Over the last 15 years I’ve gone through many Agile transformations. The desire for change and a shift from traditional waterfall methodology is often driven by the need for faster ROI and to accommodate the ever-changing needs of the customer.  I understand the desire to move quickly, but I've learned that going Agile should not equate to “ripping off a bandaid”. The best approach should be tailored to your organization's specific situation, taking into account both short and long term goals in order to safely transform your organization.

The most common challenges I've experienced when leading organizations from traditional project management methods to Agile are the following:

  1. Embracing the Agile mindset
  2. Building Cross functional Agile Teams
  3. Driving Continuous Improvement

Let’s dig a bit deeper into these blockers and discuss how you and your organization can overcome them.

Embracing the Agile mindset

My Agile journey began over 15 years ago and after experiencing many approaches to transformation, I’ve found that the most successful ones are Agile principle focused. For many years I’ve taught Agile classes for various certifying authorities and a bulk of the content has focused on understanding the values and principles of Agile. Organizations need to understand ‘the why’ behind the process; the Agile mindset. Understanding and teaching the Agile mindset prior to process adjustments can help to alleviate resistance and ensure a way forward when there is uncertainty.

A few years ago, I was consulting for a mid-sized startup that had a strong culture of employee happiness. This perspective empowered some team members to not make Agile ceremonies a priority. This was displayed through resistance with colocation, participation in Agile ceremonies, and a “me first” mindset.

I was brought into this organization because while they had “gone Agile”, they adopted it without any expertise and had done so from a process first perspective. This included implementing certain ceremonies they deemed valuable versus all. They were confused as to why this did not yield all of the great results touted from successful scrum organizations. In order to solve this problem, I focused my approach on teaching the Agile mindset. This included a complete understanding of the “WHY” - which is equally important as to understanding the “WHAT”.

This is because Agile behaviors and tools implemented have no value without the people who are responsible for using them. I focus on this because Agile transformations need to let the culture of the organization drive new behaviors; not the other way around. The culture is changed through the adoption of Agile principles at the highest level of the organization. This is especially important with every new consulting engagement I start because I blend Agile methods together to create a tailored approach designed specifically for the needs of the organization.

Cross-Functional dedicated teams

Team agility is the heartbeat of Agile. This is a tenant for most Agile frameworks but for various circumstances/constraints within organizations, it is one area that is oftentimes not fully embraced.

I can recall working for a very large siloed organization that was transitioning to Agile. Although leadership was supportive and educated in Agile principles and frameworks, they were not completely committed to making the necessary team changes  for delivering the greatest value to its customers. The leaders plan was to allocate certain team members across multiple projects (e.g. QA assigned to Team A at 50 %). The result impacted total team efficiency and value delivered because of availability, capacity, and constant context switching.  

The decision to make a team truly cross-functional and dedicated can be difficult, but the results are:

  • Improved collaboration and quality
  • Increased delivery speed
  • Reduced roadblocks and external dependencies

Cross-functional  ensures teams have all of the necessary skill sets to deliver value.  Dedicated means that team members are 100% allocated to the one team and not spread across multiple teams. This level of dedication is a major change for some organizations and can be difficult.

Effective Agile teams are empowered and passionate with the structure and support from leadership that sets them up for success. To create this environment and foster a culture of Agility, build your teams around value streams to reduce the solid waterfall structures.

Embrace continuous improvement

I  recently met with a people leader whose team I would be coaching through an Agile transformation. His team was consistently missing deadlines, morale was low, context switching was high, micromanagement was the norm, and the development team members were allocated across multiple teams. We discussed  the Agile ceremonies and I placed special attention on the retrospective. The feedback I received was that the team did not have more than 15 minutes to commit to the retrospective. Instead of insisting that the team run retros in my usual manner, I spent some time asking questions in order to really understand why the time was not being committed. I discovered that the manager thought “hands-on keyboard” time was more valuable. This is the norm in many organizations regardless of the scale. Time must be dedicated to continuous improvement and at all levels of the organization.

Embracing Continuous Improvement is important, and retrospectives are a great way of enabling that.  When done well, and result in actionable items that are then followed up on, they can be a gateway to improving elsewhere.

The main reason why I've seen retros lose value is:

• The team doesn't feel safe speaking up

• If they do speak up, items raised are never revisited

• Even if improvements are made - but not tracked/logged - it can feel like the retro just becomes a time-sink

That being said, it’s essential to have actionable items from retros that are then reviewed in the next retro to see how things have improved (or not - and if not, why). The transparency in reflection leads to actionable items that over time will increase morale and address the challenge areas of the organization.

The process of going Agile is challenging since it’s significantly different from traditional project management methodology. With that in mind, it’s imperative that organizations set the foundation for a successful journey to avoid potential difficulties and successfully realize the benefits of Agile. Organizational culture shifts require dedication, and partnering with an expert allows for a more seamless experience when transitioning. When you feel ready to start this journey, a strong Agile partner can guide you through to avoid common pitfalls and tailor a plan that works for you in order to achieve success.