cat stuck in a birdhouse
PHOTO: Tomas Tuma | unsplash

Agile organizations are the gold standard of the 21st century. Those that effectively balance long-term focus on a few key goals with ongoing flexible execution achieve extraordinary results.

But, like any competitive advantage, agility is hard to come by.

The path to becoming a truly Agile organization is winding and treacherous. I’ve seen many organizations falter on their journeys (or never begin them at all).

Without a clear path and a good guide, people can end up wandering in the wilderness for weeks, months, even years. Agility slips through their fingers, and they join the ranks of the jaded doubters who declare Agile “just didn’t work for us.” Meanwhile, their competitors who figured it out pass them by.

While there is no silver bullet to make Agile transformations succeed every time, I want to share three of the most common issues I’ve seen in Agile transformations, and one solution that can solve for them all.

3 Common Roadblocks to Agile Transformation

1. Favoring Perfection Over Progress

In addition to being deeply ironic, this one makes every agilist sad. It happens when large organizations get paralyzed by the many moving parts of an Agile transformation, and then use a perfection mindset to deal with it.

In other words, they can’t kickoff a pilot, start any executive coaching, investigate their tooling capabilities, or do anything else until they know everything — literally everything — about how the transformation will proceed.

Before they’ll agree to try anything they want a Gantt chart, timetable, precise budget, new role descriptions, hiring plan, detailed training calendars, etc. etc. etc.

Now I’m not saying you should race off on an Agile transformation without a plan. That’s just another misapplication of the Agile mindset.

But understand that every Agile journey is unique. Asking for a pixel-perfect, day-by-day roadmap simply isn’t realistic. You can have one, but it won’t be accurate after a couple of days.

This insistence on a perfect plan before taking any steps usually signals a cultural aversion to Agile ways of working. It will likely slow down transformation, so use it as an opportunity to educate the perfectionists on the risks of this kind of mindset. And go ahead and budget for a lot of coaching sessions later.

Related Article: Variety Is the Spice of Agility

2. No Communication Plan

Another common struggle during the transformation process is the lack of communication about what’s ahead, what’s happening, and what’s finished. In some ways this is the opposite of the previous struggle, because it happens when a transformation is moving quickly.

It might sound like a relatively good problem to have, but without a solid communication plan nobody knows the overarching goals, total timing or eventual scope of the transformation. This knowledge gap can cause shock when a transformation touches someone’s team, because they didn’t see it coming.

A missing comms plan can also lead people to assume the worst. They may imagine there will be layoffs and/or restructuring that could put their job at risk. Middle managers may look at sample Agile org charts and wonder how they’re supposed to fit into this new world.

A communication vacuum breeds fear and misunderstanding. Be open about what you know and what you don’t (because as we’ve established you won’t know everything), and make a clear, well-documented plan for communicating about the transformation.

Related Article: Advancing the Digital Maturity of Internal Communications

3. Succumbing to Project-Based Agile

The third and most pernicious of the transformation tribulations is project-based Agile. Its lure is strong, and it can be deadly to true agility.

I’ve written about this problem in the past, but generally speaking it happens when we try to apply Agile practices at the project level without addressing team structures. It leads to people being on tons of projects (per usual), all of which are “Agile” (different meetings only).

People end up going to a stand-up for every project. Monitoring a kanban board for every project. Negotiating with stakeholders for every project. And generally seeing no benefit from this so-called Agile way of working.

Their time remains fractured, priorities don’t apply across projects, and nothing really changes.

Project-based Agile feels like meaningless shuffling without an impact. It encourages people to not commit to what looks like another management fad. 

Related Article: Agile Management Driven by Digital Initiatives

The Solution? Create an Agile Transformation Team

These three trials may sound overwhelming, but one solution can help with them all: build a cross-functional transformation team whose sole remit is the success of the Agile transformation.

This group of people spends all of their time overseeing transformation efforts, including getting out ahead of the three issues outlined here (and many other common ones).

Well-designed transformation teams share many of the same characteristics:

  • Right composition: Members need to be senior enough to negotiate for significant change, but not so senior that they have no time to devote to the transformation. You’ll also want representation from all parts of the organization that the transformation will impact, so one group isn’t making decisions on behalf of everyone else. And of course they need to be fully committed to the Agile mindset.
  • Metrics that matter: Whatever the key driver for agile transformation is in your organization, ensure the transformation team has metrics connected to it. If, for example, you’re looking to improve your speed to market, they should be focused on leading indicators like project delivery times that show Agile is delivering that result. If you’re focused on improving employee engagement, employee NPS should be carefully monitored.
  • Use of Agile ways of working: Have your transformation team walk the Agile walk by creating a kanban board that tracks their efforts. They can work in short sprints or iterations if they like, including regular reviews in which they showcase their progress. Demonstrating their commitment to the changes they’re asking everyone else to make it powerful.
  • Dedication of team members: Don’t make Agile a “side of the desk” effort. Have your transformation team as close to 100% dedicated as you can get. Otherwise you’re creating a series of dependencies that will inevitably delay crucial work. Position the team as vital, and staff it with senior leaders. Make it feel like an exclusive posting that people will be delighted to devote time to.
  • Bias for action: Great transformation teams are comfortable acting on directional data rather than waiting for a perfect plan. Make sure you have folks on this team who will take informed risks rather than sit idle while they collect all the data.
  • Pilot planning oversight: This group should actively advise on how to pilot within different departments and functions so leaders have support in resisting the siren song of project-based agility. See the following bullet point for how to supplement their expertise if they don’t have experience designing pilots or engaging in organizational design.
  • Third-party resource management: Your transformation team doesn’t need to do everything themselves. In fact they may not actively execute much of the day-to-day transformation work at all. They source, deploy, and oversee coaches, consultants, trainers strategically throughout the transformation to provide the subject matter expertise needed.

Even if you check all of the above boxes, having a transformation team in place won’t guarantee a successful Agile transformation. But it will make you far more likely to join the ranks of high-performing organizations that rely on agility to excel.