Agile: 4 signs your transformation is in trouble

A truly agile team recognizes that standup meetings and Kanban boards are simply tools to help your organization develop a way of thinking about work. Agile transformation requires more
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Employees hanging notes on wall to represent agile methodologies

Did the agile transformation of your technology team make your whole organization more agile?

On one level, agile transformations in tech seem clear. Bring in a coach, start holding standups and sprint reviews and start using a Kanban board. Then you’re agile, right? While these things help with agile, they may (or may not) produce agility in your organization.

The tools and processes of agile help you learn to think differently.

Agility requires significantly more change than a few rhythms and ways of managing work can possibly bring to the table. Agility isn’t about tools and processes. Agility changes how your organization collectively thinks. The tools and processes of agile help you learn to think differently. 

In other words, meeting cadences and tools are not the end, they’re the beginning.

[ Need to explain key Agile and DevOps terms to others? Get our cheat sheet: DevOps Glossary. ]

How agile is your team?  Four signs to watch

Getting the perspective to see how you actually think is difficult – it’s like trying to read the label from inside the bottle. This article helps by outlining four ways you can get outside the bottle and begin developing agility instead of just going agile. 

These are starting points to challenge your thinking and give you a handle to grab onto as you look to make improvements.

1. Your foosball table is dusty

We know how it goes. At first, things are fun! “Our transformation is going to be amazing!” You bring in some agile coaches, do some training, play some games, and of course bring in the foosball table (before the COVID-19 pandemic anyway, but follow along because I think you'll get where I'm going with this). Not only that, but you did tons of culture work to try to create some “room” for people to be themselves and explore more creative ideas.

Over time though, the foosball table becomes just a table, then it fades into the background and finally disappears in plain sight. Along with it, you watch the play, joy, and the possibility of new, creative approaches also fade into the background.

True culture change requires more than a shot in the arm.

True culture change requires more than a shot in the arm. The shot in the arm jolts the team awake and gets them moving, but from that moment the old culture drags everyone back where they started, so you have to fight against it. 

If you started with fun and creativity (or just never got there), look for opportunities to light the path toward a more creative and fun world at a leadership level. Virtual happy hours are fine, but, especially during COVID, you need to go further than that to set the example. Maybe you throw in a game. Maybe you have an appetizer delivered to each person’s house. Maybe you give each person $30 to surprise a teammate with a personal encouragement. No matter the approach, bring back the fun and joy and you’ll boost creativity from your agile teams.

[ Are you holding your scrum master back? Scrum master: 5 signs you need to rethink the role ] 

2. Your biceps are bigger than your calves

When you go to the gym and you only lift weights to strengthen your biceps, they get stronger while your leg muscles stay the same (or get weaker). The same thing happens in agile and produces similarly disproportionate results. Focusing on agility in one part of the organization (like the software teams), but not the leadership that fills their funnel, actually builds fragility into your business.

Fragility comes from an imbalance between different parts of the organization. The software teams get really good at executing. They build some pretty big muscles. But leadership fails to develop the same level of intentionality into their work, so they still operate with weak muscles. 

[ Read more from Rich Thiel: Digital transformation: 5 types of leaders who can get in the way ]

It shows up in a variety of ways. Sometimes the strategy lacks clarity. Sometimes leadership’s distance from employees or customers gets in the way. No matter the challenge, the issue remains: The executional teams execute more quickly and effectively than leadership teams can  produce clear, good, proven strategy.

To produce a more agile organization, try implementing the same practices at a leadership team level as you see your teams implementing at an executional level. Specifically, start with a leadership retrospective (monthly works well). Ask three questions:

  • What’s working about how we’re working together?
  • What’s not working about how we’re working together?
  • What experiments can we try to improve how we work together?

Repeat this 12 times per year to build core strength at the leadership level.

3. You have the attention span of a squirrel

Squirrels move quickly and make quick decisions, but they lack deep, intentional thought. They jump from tree to tree, spending only a moment on any single thought before they dart off to the next interesting acorn.

In my early days of agile, I worked with a team that behaved similarly. Decisions were fast and furious, but every time something new and shiny came on the radar, the team shifted directions to chase that shiny object. The team behaved more like a squirrel than it did a value-producing machine.

Do you need more coaching, or (gulp) do you need to replace the leader?

Fixing this requires some leadership intervention. You have to make the path clear through a well-articulated vision, mission, strategies, and goals. If those are well established and the team still wanders, take a look at the team’s leadership. Do you need more coaching, or (gulp) do you need to replace the leader? Doing the hard work right now will reap years of benefits for your company.

[ Is your team just going through the motions? Read also: How to spot an agile faker. ]

4. It's raining inside

Imagine how bad it would be if it started raining inside a room in your house. Terrible! At first, everyone would want to go into that room to see this interesting new phenomenon. But soon, that room would be in shambles and nobody would want to go in there.

At first, all those Post-It notes look intriguing to people from other departments.

Agile creates the same phenomenon. At first, all those Post-It notes look intriguing to people from other departments. Everyone sees how people work differently and they want to see agile in action. They might wait and watch for a few weeks. Over time though, the intrigue fades while the team’s work bogs down. Maybe your product owner/manager tries to control everything or your Scrum Master gets frustrated every time someone ignores a process. No matter the cause, move to rectify it sooner than later to prevent a further downward spiral on the team.

To fix this, get some external perspective. Start by asking another organization, or an entirely different company, if your team can observe their cadences. Sit in the Zoom call as a fly on the wall while they go about refinement or planning activities. Your team(s) will learn 10-times what you can possibly tell them about in a training session. After the observation, lead a workshop to identify experiments that might improve things in your team.

True agility recognizes that cadences and Kanban boards are simply tools to help your company develop a way of thinking about work. The journey starts with agile, but ends with a more creative team that demonstrates core strength, while staying focused, and becoming so attractive to other teams that the company transforms itself. 

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

Rich Theil
Rich helps IT Leaders fix Agile teams burdened by inadequate Product Management and broken business partner relationships. Prior to starting The Noble Foundry, Rich spent 12 years as CIO for a large, scrappy, and aggressive non-profit in Cincinnati. Additionally, Rich spent seven years at P&G in Information Technology.