One of the most challenging aspects of Agile adoption is changing from a project mindset to a ‘product’ mindset. What’s the difference between the two? The below pictures outline the contrast between a project and product focus.
A product focus is about stable cross-functional agile teams. Project work can flow through the teams, but the teams stay intact. These teams deliver value early and often through short iterations. There are great benefits in the product focus model. “Organizations can focus on building IT products that delight and engage users and deliver desired business outcomes rather than bog themselves down in traditional project-oriented success metrics.” (Lebeaux, 2019, WSJ)
Companies with large PMOs struggle to adopt the product model the most. They want to be Agile but won’t let go of Waterfall. They are riddled with layers of bureaucracy, hierarchy, reporting and management. This combined with divided functional areas prevent them from changing.
For these organizations, we advise their leadership to take three basic steps. First, they need to take Agile training. Leadership must understand the difference between a project and a product focus. Many companies make the mistake of sending only team members to Agile training. Leaders need to learn that they can measure success based on the value their products deliver to customers, rather than on project milestones.
Second, leaders needs to decide on whether their organization is ready to move away from a project focus. If the organization is not ready, that’s okay. The problem is when companies try adopting Agile while still using a PMO/project model. Remember, the key to agility is changing the mindset and embracing an adaptive approach. Don’t mistake using tools like VersionOne or putting stickies on a board (although those things are fine) as becoming agile. The real change happens at a mindset and culture level.
the decision is to move to a product focus, the third step is to take action.
This is when it’s time to make organization structure changes. Leadership,
along with outside guidance, must decide on what changes to make. It’s also
their responsibility to put the right people in the right seats.
If your leadership needs education or guidance, contact us because we can help. It won’t be easy, but many companies are finding that it’s worth it to make the change. By changing from a project management mindset to a product-oriented approach, companies can define success according to the areas that matter to users and design software that delights their customers.
About the Author:Mike MacIsaac is a c0-founder and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. MacIsaac Consulting, based out of Minneapolis MN, provides IT Agile delivery consulting and staffing.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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. MacIsaac Consulting provides Agile Consulting, Agile Coaching and Agile Training. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or visit Mike’s blog.
With the popularity of Agile, more and more executives are pushing Agile transformation. To meet this demand, everywhere you look someone is now selling Agile. In a sense, Agile has become a commodity.
Those selling the commodity offer things like Agile coaches, Scrum training, and SAFe certifications, just to name a few. Don’t get me wrong, many of these vendors provide high quality services. The commoditization of Agile is a result of demand due to the positive brand that is “Agile”. When done right, few will disagree that Agile isn’t the best way to develop software.
When it comes to Agile transformation, the problem is not so much the Agile service providers, but more so around a lack of planning. Without proper planning, the “transformation” process often goes over like a lead balloon.
The scenario usually goes something like this: executive from company X declares the organization needs to be Agile. Management then scrambles and hires Agile coaches and force employees to sit in open-work spaces. Throw in some team stand-ups and burn down charts and voila, they are now Agile! Management is happy, that is, until time goes by and they realize they have no measurable improvements.
Here’s the thing, Agile transformation is a huge change. If you haven’t properly planned before charging into transformation, your chances of success will be slim.
Another way to think of Agile transformation is like getting yourself in good physical shape. Last year I started working with a personal trainer. When I first met with my trainer, he didn’t send me right into the weight room and have me do dead lifts and squats. Instead, we met on multiple occasions and talked through my eating habits, my fitness routine, and my goals. We did this before I went anywhere near the weights.
By taking the time to do the analysis, I got a clear picture of where the problems were with my current fitness routine (or lack thereof) and diet. This enabled me to come up with goals and a manageable plan to achieve them. I was then able to put the plan into action and with the help of the trainer, receive some great results.
It’s the same with Agile transformation. You need to take the time to analyze and plan before charging ahead. If you’re planning to bring in Scrum training and Agile coaches, I’d like to propose some steps to take before doing so. Below I have outlined 6 steps intended to help you be successful in your Agile transformation journey. Think of them as Agile transformation prerequisites.
1) Know Your Organizational Purpose – Make sure you are clear on what your definite purpose is as an organization. You might be asking, how is the purpose of my company related to Agile, isn’t Agile an IT thing? It’s funny, many of us in technology sometimes forget we are part of a bigger picture. Business and IT must be aligned on the definite purpose of the company. If you don’t know the purpose of your company, then you have a bigger problem to deal with then adopting Agile. By knowing the definite purpose of the organization, you can align your Agile transformation strategy with the mission and goals of the company.
2) Know Your Current Value Stream – Get a clear picture of your current end to end process for delivering product or service. Many companies have different departments responsible for their part in the sausage making, yet nobody understands the full end to end process. Remember, if you’re going to make improvements, first you need to understand what needs to be improved. Saying that you want to become more Agile is not good enough. That’s like going to a trainer and saying that you want to be healthier. You need to get specific and find out what’s going on.
One way to do this is to sit in a room with management and white board out your current end to end process. Start from the beginning of new product idea, or customer order, all the way until the product or service is in the hands of your customer. This includes your business funding and prioritization process, and project planning and delivery. Include all your processes and steps for delivering your product and service. While you are doing this, write down the actual work time it takes to complete each step in the process, as well as the wait time. What you’re doing at this point is getting a clear picture of your delivery process, while also identify constraints in your system. For more on the benefits of this process, see my post on the theory of constraints and value stream mapping.
3) Know your constraints – The next step is to identify the clear bottlenecks in your delivery process. For example, if you find that on average it takes your company 1 year to approve new projects for funding, you’ll know you have a constraint way up-stream in your delivery process. Agile transformation is not only about making changes to your IT teams, it’s also about changing how your business operates. The idea is to be lean and efficient while providing high quality products to your customer.
4) Know your employees – Take a good look at your people. Are they open to change? Do they bring a positive attitude and contribute to a healthy culture? How about your IT people, are things like paired program and test driven development foreign concepts to them? Take a good inventory of the soft and hard skills of your employees. This is important because if you don’t have the right people, your Agile transformation efforts will fall flat. Get to know how your people really feel about Agile. What you don’t want is people who pretend to be on board with Agile, but bad mouth it at the water cooler.
In my experience, if you have people who are open and willing change, and are positive, you’ll be in good shape. You can teach the technical skills but trying to change someone’s attitude is a whole other ball game. Agile is all about collaboration and working as a team. You need great team players.
5) Know your technology – Analyze your current applications and delivery system. What type of infrastructure do you have in place? What’s your technology stack? Are you using physical or virtual servers? Are you using cloud technology? Take the time to do a full inventory of your technology and its health. How about your testing and deployment capabilities, are you running any automation? You need to know what kind of technology you’re working with. If you company uses archaic technology, it may be time to upgrade. Agile is a modern software delivery practice, you should aim to complement it with modern technology.
6) Create goals and an action plan for Agile transformation – After doing a thorough analysis of steps 1-5, now you’re ready to create a tailored action plan with goals. This is where you decide what Agile framework to use, or combination of frameworks. At this stage you are now ready to engage outside help for Agile training and coaching, based on your goals.
By going through all the steps, you may be surprised what you discover. Your teams may be more Agile than you think. Only through proper analysis can you discover what is working and what needs to change.
If all this seems too daunting, or if you have already brought in Agile coaches yet see little change, at MacIsaac Consulting we can help. We act as trusted advisers to help organizations put the right Agile transformation plan in place.
We are Agile framework agnostic. Our goal is to tailor a plan that what works best for your company. With Agile transformation, it shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach. Just like someone’s fitness goals, each organization will have different goals and strategies to achieve them.
So take the proper steps, because you and your organization deserve a successful Agile transformation!