Digital transformation: 7 ways Agile and DevOps can help

Digital transformation work often requires teams to manage conflicting challenges – a dilemma familiar to software developers. Here's how agile and DevOps can reduce risk and speed up change
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Embracing digital transformation requires teams to manage challenges that often conflict – for example, the demand for rapid change amidst vague constraints and complex interdependencies. It’s a familiar dilemma to those in software development.

Addressing these challenges with a traditional waterfall approach, in which projects move along a linear and sequential path, incurs far too much risk. Cumbersome processes lead to long release cycles, which slows the flow of customer features and results in loss of market share. Meanwhile, delayed feedback loops often result in building features that fail to align with customer needs.

Agile’s iterative and incremental approach is designed to address uncertainty in the product development process. DevOps fully embraces Agile, and together they provide the foundational principles and tools to help organizations enable faster feedback loops, shorten production cycles, and ultimately deliver greater value for customers and the business.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Digital transformation: How agile and DevOps reduce risk, improve speed

By adopting both Agile and DevOps as key components to a successful digital transformation, your organization can both reduce risk and accelerate their transformational journey. Throughout the transformation, the following guidelines can help.

1. Begin with a baseline

A readiness assessment is a critical first step to establishing your organization’s current state and creating a roadmap for the next steps. This assessment should evaluate maturity in a few key areas, including cultural readiness, leadership commitment, previous implementations, continual improvement, and IT service management process. These results provide the information to develop the objectives and scope for transformational activities moving forward.

2. Start as small and simple as possible

Apply the principles of Agile to implement change in an iterative and incremental way. Treat the transformation itself like a minimum viable product (MVP) that provides value to your organization, customers, and employees through nimble processes and supporting technologies. Teams must learn through iteration, adding complexity incrementally over time. Otherwise, businesses risk re-creating something that operates and produces similar results to existing systems with minimal improvement in outcomes.

3. Evaluate each challenge individually

Throughout the digital transformation journey, organizations almost always discover multiple types of problems and opportunities for growth — simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. There are principles and practices that align with each type of challenge. The highest-performing organizations recognize that they need to address all four types and use the best-suited principles and practices for each situation.

Automation is a good example of this, as it can be effectively applied to both simple and complicated repeatable problems, such as building, deploying, and regression-testing software. Automating these activities increases efficiency, reduces errors, and increases employee satisfaction. It also enables teams to focus their creative problem-solving efforts on more complex and chaotic challenges.

4. People closest to the work should define solutions 

Many leaders attempt to define the solution to be implemented, which naturally creates resistance and significantly limits effectiveness. A more successful approach is to clearly define the problem and desired outcomes, along with boundaries and clear levels of decision delegation. The goal should be to create a space where those closest to the work are given the freedom to experiment and discover solutions.

Create a space where those closest to the work are given the freedom to experiment and discover solutions.

5. Lead through culture

Ongoing support and engagement from senior leadership is the number-one indicator of success for any transformation. Leaders within any organization set and sustain the cultural standard through words, actions, and rewards. Throughout the transformation, it’s essential to consistently examine which elements of the current culture are impeding growth and identify steps to shift words and actions to support behaviors that will enable agility.

Your role as a leader should be to drive and support the critical culture changes required to enable communication, collaboration, compassion, and creativity across the business.

6. Don't set it and forget it

Anticipate that the first iterations of any solution will be imperfect and plan for ongoing improvements accordingly. Even those solutions that are well-suited to existing needs or circumstances will need to be adapted over time to deal with new uncertainties and ongoing changes. This need for continuous optimization applies to software products, processes, tools, and transformative efforts.

Set goals, desired outcomes, and measurements up front, along with processes to assess results and adjust tactics for improvement.

7. Avoid falling back into old habits

Organizational inertia and fundamental human nature make it easy to get comfortable with the way things are, for better or worse. Even if your organization commits to change in the long run, if the cultural mindset doesn’t embrace the new way of doing things, your transformation efforts will likely fall away.

If your organization's cultural mindset doesn’t embrace the new way of doing things, your transformation efforts will likely fall away.

When change is effectively implemented and goals are achieved, celebrate these successes beyond the immediate teams. Track change-related performance metrics over time to ensure they continue to demonstrate value and to reinforce team efforts.

Technology is no longer a part of the business; it is the business.

Digital transformation brings challenges, but it is necessary for future resilience. Agile and DevOps provide complementary approaches to streamline collaboration, improve feedback loops, and deliver faster, more frequent releases.

But Agile and DevOps represent more than just a mechanism for delivery. These iterative and incremental approaches support the larger cultural shift in the way modern organizations must address change. Ultimately, adoption of both DevOps and Agile will increase your organization’s potential to achieve the end-to-end flexibility and responsiveness required to enable business-level agility and digital readiness.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Mark is the national lead for Agile Enablement Services on Insight Enterprises’ Digital Innovation team.