Leading agile change

7 ways to effectively manage an agile transformation

This article was originally published on Emerce (Dutch), and is also available on LinkedIn (Dutch) and Medium (English).

Managers who ask: “Why are we not speeding up?” Teams who say: “We keep on explaining the reasons we are being held back, but nothing changes.” “Great that we are now a self-organizing team, but it’s still the managers who are calling the shots.” Just a few remarks from the employees of a large financial institution that implemented agile. Do you recognize this? In this article, you will learn about the 7 characteristics of a successful transition team and what you need to do to ensure that your agile transformation will run smoothly.

It doesn’t happen by itself

Just like many other companies, the financial institution had realized that their way of working was no longer able to meet the requirements of this day and age. Slow procedures, low motivation, disengaged staff. They decided to implement the solution that everyone was talking about: Agile. Working with self-organizing, multi-disciplinary teams should save the company from going down. When the changes did not have the expected effects, the CEO asked us for help.

Unrealistic expectations

During our talks with management and with the teams, we discovered there was a lot of frustration. The teams did not know what the objectives were and why the changes were necessary. At the same time, the managers didn’t understand why things weren’t moving faster. Agile was seen as a silver bullet that would lead to improvements straight away.

“We trained everyone, we instated a project leader, implemented the transition plan which we carefully monitored through the steering committee. But still, we aren’t seeing the teams accelerate and we aren’t seeing an improved bottom line”- member of the steering committee

Start at the beginning

We have helped many different organizations with agile. Most of them apply it in their IT department, others use it for their marketing and growth teams. We see many similar challenges. An agile organization requires a different kind of leadership, a transition team (T-team) that functions well is essential. When we put a transition in motion, we always make sure the following seven requirements are in place:

“We’ve implemented Scrum, but it is unclear to me why it was necessary. All those extra meetings cost a lot of time. It’s a hype, it will pass.” — team member

1. Define your “awesome” end-state

Becoming agile is not an objective in itself. Agile is a method that you use to reach a certain goal, and that goal needs to be crystal clear before you start. Common goals are: shortening the time-to-market, becoming better at dealing with change, more innovation, increasing quality, less bureaucracy, bringing more energy and fun into teams, increasing commercial effectiveness, staying ahead of competition. Make sure the rest of the organization knows why your vision is important and what your “awesome” end-state looks like. By making the goals measurable, you can also make a fact-based assessment of how the transition is going. Just like when you’re trying to lose weight, you weigh yourself often so you know if you are on the right track to achieving your goal.

“We have explained very often that we can’t speed up because we are dependent on another department. But it seems nothing is being done to change this situation.”- team member

2. Remove impediments

Every team will run into impediments while implementing their new way of working. Examples of such impediments are dependencies on other parts of the organization, political games, unnecessary rules and procedures, unsuitable reward systems, conflicting goals. The transition team’s most important task is to take away the impediments that the teams cannot take care of themselves. You are the A-Team that comes to the rescue when they get stuck.

“My experience is that the biggest speed killer is us, the management, because we keep behaving in the old way. The largest change that needs to happen probably needs to happen within myself.” — a manager from the transition team

3. Don’t be the bottleneck

We often see that leaders think the staff needs to change. “If they implement Agile, our problems will disappear overnight.” However, the following is true for every change: leaders go first. In order to become agile, a change in mind-set and behavior is necessary, this includes the management team. As T-team you are the enabler of the transition, not the driver. Stop micromanaging and rethink the way you keep a handle on things. Make sure you don’t act like a steering committee that says: “You should change”, but instead, send the message: “This is the direction we would like to be headed. What do you need to get there?” That way, you remove the gap between management and staff.

4. Lead as an agile team

Do not underestimate the power of leading by example. When the T-team adopts an agile way of working, you show people that you believe in the change and that you understand what the new teams are going through. Work in sprints, do daily stand-ups, give a demo, keep your own backlog in a visible spot. By holding retrospectives, the T-team becomes a well-oiled machine that is constantly improving. A safe place where members are open to each other and are able to express their doubts.

5. Have a team that can make an impact

Make one member of the transition team responsible for keeping track of the backlog; this person takes the role of product owner. This person does not have to be senior in rank, but he/she should be the one leading the transition. Additionally, the transition team also has an agile coach, who facilitates the team’s working process.

When it comes to removing impediments, you need people in your team who are able to do so quickly and effectively, for example the managers of the employees in the teams. It is also important to have a sponsor from senior management, who can join the team regularly and take away any impediments. Structural impediments do not disappear by themselves, it costs time to solve the issue properly. T-team members must have sufficient time available to make this happen.

“It is great that we are being asked what we need to make more impact. I get the feeling that management is now working for us, rather than the other way around”- team member after visiting the T-team demo.

6. Be transparent and ask for feedback

The transition team should present their results regularly in the form of a sprint review or demo. In this event, you present which steps you took, still have to take and which changes and obstacles you see ahead. Show what works, and don’t be afraid to show what doesn’t. Don’t forget to ask for input: “Do you feel that we, as a transition team, are doing the right things?” The management does not always have the answer to everything, and when you don’t have the answer, stop having meetings about it but quickly bring your challenge to the agile teams for advice.

A demo is a good time to continue the conversation about why the changes are important for the organization and what the end-goal is. This creates clarity, which helps to reduce stress.

7. One step at a time

For a sustainable change, it is best not to turn the whole organization around in one go. So focus on the most important issues, create short-term successes and gradually move to bigger things. Experiment and find out what does and what doesn’t work in your context. So no “big bang”, but “inspect & adapt”. By dealing with the changes team by team, you will be slowly permeating the old organization, until you reach a critical mass and “the others” will be forced to join the change. Be patient: it can take months or years for the culture of an organization to transform.

*Co-author Timo Mulder: founder & managing partner of Value First. He helps growth companies and corporates to speed up their innovation and marketing teams using agile and lean startup techniques. Together, Timo and Jurriaan have helped more than 200 teams and 30 organizations make a bigger impact.