Agile transformation : without Management implication and an invitation, nothing is possible.

In order to be more efficient in a complex environment or to better handle their priorities, thousands of companies take their first step towards agile culture. In 2018 alone, the use of agile practices and mindset has increased more than threefold among companies. Limiting the agile transition to only IT departments for some of these companies is a classic mistake that greatly reduces the expected benefits of the transformation. But it's far from being the only common mistake. Imposing processes, thinking that agilility can be installed, not involving the employees in choosing their tools or practices, imposing change are also terrible mistakes. It simply doesn't work. Even worse, it's a total misunderstanding of what true agility stands for. Agile is all about humans and engagement. Not about subjugating.

But let's start from the beginning. When Management takes the agile path in order to produce value, they have to chose the scale at which they will apply the agile transformation. They have to decide to either initiate the transformation with one, or a small amount of teams, or to involve the whole company.

Each of these choices has its share of benefits as well as problems. The first two options do not represent a global agile transformation but a manageable risk and reward test run. The agile transformation won’t be limited to the concerned teams.

According to agile expert Martin Proulx:

« The change of mindset will make waves for the other departments of the company. »

The agile transformation, albeit limited to one or a few teams, will impact the whole company as two mindsets will have to coexist and face each other. Facing new challenges, teams going through the experimental change might develop behaviors impeding coordination with the rest of the teams not yet involved with the transformation: turning down processes and decisions from the other teams, attempts to force others to change and so forth. To avoid such a predicament, expert in change in an agile context Michael K. Sahota, reminds the importance to create “adapters”, between teams undergoing the change on one side and the rest of the company on the other, in order for the transforming teams to focus on their task.

If the choice made is to start with one team, it has to be Management. Whereas if the choice is made to go with a few teams, Management must be included. All agile transformation starts with an evolution of Management. To paraphrase author and coach Klaus Leopold, in order to achieve a satisfying agile transformation for the customer and the employees you need to redefine goals, rework dependencies management as well as a deep modification in collaboration and company’s processes. All duties under the responsibility of Management. Management changes and aims to redistribute decision making among those who simplify processes, limitations on ongoing projects, transparency, employee engagement, focus on objectives – not on the method – and creating value at a scale. By embodying the agile culture, Management shows the right behavior, influences all the main players in the company and lifts any doubts on the system they want to see evolve. If Management chooses a progressive transformation focusing on one or a few teams they will then have to expand the experiment over hundreds or even thousands of people. According to organization coach Pablo Pernot:

« Usually everything starts with a pilot. But unlike the name implies, pilots don’t represent what will happen. They merely give a glimpse of what is coming. […] It is when we move up a level in the organization, where clusters of various teams are managed, that the company starts resisting. If everything works at this level, it is a sign to scale it to the whole company. »

When one of these options as been chosen, the transformation of the system starts. From that moment Management has to cross the border between their former habits and the newly acquired agile practices. This transitional step, of liminality, is paved with obstacles. It is uncertain and stressful. As old habits die hard, Management has to power through. Detailing all the steps taken while transforming, dispelling any rumors that might arise and helping to quickly solve problems. Management will root these changes in the company’s culture. Celebrating victories, learning from their mistakes and answering these questions:

• What past adventures have built today’s foundations? • What actions taken today will build our future foundations?

During this period, Management gives meaning, clarifies the situation, describes obtained and expected agile benefits, prepares for what is ahead, explains the anticipated impact of change and reassures the teams. This liminality period comes with confusion, exhaustion and a temporary decline in efficiency. Nothing unusual. While modifying their behavior members of the company battle their habits, double the efforts, learn new practices and get tired. This tiredness is a vector of tension and irritation. While impatiently waiting for results, a feeling that nothing is moving forward comes with a loss of motivation and a fall back to old habits. This is when Management has to embodied the agile culture, communicating, clarifying the situation, inspiring everyone and supporting the effort. Management will lead the way and turn the work environment into grounds for constant improvement.

« We have to separate the individual difficulties to adapt and the effects obtained through the new mode of operation.» Pierre Collerette

Without Management implication, a successful agile transformation is impossible. With its involvement, the company defines a vision, a purpose, an identity and convictions that will serve the capacity, the behaviors and the environment of the company. With its involvement the desired mindset becomes the habit that will help the company adapt and improve when facing new challenges. The agile transformation will succeed, Management has to remember that this success depends on his employees commitment. By wildly introducing new practices (like Scrum or SAFe), employee commitment is difficult and could lead to catastrophic consequences. Teams, while not being respected nor understood, will reject these new processes.

Generating engagement requires people involvement. This can be achieved through open gatherings as initially described by Harrison Owen is his book Open Space Technology and later by Dan Mezick in The OpenSpace Agility Handbook. These events will be the perfect opportunity to invite members of the company to listen, think, understand each other and build together the next steps of the agile transformation. During these gatherings, which will be schedule regularly and whose themes and rules will be set prior to the event, participants are free to step in, to share ideas, to support others suggestions or not. Ideas for improvement, initiatives, subjects of interest chose by colleagues, rules and objectives set by the leaders will come out of these gatherings. During these events participants will learn to be pro-active, managers will discover new forms of leadership and changes will flourish. Finally these meetings will allow a change in decision making. The only real indicator of an ongoing transformation.

Unfortunately, imposing a tool, a task or a process seems to be the commonplace in business nowadays and has devastating effects on the members of the organization. The latter, forced to act in predefined ways without thinking, develop a feeling of misunderstanding, mistrust and rejection in the face of an authority that does not respect them. Indeed, how can you expect them to get involved and project themselves into an organization that does not care about nor takes their opinions and desires into consideration?

« Changing a company or people without their consent and involvement is an illusion. Starting with an invitation and involving everyone is the only way to have a long lasting change.»  Pablo Pernot

Denis Migot @DenisMigot