Focusing Large Scale Agile Transformation

With all the hype surrounding the new ways of working (though calling them ‘new’ is dubious at best), you can still find some dinosaur playing the old game. Fixed scope software projects, infrastructure changes, provisioning of new services – all done the old way: loaded with project managers fighting over ‘resources,’ massive multitasking, and complete obscurity of accountability. Yeah, it still happens. I find it amazing that companies with core parts working like this are still afloat. 

The moment they notice their momentum is not limitless, the new begins. Sooner or later, large businesses realize that change is necessary. Then the transformation begins. I will not go into specific frameworks or approaches (though you can see my view on the best Agile framework in existence), but areas of focus.

As an agile coach, who should you work with the most?

The typical answer is obvious – put your effort on teams. After all, there can be hundreds of them. Even a large team of seasoned coaches will need quite a while to equip them with minimal viable agility, not to mention doing it right. Though it’s hard to expect an agile coach with any work ethic whatsoever to stop at the bare essentials, they will be pressured just to get it done. According to the plan. On time. Waterfalling Agile transformation will never get old.

Not to mention that focusing on teams will not yield the best results. Just think about it – as per the Agile onion idea, it’s not really about Scrum, Kanban, or (God forbid) Jira. These are just a means to an end, nothing but tools. Sure, you can train two hundred teams in Scrum, but unless you have very assertive and mature Scrum Masters with a mandate to do something useful, nothing will change. No increase in effectiveness. No shortening time to market. No twice the software in half the time.

For sure, though, your organization will become leaner. Your best people, those of the highest market value, will get frustrated with false promises and transformational tornadoes and quit. If that’s what you’re after – way to go!

Back to business – if transformation is not about the way teams work, what is it about? It’s the mythical mindset, which means what you should aim at is a cultural change, not process and tools one. And who shapes the culture? Everyone above the teams in the pyramid. Line managers, their managers, group managers, directors, executives. Culture radiates down from the top and is almost impossible to change bottom-up – and every attempt to do so will inevitably raise the bar of frustration on all sides.

Where should you focus your transformational effort first? All the management impacting teams (it will usually go higher than you expect). They should be the first to realize that multitasking is often a waste of time and money. They should measure their lead times and actively work on shortening them. They should do daily meetings and hold retrospectives. They should have transparent backlogs. Otherwise, they will be rightly perceived as fake, pushing yet another brilliant idea to their teams.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Abraham Lincoln, weirdly relevant

The best thing is that investing some time to work on management first will shorten the duration of the whole transformation. The culture and environment for teams to become Agile will already be there – no disappointments, no surprises, no frustration. I can’t think of a reason not to do it – and if you can, comment here (or PM me here).

Okay, there may be one reason – if you don’t want to transform. 

That’s always an option: comfortable, safe, short-lived.