November 30, 2021

Agile Transformation

Agile Transformation Guide
Agile transformation executive briefing

You have heard of agile project management and software development. But have you heard of agile transformation? An executive overview of agile transformation with real-world examples by Practicus community member, Tim Lake.

Tim Lake, Transformation Programme Leader
Tim Lake, Transformation Programme Leader

Agile is taking over the world of business change. It is not hard to understand why. Agile projects are reported to be 28% more successful than traditional projects. In fact, in a recent global study 71% of companies revealed they are using agile methods or frameworks for business change.

Until quite recently, many organisations constrained the use of agile to smaller self-contained undertakings. Fears over many moving pieces and a lack of central planning have created the misconception that agile is incompatible with delivering change at scale. Consequently, most business transformations have used waterfall at their core and agile only at the periphery.

But this is changing rapidly.

A new generation of change leaders is using agile methods for whole enterprise transformation. And they are fast gaining traction. For these leaders, agile transformation is not just a viable alternative to traditional methods but a much better way to deliver on grand market ambitions. What may surprise you is that the main benefit of agile transformation is the opposite of what many boardrooms expect: agile transformation actually lowers your risks.

Agile Transformation Goals

Why choose agile transformation? It lowers the risk profile of a company-wide initiative in a number of ways.

Agile transformation goals include:

  • Rapid results
  • Feedback-driven approach
  • Achieving more of what you want, even if you don’t know what that is

Rapid Results

A key benefit of agile transformation is that it delivers results early – building trust for customers and investors. It removes the inherent delay with waterfall methodologies as they move through their lengthy pre-delivery stages. Ultimately, agile approaches never let ‘Perfect’ become the enemy of ‘Done’.

Feedback-driven approach

Agile transformation ensures your programme remains responsive to a changing world. It is not wedded to a final state agreed many months, if not years, prior when things were different. A time when the unknowns were still unknown. The real heart of an agile transformation is that the rigorous real-world testing ensures the foundations of the new ground are solid before you rebuild your business upon them. It provides the ability to adjust the design inflight. In fact, successive deliveries increase the predictability of the outcomes.

One of the first agile transformation programmes I led was as a direct result of a traditional waterfall approach failing. The global organisation that engaged me faced a changing financial landscape with unpredictable revenue streams. They needed something that was going to give them a flexible approach driven by real-world outcomes.

Achieving more of what you want, even if you don’t know what that is

Agile transformation does not require a detailed vision and planning because it makes no assumptions about what will work in practice. Most executives may have a sense of the change that is needed but many will confess that articulating a full and coherent vision is a challenge, much less agreeing it with colleagues. Agile transformation bypasses this blockage and the associated politics by focussing on inflight customer and team feedback.

One of the largest transformation programmes I led was for part of a well-known media company. It was facing successive waves of disruption by digital technology. No-one knew what the future would look like, they just knew what was broken in the business. We created and built the Target Operating Model (TOM) iteratively and this enabled us to shape the organisation in a much more robust way to the turbulence it faced – the result was consistent success across all teams internationally.

Agile transformation plan

Contrary to what you may expect, agile transformation does not mean a complete lack of planning and oversight. A plan must be formed and sticking to it is key. The difference is that the agile transformation plan focusses on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the transformation rather than the ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how much’. That is what gives it the flexibility to succeed. 

The key elements of an agile transformation plan are:

  •  Rapidly assess the leadership – for buy in to change. How do they convey the change agenda to their teams? Assess leadership culture. Is your change leadership empowering, demonstrating a growth mindset, transparent, listening, interactive, open to challenge… (I have a tool for this if you’d like to contact me, see below)
  • Build an open and honest coalition – Key to success with the media organisation I referenced earlier was getting the leadership of that organisation onside and to be open with each other that they did not know what the transformation should be. 
  • Establish a change network across your organisation – enthusiastic individuals at any level, to gather to feedback on the ground, and take messages out. To be the initial evangelists.
  • Use a simple roadmap to catalyse the change conversation – although planning is hard, the conversations are important. Timing may be a challenge, but sequence, dependencies, risks can be understood and explored in regular events around an evolving wall-plan. Keep any restructure activity discrete from transformation and culture change.
  • Define rolling checkpoints that assess outcomes. Apply an OKR approach and light touch reporting. Build trust early by delivering demonstrable value.
  • Set up early feedback mechanisms to gain real insight – from customers and from within the business. Set up a rhythm of retrospectives, listening sessions, agile coffee, mini-surveys.
  • Plan and act on culture change early – it takes the longest, so a quick start is a prudent investment in change. There’s also never a “correct” approach, you need to start testing angles, methods, what works, without delay.

Agile transformation metrics for executives

Traditional metrics around transformation centre around time, cost, quality and outcomes. Agile transformation metrics are more focused around:

  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Employee Engagement
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Innovation
  • Market Responsiveness
  • Productivity
  • Speed
  • Quality
  • Predictability

Cost and time are of course still factors but it’s more about weighing those against the customer benefit of a particular delivery to assess its relative prioritisation.

In this way, you proceed iteratively, proving return on investment as you go.

Need advice?

If you’re fed up of transformation taking forever to start delivering benefit or if you know you need to change but finding it impossible to plan, then invest an hour of your time with Tim to understand how an agile transformation approach will work for you.

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