An Open Letter to Executives Leading Agile Transformations

Project Practitioners > An Open Letter to Executives Leading Agile Transformations
By Brian Irwin

Dear Executive,

Let me congratulate you on your decision to introduce agile methods within your organization. It is a wise decision that holds incredible potential for your employees, your company, and its customers. If you are just beginning your improvement, or are yet to begin, the journey upon which you are about to embark is one that will be well worth the effort. And it will take effort—long, arduous, and at times frustrating effort.

Although Machiavellians do exist, my experience is that they are exceedingly rare.  In general, people are good, honest, and hard-working and really want to do the right thing. We hold a desire to do our jobs well, be recognized for it, and make a difference in the world by being part of something larger than ourselves; to have a purpose at work, if you will. To this end, we will do what is necessary to get our work done in the manner that our environment best supports. Put more simply, we will take the path of least resistance and complexity. Your move toward agility may be more challenging than necessary if you don’t keep this in mind while traversing your path toward improvement.

Rather than simply introducing and mandating agile methods such as Scrum, eXtreme Programming (XP), or Kanban, create an organizational environment where agility is the path of least resistance for your employees and colleagues to get their work done. Here is a ten-step plan of action to help you create that environment within your organization.

  1. Stop referring to the change as organizational and/or agile transformation. We’ve all heard and understand the cliché that “change is the only constant.” Using phrases like agile transformation can shoot fear of the unknown into the psyche of everyone as it screams massive change. A less scary word is improvement. We all like to improve. Start talking about improving delivery, increasing customer engagement, and enhancing responsiveness to new challenges.
  2. Restructure your organization to reduce emphasis on functional specialization. One of the factors strongly contributing to the slow responsiveness of waterfall is the typical hand-off of work as it passes from the hands of one functional group to another—Business Analysts for requirements to Architects for design, to Developers for build, etc. Create teams that are cross-functional and require little to no hand-off of work. If so desired, create Centers of Excellence (CoE) organized around professional career ladders but remove reporting ties to any functional manager in the CoE.
  3. Start demonstrating the behavior you desire in your organization. One of the most powerful ways to build momentum is to first change yourself and your behavior. You really can’t force change within others, but you can inspire it. It’s amazing the change you’ll see in others when you first seek to change yourself. Actively seek ways you can serve the teams within your organization. With genuine curiuosity, caring, and empathy ask them what gives them headaches in their jobs. Be the aspirin for these headaches and remove the obstacles that are getting in their way. You might also consider working cross-functionally as a leadership team. Break down functional silos by creating teams that consist of representatives from many departments such as sales, marketing, IT, support, etc. The gears in any machine only work if cogs make contact and work collectively.
  4. For technology projects, refuse to move forward on any project without business representation and team involvement. Be uncompromising about beginning any project that does not have business representation. I was recently asked what I thought was the one thing that, if it did not exist, you could not consider yourself to be agile. This is that one thing—business involvement. If it’s not important enough to warrant business involvement, it’s not important enough to work on. Thank you, Samar Elatta, for this reminder because it's so obvious it can easily be overlooked.
  5. Completely drop discussions of “resource allocation” and speak only of “team availability”. Agile is a team sport. The focus needs to shift from individuals to teams. Instead of identifying individuals within a functional specialty and percentage of availability to do work seek out only complete teams with availability. Also, don’t begin work with incomplete teams. Have all of the requisite skill sets available so you can avoid slowing them down with the burden that’s created to bring a new team member up to speed on the project.
  6. Increase your delivery cadence. The ideal situation is to be able to deliver at any time (or all the time, as in continuous). Take incremental steps toward this goal by reducing the delivery window by at least half. If you’re on a semi-annual (6-month) delivery cycle reduce it to quarterly. If it’s annual, reduce it to semi-annual; quarterly, release every six weeks. This will automatically require teams to focus on smaller increments of work instead of looking at very long horizon delivery windows that only serve to increase estimating complexity and uncertainty about scope of delivery. 
  7. Give high praise for “complete” features only. The only features that provide customer value are those that are complete. Almost done features may have future value potential but they have zero value right now. Consider work either done or not done. There is no credit for work that is not 100% complete. Define expectations very clearly for what is meant by "complete".
  8. Recognize entire teams. The best way to support teamwork is to value and recognize teamwork, especially in a public setting. Praise entire teams and avoid the temptation to call out individuals on the team that did an excellent job. While it’s true that some of them may well have went above and beyond, it’s dangerous to the cohesiveness of the team if you praise an individual. If you must mention names, mention the names of all individual members of the team. Only the team (those on the frontline of value delivery) has the credibility to recognize individual team members for their efforts.
  9. Don’t mandate a methodology at the team level. Rather than requiring teams to do Scrum, or any other methodology framework, put the ingredients in place for agility such as those described in points 1-8 above, provide and demonstrate your personal support and commitment to the removal of organizational obstacles and dysfunction, and stand out of the way. These people are professionals, they are smart, and are very capable. If not, why are they working in your organization? They will do what’s required to get the results expected of them, sometimes regardless of whether those results are even realistic. This is autonomy and is one of the incubators of the only form of motivation that is effective, intrinsic.
  10. Invest in your workforce and your teams and they will invest in you. I do not tolerate tales of woe about organizations experiencing a lack of worker loyalty when those same organizations refuse to invest in their workforce. When times get tough and the C-suite is getting pressure to show near-term stock price growth, drastic measures are taken to reduce costs. Unfortunately, these short-term measures such as workforce reductions, slashing benefits, and cutting investment in training usually have a negative long-term effect. Make decisions that will positively impact the long-term value of both your stock price and your organization (boths its viability and people). If you’ve created an unsustainable cost structure that requires drastic measures, then you obviously need to take some drastic measures. If you and your management team created it, admit it because your people do recognize it. They have great "BS" (business sense?) meters and will see right through any attempt you or your leadership team make at masking it. Demonstrating humanity through vulnerability and admitting personal fault may feel terrible but it will increase your credibility in the eyes of your constituents by orders of magnitude. If you create an environment that inspires workers to give their all, run a company that gives to the community, and demonstrates that it values its workforce by investing in them, you and your organization will have a much greater chance of competing in the marketplace for a long time to come.

I opened this letter by expressing my belief that people are generally good, honest, and want to do the right thing. I close this letter by restating that this belief I hold has only been reinforced through my personal interaction with a diverse group of colleagues throughout many organizations spanning a long career. I would like to affirm that this belief also extends to you, the organizational leader. I believe that you genuinely want to do the right thing, to contribute to something larger than yourself, and to support those around you to improve the quality of life for each of us.

With high confidence in your ability, personal desire, and integrity I urge you to create an environment within your organization that inspires those around you and that enables agility. The future of your organization is depending on it.

Sincerely,
Brian Irwin



Comments
Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thanks for such a good article Brian.


Brian, This article resonates and is very well written. I particularly like the comment in point 1 that “Agile Transformation” should be communicated in terms of improvement, not transformation. As well, it needs to be related to the business need for true agility. Transformation implies a start and an end. If one uses the term “constant” improvement, which is embedded in Agile, then the message is clearer and more accurate. It is a mindset change needing acceptance by all that we an always learn, adapt and improve.


Agree that the word 'transformation' is over-used, and scary. The word 'improvement' ties in nicely with the idea of empericism/inspect & adapt.


Thanks, It looks very nice. I have worked with UN in South East Countries as Project Manager and Country Director in Project Management.

Keep it up!


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