Starting an Agile Transformation

Imagine you are a medium-sized company. Your innovation team might be in the range of 300 people. You are not a start-up, and equally, you are not a huge company.

Let’s imagine, at least for now, that you have no special issues. Your situation is fairly normal. (To be fair, every situation is different to some degree. So, watch out.)

What should you do to get started?

Here are a few proposed standard steps — they are almost always recommended. There might be quibbles about the order of execution, and many other steps (or sub-steps) can also be recommended. I am only trying to cover the basics in this blog post.

  1. Identify some Agile advocates. Usually, that’s you, but also identify a small group. Seven would be a good number. Work on ‘the change’ together.
  2. Get a pilot team going. That means, get that group (and possibly their managers) to agree to try a small experiment with one or maybe two teams. With Agile/Scrum. Get that team some good training and good coaching. Help that team succeed. That mainly means: Fix the top impediments that they identify.
  3. Talk to the executives. Get them on-board. Show them the success of the pilot team, and ask if they want more of that.  (There is some debate about how long you wait with the pilot team before you ‘show them’ to the executives. One to six months is a reasonable range.)
  4. Train the executives. Many ways to do this, and not well agreed in the community, but everyone would agree that if the executives are going to support Agile, they need to know what they are supporting. One way: Get them in a management Scrum Team. Jeff Sutherland proposes an ‘Executive Action Team.’ There are other similar ideas from Ken Schwaber and Mike Cohn and others. So, as you see, this is probably more than a one day ‘training.’  Still, I have done a 1 or 2 or 4 hour workshop or discussion or ‘training’ with the Executives. That can be done too.
  5. Start to change the culture. Whoa; this is a big topic, but unavoidable. Lean-Agile-Scrum is a big cultural change for almost every company. See earlier blog posts. By ‘start’ you understand that I am proposing that this is an iterative and incremental cultural change process.
  6. Engage more people in the change. See Open Space. I recommend that you get ‘everyone’ involved in the change, and at least contributing to the change. See details by googling ‘Open Space Agility.’ There are other techniques. We could discuss the differences. The purpose: You are not just talking about ‘cultural change’ (so abstract it is almost always virtually useless), but rather people are doing something that actually causes the culture to change. Note: You may not to assist some people in leaving the organization; this may not be a change they want. Careful.
  7. Start more teams. Form them, train them, get them coaching. Help them be successful.
  8. Establish a definition of what ‘Agile’ means at your place. This is the start of addressing ScrumButt. The real concern is ‘tick box adoption’ and low results, but ScrumButt is usually the key symptom. (Example: “We do Scrum, but we don’t… have a PO.”)  If a team wants to do Agile and wants to violate an element of the definition, then they must discuss that with a strong coach, who hopefully can talk them into doing ‘good Agile’ rather than being stupid. (Sometimes the team might be right, that their situation is different and they need to do something a bit different. It happens, but not often at the beginning.)
  9. Get impediments fixed. At the team level and at the higher level (or levels). This might mean starting an Impediment Removal Team (using Scrum), that is a group of managers who work on ‘larger’ impediments. This probably means you need a budget to fund the fixing of impediments.
  10. Once the initial teams are established, and if you all and the organization have the capacity for more change, start more teams. Often, considering how significant the change is, you do not have much capacity to manage it in a professional way. Work on ‘scaling up’ your change management capability. Again, look at Open Space Agility, although that is not the only ‘skill set’ needed.
  11. Start to develop a Product Backlog of the ‘change work’ for the next six months.

Those are a pretty good set of 11 steps. Lots more to say, but usually a good start.

Your comments are welcome.


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2 thoughts on “Starting an Agile Transformation

  1. Rob Hoover

    Great post Joe. For #1, I would want to make sure that we had at least one highly influential person as part of that group, that has a couple of the following qualities:

    – Is pretty higher up in the org (most likely not a middle manager).
    – Has the executives’ ears (i.e. they respect will listen to this influential person).
    – Has enough influence / know how / bandwidth to shield the team (the ScrumMaster will need help) during the pilot.

  2. Jim Dowling

    I suggest putting steps #8 and #5 at the top of the list to lay a foundation upon which to build Awareness, Understanding, Commitment, Knowledge, Skill, Ability, Improvement.
    I suggest getting Step #8 done first and doing so iteratively that starts the culture change. I have seen the outlined process result in way too much noise in the system as people create their own concepts of “What Agile means…”. Is it short duration Waterfall Projects? Building solutions in layers? Less time between deliverables? Quicker ROI?
    I suggest starting with a premise for “What Agile Means…” based on remedies to real and perceived issues with current approaches and enlisting senior leadership across the organization while doing a localized – low visibility pilot. This allows you to relate “process gains” to something real that you have verified would be appreciated by those who will sponsor further investment of their time, energy, resources and, from an change management point of view, credibility.
    Also, It can be helpful to think about Behavior Adoption as opposed to Culture Change. If you obtain shared mindset about “What Agile means…” and its Value Proposition, you have the head facing in the right direction. Next you can work on enabling behaviors such as “Tolerance of ambiguity,” “Estimating and managing estimates” and “Product Ownership accountability” which are scary at first. Think “Behavior so that Result” – Tolerance of Ambiguity so that Less Linear Project Plan + Scrum – and “More of and Less of Behavior” – More Managing Estimates and less punishment for bad estimates – tailored to each culture/micro-culture.
    Bottom line – Use Agile to leverage Agile.

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