7 easy ways to mess up agile transformation

7 easy ways to mess up agile transformation

Are you truly putting culture first? Planning strategically beyond the pilots? Avoid these common missteps on the path to agile transformation

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May 16, 2019
Bad habits in IT

[Editor’s note: This story is co-authored by Belkis Vasquez-McCall, Christopher Handscomb, Allan Jaenicke, Khushpreet Kaur, and Ahmad Zaidi]

In recent years, agile principles have expanded their purview from guiding software development to governing how solutions, and even enterprise-wide operating models, are developed. Yet large traditional organizations embarking on agile transformations have faced real challenges in meeting their objectives. Based on our experience at McKinsey, we see the following as common missteps on an agile journey.

[ Some people get confused about Agile vs. DevOps. We break it down: Read Agile vs. DevOps: What’s the difference? ]

1. No alignment on the aspiration and value of an agile transformation

We have often seen organizations embark on agile transformations without first ensuring alignment among the leaders of the organization on the aspiration and value of the transformation. One large global company lacking such alignment saw their transformation deliver limited impact as teams in different parts of the organization applied agile principles to varying degrees and in multiple flavors, which led to a significant increase in the overhead of managing across teams.

While we don’t encourage attempts to design an end state in granular detail, the depth and breadth of an agile transformation require aligning at a high level on the aspiration, the value it would deliver, and a plausible plan for achieving it.

2. Not treating agile as a strategic priority that goes beyond pilots

The limited nature of pilots often prevents executive teams from grasping the far-reaching impact and strategic value a broader agile transformation could have. One large North American company realized minimal impact from its work to implement agile practices in its technology organization until nearly 18 months into execution, when a senior vice president finally started to understand the value and made changes to his business practices to match a more agile technology organization.

Without executive buy-in, agile teams are more susceptible to losing funding when other organizational opportunities arise and can face difficulties in bringing agile to scale, which is where the real benefits lie.

3. Not putting culture first  

“Culture is the king,” as a senior executive appropriately said when referring to the recipe for success for an agile transformation. Successful transformations require both bottom-up change in ways of working at the team level and a change in how the executive level operates. One large North American company saw the impact of cultural changes firsthand when leaders in one business continued to work within the paradigms of the old culture, while leaders in another business worked on changing the culture. After one year, the former business had little progress to show for any of its projects, whereas the latter had released multiple minimum viable products.

[ Read also: DevOps culture: 3 ways to strengthen yours in 2019. ] 

4. Not investing in the talents of your people 

Talent is the fuel that powers the agile machine. Without a talent strategy, it can be difficult for workers to become excited about joining (and staying with) new agile teams. Organizations should carefully consider:

  • What intrinsic skills workers will need to be successful in an agile organization
  • Where talented individuals with these intrinsics will be sourced from
  • How to support talent during their transition to agile ways of work
  • How their career paths will change to a more expert-driven model
  • How performance will be managed
  • What will happen to individuals who might not be required in the new agile organization

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Belkis is one of the pioneers of agile thinking at McKinsey. With over 18 years of experience in delivering robust solutions and coaching teams, she is wholly focused on agile transformation. An expert in agile transformation, Belkis partners with leaders in banking, healthcare, and other sectors to engender productivity and launch innovative products. Her primary mission — which has her across North America and to Europe, India, Latin America, and South Africa — entails helping large companies innovate with the agility of small start-ups.

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