To talk about agile transformation, let’s go to the movies

To talk about agile transformation, let’s go to the movies

Will your organization's agile transformation be a Cinderella-style change – or have more in common with a werewolf? Here's what makes the difference

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January 22, 2019

We’re all familiar with the signature transformation moment in "Cinderella" – the fairy godmother waves her wand and Cinderella’s tattered dress magically becomes a stunning ball gown. Gorgeous, and effortless. The whole process – from wand wave to finished product – takes less than 10 seconds.

Perhaps fewer of us have seen the scene in the film “An American Werewolf in London” in which the main character transforms from an innocent backpacker to the titular American Werewolf. During the scene, we hear bones crunching as claws, teeth, and hair push through skin. The torturous and protracted reshaping of his body from man to monster takes a full two-and-a-half-minutes of screentime.

When organizations go through an agile transformation, they often envision a Cinderella process – quick, easy, beautiful results. But what they get, sometimes, is an American Werewolf process – agonizingly long, painful, and with some decidedly unpleasant consequences.

What makes the difference?

At Korn Ferry, we’ve spent a good deal of time understanding what makes agility tick. We’ve isolated four areas of understanding that set successful agile transformations apart – and noted the practical steps organizations can take to make these things happen.

1. They understand that a true agile transformation takes more than implementing a Scrum framework or Kanban board

Many organizations conflate true agile transformation with rigorous adoption of the Scrum Framework, Kanban, or other “capital ‘A’ Agile” processes (parsed nicely here). Now, to be clear, these processes are often terrifically effective – breeding ownership, collaboration, transparency, and a step-change in customer focus. Be wary if you ask a question about organizational agility and get an answer about product backlogs and Post-It notes! Implementing one of these processes is not a substitute for creating deep agility – it’s one arrow in a much bigger quiver. Some vocal critics have even suggested that a well-codified process may betray the “people over process” pillar of the Agile Manifesto.

Be wary if you ask a question about organizational agility and get an answer about product backlogs and Post-It notes!

Organizations undertaking agile transformation correctly, in contrast, deploy an Agile (or Scrum, or Kanban) process thoughtfully, as part of a larger set of conscious choices designed to create an organization that both moves faster and can change direction more quickly.

They don’t rely on the process change as the sole component of cultural change: Rather, they contextualize it into a bigger set of conscious choices that drive agility. Other accompanying steps might include flattening the structure of teams, involving external networks to a far greater degree, and even automating knowledge management. An agile transformation may not affect every aspect of an organization, but it absolutely spans people, process, and technology.

2. They began with a shared vision of the agile organization

Agile transformation manuals often reference being willing to change culture quickly. This is a bit of a myth. What really happens in many successful agile transformations is that before the transformation began, the aspiration for agility existed within at least a meaningful subset of the leader and employee population. Beginning to implement a host of changes – including but certainly not limited to the introduction of some sort of Agile process – allowed the organization’s population to activate behaviors they were already inclined toward.

Now, this raises the question – what if a very small minority of leaders believe passionately that an agile transformation is in order, but the majority of the culture seems disinclined to embrace true agility?

But leadership must undertake a critical pre-step – achieving buy-in and alignment about the end result of agility.

Is the transformation doomed? Not at all.

But leadership must undertake a critical pre-step – achieving buy-in and alignment about the end result of agility. Many organizations bungle this pre-step – and instead charge in with process diagrams and new terminology that sends already-wary populations deeper into fear mode. Those organizations that do this well engage populations at all levels in a thoughtful dialogue (not monologue) about why agility is important from a business perspective: “How will these changes help us compete better?” They also clearly outline how the changes will ultimately make work more rewarding – with a surfeit of honesty about how some changes may not initially feel natural.

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Melissa Swift leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory for North America and Global Accounts. In this role, she partners with clients to understand their deepest human capital challenges in the digital arena, and to address those challenges in novel and comprehensive ways spanning from strategy execution and job design to leadership development and culture shaping.  She has worked in North America, Europe, and Asia, and spends time in industries ranging from financial services and life sciences to consumer and industrial.

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