Agile strategy: 3 hard truths

Looking to adopt agile in your organization – or get more from your efforts? Consider this expert advice to develop and refine agile strategy
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Employees hanging notes on wall to represent agile methodologies

Even before the pandemic, the concept of being more agile – i.e., able to adapt quickly to changes in the market – had been gaining serious traction in the business community. Since the term “agile” was coined about 20 years ago by people sympathetic to the need for an alternative to documentation-driven, heavyweight software development processes, people all over the world have been intrigued by the concept. Hundreds of businesses of various sizes and across a variety of verticals and countries have adopted agile frameworks like scrum in hopes of creating products and services that delight customers, speeding up their teams’ response times, creating a more collaborative work environment, increasing transparency, and much more.

And while the road to a complete agile transformation is often paved with good intentions, implementing agility within an organization is no simple task. It requires changes that cannot be magically generated by any plug-and-play package or achieved in a few simple steps. A true lasting transformation requires time, patience, and full buy-in across the enterprise.

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Organizations looking to embark on a successful agile journey must recognize these three hard truths about agile transformation:

1. Leadership often serves as a barrier to agility

One of the primary challenges is that leadership can often be a barrier when an organization is seeking to become more agile. According to last year’s Business Agility Report from Scrum Alliance and the Business Agility Institute, this is the most prevalent challenge that agile coaches report.

Some reasons for this include a lack of buy-in and support, resistance to change, having a mindset that’s not conducive to agility, a lack of alignment between agile teams and leadership, lack of understanding, and a deeply rooted organizational legacy regarding management styles.

Overcoming legacy structures, cultures, and mindsets can be difficult. Some coaches have reported that leaders view agile as being “for their staff” and not for them. Additionally, leaders may have competing priorities – such as retaining control – which can hinder organization-wide adoption of agile methodologies.

Any leader considering an agile transformation must understand that in order to succeed, full executive buy-in is needed and that they too will need to change their way of working and thinking.

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2. Agile takes time

Leaders (and organizations as a whole) sometimes have unrealistic expectations regarding how easy an agile transformation is. Existing organizational systems likely took years, perhaps even decades, to lay the “brick-by-brick” foundation. Therefore, it makes sense that when revisiting that framework, transforming it also requires a significant time investment. 

True agile transformation is rooted in deep systemic and cultural changes that are dependent upon patience and perseverance.

True agile transformation is rooted in deep systemic and cultural changes that are dependent upon patience and perseverance. A sustained commitment to an organization’s business and cultural goals is required to completely reshape its behaviors and structures.

In the past year alone, 65 percent of companies surveyed reported that they are less than three years into their agile journeys. Those three years matter. Companies that are 3-5 years into their agile journey demonstrate more agile maturity – 34 percent more on average than those in their first year of an agile rollout.

Because every organization is different and has varying levels of commitment, those that are looking for a “how-to” manual on easily implementing workplace agility will be disappointed. Organizations that stay true to the course and fully commit to an investment in agile transformation are the most successful in the long run.

3. All agile coaches are not created equal

Business leaders who decide to hire an agile coach to help their organization grow more agile need to do their due diligence. The fact is, anyone can put “agile coach” on a business card or add “agility coach” to a LinkedIn profile and market themselves as an expert without any real experience or credentials. According to the 2021 State of Agile Coaching Report, a joint research effort from Business Agility Institute and Scrum Alliance, just 33 percent of respondents reported holding at least one coaching certification, only 18 percent of which are master-level certifications.

Here are three pieces of advice for those searching for an agile coach:

  • Be wary of the self-advertised agile coach who promises fast and easy transformation. As I’ve noted already, there is nothing fast and easy about true transformation.
  • Look twice if you notice a coach whose only credential is a CSM or any other foundation-level certification. Though I personally know some wonderful coaches with few or no agile certifications, I would want proof of an agile coach’s competence and experience before bringing anyone in to advise me or my teams.
  • Look for an agile coach who asks questions rather than one who provides pre-packaged solutions. The best coaches know that before they offer any advice, they need to spend time getting to the heart of the problem.

Ultimately, hiring an inexperienced agile coach will almost always leave your organization in worse shape, not better. That’s why it’s worth it to go the extra step to do your homework.

For an agile transformation to be successful, it’s crucial for everyone in the organization – from the C-suite down to entry level – to go in with their eyes wide open, understanding how agility does and does not work. By recognizing these three hard truths, your organization is infinitely more likely to be successful on your agile journey.

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Howard Sublett
Howard Sublett is CEO and product owner at Scrum Alliance, the membership organization driven by a mission to advance real-world agility with certifications that go far beyond a test or a badge. Howard’s role is to understand how best to equip members with what they need to succeed.

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