of them. Their sense of the customer's priorities began to fade as the pressure to meet audit deadlines increased. The situation persisted, and even though the executives heard feedback that they too needed to work in an Agile mode, that feedback was interpreted as, “we need to promote Agile more."

Culture is important to agile transformation, but culture should in part be defined as executives who understand, model and reinforce agile practices.

While teams experience new levels of productivity, management must be willing to recognize changes to their role and let go of agenda-setting once Agile takes hold and begins to scale. Otherwise executives, managers and team members become misaligned - some hold on to what was already working for them, and others embrace new Agile approaches and the accompanying expectations. This is borne out repeatedly in assessments that look at Agile and organizational culture.

Recently, Agilists representing 20+ Agile transformations at Fortune 500 companies were surveyed about the factors that most influence a successful transformation, positively or negatively. The two factors, among 24, that had the greatest influence - both as a roadblock and enabler - were Supportive IT leadership and Senior Executives Who Clearly Understand the Case for Change (to Agile).

These results speak to the reality that scaling Agile requires more than organic growth or a “Coach them and it will happen" mentality. Transforming the organization, any significant transformation, requires highly engaged leadership who deeply care about the change, the goals and the path. So if your Agile transformation is failing, instead of blaming scrum teams for symptoms like inconsistent velocity and a high number of delayed features, take a close look at your leaders for the real underlying cause.

Click here to take the survey to see how your organization can succeed in its Agile transformation.