Agile: Starting at the top

When the team at Thales North America decided to adopt agile methodologies, they started with leadership. Consider these lessons learned from those who’ve been there, done that
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Change management can be the hardest part of any transformation. While you may quickly get people on board with the idea of change, it can be a long time before behaviors start to shift. We are all creatures of habit, after all.

When the IT organization at Thales North America wanted to transform product and service delivery from waterfall to agile, they took a radical approach: Instead of simply talking about what they wanted to achieve – squads, operating using agile methods driven by user stories, and ultimately delivering incremental value – they decided to show the organization by walking the walk themselves.

“The only way we could truly be effective in leading the organization through an agile transformation is if we transformed our leadership team first,” says Kevin Neifert, CIO of Thales North America.

Doubts and early hurdles

Neifert, who had previous experience working with agile methodologies, was confident this would be an effective first step in Thales North America's agile transformation. The leadership team, however, had a few doubts.

[ Also read Digital transformation: 4 key building blocks. ]

“If you asked me a year ago, I would have said there’s no way this would work,” says Eric Liebowitz, Thales North America Chief Information Security Officer. “I’ve been in IT for almost 20 years, and a majority of the support functions that I’ve been in are very reactive. I didn’t see how agile would work in a very reactive type of mindset.”

Even those on the leadership team who had positive prior experiences on agile teams were skeptical in the beginning. “While agile works for software development teams, the products of leadership teams are completely different,” says Malik Umar, Thales VP for ISIT Strategy, Architecture and Technology in North America.

Both Umar and Liebowitz now say they were proven wrong – and that it didn’t take long for them to see the light.

Thales North America planned to work in month-long agile sprints, and according to Umar, by sprint three, he was a believer.

“In the third sprint, we were estimating the effort that was needed by each one of us. The number of hours of leadership work required was more than the hours in a day,” Umar explains. “When the team saw that during our stand-up, everyone rallied to pitch in. In the end, we got it all done, and it wasn’t all reliant on me. That was the ‘aha’ moment that changed my view on agile.”

Liebowitz says he realized that IT is not as reactive as he originally thought. “Planning work the agile way, you become better at predicting what needs to be done before you even get started. We were consistently able to accomplish more than I thought we could in each sprint,” he says.

"Planning work the agile way, you become better at predicting what needs to be done before you even get started."

Having strong support was key to this change in beliefs among the leadership team. Aisha Mir, IT Agile Operations Director for Thales North America, has a track record of successful agile transformations under her belt and was eager to help the leadership team overcome any initial hurdles.

“The best thing I saw out of previous transformations I’ve been a part of was the way that the team started working together and the way they were empowered. I really wanted that for our team,” says Mir. “In those first few sprints, we saw that there were ways for all of us to help each other, and that’s when the rest of the team began believing. I had seen that happen before – where the team really becomes one unit and they see what tasks are in front of them – and they scrum together to finish it.”

While the support was essential, one motivating factor helped them work through any challenge in their way: How could they ask other parts of the IT organization to adopt agile methodologies if they couldn’t do it themselves?

“When we started, we all had some level of skepticism but were willing to try it because we knew this was going to be the life our organization was going to live,” says Daniel Baldwin, Director, Support and Collaboration Solutions, Thales North America. “We recognized that there would be inherent value in us going first because it would allow us to run into the challenges and answer questions that our teams would eventually run into. In the end, we were pretty enthusiastic about it.”

Lessons learned

The Thales North America leadership team is now one year into its agile transformation, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way are helping as they coach other areas of IT. One key takeaway for Derek Kamp, Director, IT Infrastructure, is that agile is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

“I wish that I had known that it was not going to be such a radical transformation,” says Kamp. “We evolved into it slowly and welcomed the structure of sprints and stand-up meetings, which we didn’t have before. Regular communication also helped make things easier.”

A slow start doesn’t mean that agile isn’t working or that people aren’t on board. Yet without the direct experience of adopting agile themselves, early confusion and missteps may have been seen as failure.

"Being able to coach our teams practically rather than theoretically was a huge advantage."

“I’ve got four squads under me now and as they started deploying the agile principles, it wasn’t me theoretically proposing to try this or try that. I was actually able to say, ‘I’ve seen this before. Here’s how we fixed that. Try this and you’ll see that it works.’ Being able to coach our teams practically rather than theoretically was a huge advantage,” says Kamp.

Going through transformation first also gave everyone in the leadership team a perspective of empathy, notes Umar. That empathy extended to other teams getting started on their journey and helped the leadership team hone in on the value IT brought to the business.

“The first agile practice that we adopted across the board was the user story, where we put on a hat from the user perspective. The empathy piece came quickly in all directions and all ways,” says Mir. “It helped us see what we were trying to do for the business in a new light. It really started us on the path of connecting with the users and the business that we’re trying to deliver value to.”

Overcoming barriers on the path to agile success

For IT leadership teams who have tried agile in the past with limited success, or those who are facing roadblocks in their journey, the Thales North America leadership team offers this advice:

  • Provide training and support. “You could see, even on the leadership team, the angst or the anxiety that came along with this transformation. We quickly learned that helping individuals learn about agile in advance and bringing the team along with training was really key,” says Rosana Taktak, HR Business Partner.
  • Address fears early on. “We’ve all heard from teams where their biggest hang-up was worrying that it wouldn’t work for infrastructure teams – that agile was only for software development. We had to put our cards on the table, ask them what they were afraid of, and identify their fear. We had really honest conversations. But at a certain point, we have to say, ‘We can talk all we want, but unless we try, we’ll never know. Let’s figure it out together,’” says Mir.
  • Watch the jargon. “I’m a non-IT person, so for me, it was all jargon: sprints, stand-ups, etc. For anyone who feels out of their element in your agile transformation, it can help to emphasize the value of working this way. For me, more effective task prioritization and time management have been the biggest benefits, so I’ll lean on showcasing those values when helping others get unstuck with agile,” says Meet Savla, IT Finance Lead.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. “There were many times we ran into things that just didn’t work. In the past, we might have thought, ‘Well, we failed at this, and that’s bad.’ But acknowledging that something didn’t work is an opportunity to try something different. Once we had agile processes in place, we got much more comfortable with experimenting with new things,” says Liebowitz.

  • Learn from retrospectives. “If you’re stalled in your agile process, use the retrospectives to figure out what is working for you and what’s not working, then adapt accordingly. That’s the whole concept of agile – we’re not bound to a six-month or year-long plan to see the results in the end. We see the results at the end of every month, and we can course-correct along the way,” says Umar.
  • Stick with the ceremonies. “You have to be vigilant and disciplined in keeping with your ceremonies. When we ran into tough questions, we didn’t throw it under the rug, we poked at it until we came to a common agreement on how we could handle it, then shared that with the rest of the organization. Agile isn’t just a set of methodologies and principles you apply – it fundamentally changes the way you look at the work you’re doing and how you execute it incrementally,” says Baldwin.
  • Just get started. “Start where you can. Just start. You can’t try to have this perfect environment. It can be difficult to break a stall because it’s human nature to be fearful of what you don’t know – but the only way to get through it is to go through it. Eventually, you’ll look back and realize that it wasn’t so bad, and that empowers you to take that next step,” says Mir.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

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Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.