I’m grateful to PM Network Magazine for publishing my article on Agile pitfalls. You can view the article in the December version of the magazine here.
The article published by PM Network was a shortened version of my original white paper. Below is the paper in its entirety.
Three Common Pitfalls of Agile Transformation, and How to Avoid Them: By Mike MacIsaac
Agile transformation is becoming an increasingly high priority for companies. Everybody wants to be Agile, from start-ups to large enterprises. In today’s competitive global market, agility is critical for managing changing priorities. As an Agile delivery consultant, I’ve seen the struggles companies face when they set out to become Agile.
For the past ten years I’ve worked with a range of companies, across various industries. Their Agile transformation struggles tend to be similar. In this article I will discuss three common pitfalls I see, and advise on how to avoid them.
Before we can talk about transformation, we first have to answer the question: What does it mean to be Agile? Most people think of Agile as a way of developing software, but it is much more. Agile is a mindset. Agile is a different way of thinking and behaving from traditional management. Agile is putting client needs first. Agile is delivering value early, and often through the use of an iterative, experimental process. Agile is innovating through self-organizing teams. Agile is all these things—and to better understand why companies need transformation, it helps to understand some history.
A Brief History of Agile
While Agile is the hot buzzword today, understandings of Agile benefits are not new. In fact, we can trace Agile roots back to the 1600s. Francis Bacon, an English scientist, developed a scientific method in 1620 which would later become the basis for the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle. The PDCA cycle was used by Walter Shewhart and it was made popular by Dr. W. Edwards Deming. The concept was an iterative approach for improving products and processes. The continuous cycle of short iterations allowed for agility by adapting for change after each iteration. The PDCA cycle had a huge influence on Japan after WWII, as it helped improve production quality and automotive operations.
The most relevant step to agility in the PDCA cycle is step four, “Check.” The idea is to inspect and adapt. In Deming’s Out of the Crisis he writes, “Step 4 of the Shewhart cycle (study the results; what did we learn from the change?) will lead (a) to improvement of any state, and (b) to better satisfaction of the customer of that stage.” (Deming, 1986) Notice that Deming puts emphasis on satisfying the customer. Customer satisfaction is at the heart of what Agile is all about.
Although Deming advocated Agile concepts throughout the 20th century, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory (referred to as Taylorism) was predominant in American business. Taylor’s approach was all about following rigid processes, with a top-down, command-and-control style of management. Managers told workers what to do, and workers followed orders. Taylor’s management theory helped propel the industrial revolution.
Taylorism ran into problems towards the end of the 20th century. The economy had changed and a new workforce emerged. Knowledge workers became the majority, replacing semiskilled workers. Knowledge workers couldn’t be managed the same way as the factory workers. Well renowned Austrian-born American management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “Workers through history could be ‘supervised.’ They could be told what to do, how to do it, how fast to do it, and so on. Knowledge workers cannot, in effect, be supervised.” (Drucker, 1993)
Taylorism worked well for workers on the factory floor, but not for knowledge workers who dealt with complex problems. In 1986, things changed when Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka published a paper on a new way for product development (see “The New NewProduct Development Game,” HBR, Jan 1986). The paper was instrumental in kick-starting the modern Agile movement. Takeuchi and Nonaka described a new product development approach that looked more like rugby. Teams would pass the ball back and forth as they headed towards their goal. This was different from the traditional sequential approach to product development. This new rugby-like approach, made up of self-organizing teams, allowed for speed and flexibility. It enabled change throughout the product development process.
Fast forward to 2001, and a group of software developers got together at a ski lodge and created the Agile Manifesto. This was a declaration of guiding principles aimed at finding better ways to develop software. After 2001, the Agile delivery movement took off on a global scale.
Today, Agile practices are common, but many organizations still operate in the old world of Taylorism. Knowing they need to change, companies are trying hard to become Agile, but many still struggle. Here are three common pitfalls I see when companies set out for Agile transformation—and how to avoid them.
Pitfall 1, Not Having Goals
It’s amazing how many companies set off on a mission to become Agile without have any clear goals. If you ask their executives what their goals are, they’ll respond with something like “to be better at delivering software.” This response provides no specifics on what they are trying to achieve. It also doesn’t provide any sort of inspiration for the employees who will be in the trenches of the transformation.
One client I worked for made this mistake. Without clear goals, they couldn’t tell if they were improving. Employees became frustrated because they didn’t understand what they were trying to accomplish. This caused an unhealthy culture, contention among teams and gave Agile a bad rap. After about two years of little progress, the client finally realized they lacked goals.
Leaders need to take the time to define specific goals that align with the strategy of the company. They need to understand the value generated by an Agile transformation. An example might be something like the following:
“We need to double our production releases from four a year to eight. This will allow us to get new innovative products to market faster. It will also help us meet customer demands and increase market share by x.”
The example above gives a specific goal, with a clear end state. Once goals are defined, alignment needs to be created throughout the organization. A plan can then be put in place, putting the company in a much greater position for transformation.
Pitfall 2, Lack of Prioritization and Executive Sponsorship
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If leadership is not on board, it’s going to be tough sledding.Leaders often underestimate what it takes for a successful Agile transformation.In a recent report by KPMG, lack of executive sponsorship was a top reason companies struggle with Agile transformation (see AchievingGreater Agility, PMI, Nov 2017).
In another one of my client experiences, middle management continued to govern delivery teams with tight control. They did so because a) executives weren’t on board with change and b) management was afraid to give up control. Every important decision and process went through a board review and approval process. This of course did not promote a culture of empowerment and trust. It only frustrated and confused delivery teams. It wasn’t long before employees started to leave the company in search for more autonomy.
Agile transformation is about changing culture. It’s going to take more than forming Agile teams and bringing in Agile coaches. Teams alone cannot change bureaucracy and culture. Leaders need to help remove impediments and promote a new culture built on openness and trust. “Senior executives need to communicate early and often at all levels of the organization to let their people know that the Agile journey will benefit all, and that it is OK for mistakes to be made as long as lessons are learned.” (Cullum, Bagg, Trivedi, Nov 2017)
Target Corp is a great example of the benefits of executive sponsorship. Target executives set out to transform the organization to Agile back in 2015, after the company took a big hit with a data breach. They’ve had great success. In 2017, Target’s CIO Mike McNamara gave a keynote at National Retail Federation (NRF)’s annual Big Show in New York. McNamara said, “What I’m perhaps most proud of is how our new way of working is taking root in other parts of Target, beyond technology teams.Agile sets us up for more innovation and for becoming a leader in how technology and data science can (and will) enhance the retail experience” (see “MikeMcNamara:Technology Transformation on Tap at NRF’s Big Show,”Target, Jan 2017).
Executives also need ensure the transformation a top priority for the company. Lack of prioritization is a common problem with transformations. McKinsey recently published an article in which they wrote “While it is completely OK to start the agile transformation within, say, a small part of the organization,it is important not to stop there and to treat it as a strategic priority for the enterprise. Taking agile beyond small experiments is where the real benefits arise” (see “How to Mess Up Your Agile Transformation in Seven Easy(Mis)steps,” McKinsey, April 2018).
Pitfall 3, Putting Process over Behavior
Companies are usually quick to put Agile processes in place. If you walk around their offices, you will see task boards with sticky notes and teams having stand ups. They use popular software tools like VersionOne or Jira. From the outside they have all the appearances of being Agile. But if you look deeper, you may find that their behaviors and mindset have not changed. The common reason for this is fear. People are afraid they will be punished for making mistakes. They also don’t trust others enough to be transparent.
Agile values individuals and interactions over processes and tools. This is the first principle outlined in the Agile Manifesto. This is a human element in Agile that is so important, yet often overlooked. To be Agile, people need to talk to each other, and they need to be open and honest.
The best way to drive out fear is through leadership. Managers need to shift their mindset from command and control to coaching and mentoring. Companies need leaders who have strong emotional and social intelligence. With empathy, leaders can foster an environment where people feel safe to make mistakes.
There are various ways to improve emotional and social intelligence. There are learning and development programs available. Google uses a widely popular course called “Search Inside Yourself”. Daniel Goleman is an author and science journalist who offers a framework with coaching certifications. Aside from development programs, companies should recruit for emotional and social intelligence. Many top business schools are now developing emotionally and socially intelligent leaders. Harvard Business School, for example, offers a program on authentic leadership. The program was started by Bill George, the ex Medtronic CEO and author of True North.
Agile is a different way of thinking and behaving. For companies attempting transformation, the following are three key areas to address: (1) There needs to be specific goals in place. The goals need to be a top priority in the company, and they need to align with the overall strategy. (2) Executive sponsorship is crucial for a successful transformation. (3) In Agile, individuals and interactions are valued more than processes and tools. To drive out fear, you need leaders who have strong emotional and social intelligence to foster a culture of safety and trust.
About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the owner and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an Agile Delivery Consultant and IT Project/Program Manager. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or visit Mike’s blog.