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Key factors for major agile transformation success

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant

Skeptics in the agile community don't believe that large-scale agile transformations are possible. But I can tell you from my experience at many large companies that the naysayers are flat-out wrong.

As an enterprise agile coach, I've had a ringside seat to see it succeed. It's not easy, but successful enterprise-scale transformations are possible.

Your success or failure in an agile transformation at scale hangs on two things, according to organizations that have made the leap: your culture and your leadership. Here's what you can learn from successful teams as you make your own way forward to a full-on agile transformation.

Start by transforming the culture

Culture is the most critical factor in the success of an agile transformation, according to the 12th Annual State of Agile report. But having a strong alignment between organizational culture and agile values was the No. 1 challenge in agile adoption cited by survey respondents.

One of the most important things to understand in an agile transformation is that, while the framework (such as Scrum, XP, or SAFe) helps guide you, having an agile mindset is critical. That mindset must be based on the Agile Manifesto and its set of 12 principles, which emphasize relationships, collaboration, teamwork, transparency, self-organization, and learning.

Any organization attempting an agile transformation, especially at scale, must realize that the agile model is empirical and requires continuous adaptation as your company learns and grows.

I often get a sense of the organization's culture on my first day in a new coaching assignment just by observing people's body language and interactions. When employees are smiling and laughing, teasing one another, and being playful, the sense of positivity is contagious.

On the other hand, if people are too business-focused, taking no time for socialization or playful banter, the culture may be more fear-based. You can't scale agile in an organization where employees are afraid of taking risks. Your people may not recognize the importance of relationships in developing a healthy, productive team.

How to build an agile culture

Two enterprises I coached recently used the Senn Delaney approach to transform their culture. The cultural values and models it teaches closely align with an agile mindset. Employees are asked to take training, and there are many reminders throughout the workspace, including posters and plaques with phrases such as, "Be here now." Cultural ambassadors help remind others of the values by regularly demonstrating practices.

Meetings often begin with a "connected moment," in which employees practice one of the tools they learned in their culture training. Many of the tools available to employees are similar to those suggested as Management 3.0 Practices, emphasizing happiness, trust, and cooperation in the workplace.

One agile principle that's often difficult to follow at enterprise scale is a dedication to creating an environment in which teams can work face to face. I've long been a proponent of the benefits of work-from-anywhere, and I'm a bit of a rebel myself with regards to agile's sixth principle. But even I have to admit that when you experience face-to-face collaboration, you develop a stronger team bond and sense of camaraderie that's difficult to duplicate any other way.

Low-tech tools, such as colorful sticky notes and physical boards, can create an environment that fosters engagement and healthy debate and discussion. But that's balanced with flexibility and tools for people who need to occasionally work remotely. For distributed teams, tools that use cameras or social features can help team members gain trust no matter where they sit.

Agile leadership starts at the top

Getting leadership on board is just as important to a large-scale agile transformation as promoting a culture that aligns with an agile mindset. It's not enough to just take classes, practice connected moments, and sit together whenever possible. If your organization's leadership is not walking the walk and practicing the agile mindset, the rest of the organization won't either.

In successful large-scale agile organizations where I've consulted, not only do employees sit together, but their leaders, including top executives, routinely stop by to talk with the teams.

At one organization where I consulted, the CIO, while standing behind me in line at the site's Starbucks, addressed me by name and offered to buy me coffee. Not only did he know who I was, but he gave a friendly greeting to the barista behind the counter as well. That kind of approachability is a sure sign of a strong leader.

Leaders must foster a risk-taking environment

The most important factor in a team's success, according to Google's Project Aristotle, is psychological safety. Do employees feel free to take risks? Are they encouraged to innovate? Or do they feel afraid of getting reprimanded or receiving a poor review if they try an experiment that doesn't turn out as planned?

Strong leaders view innovation and experimentation as an important and necessary part of learning and growth.

Another thing leaders can do to ensure the success of a transformation is to rally the support of business, technology, and other stakeholders by forming a transformation team. Aligning internal change agents and leaders will have a large, positive impact on your transformation.

And when times get tough, leadership should demonstrate strong positive energy and a "what's possible" mindset. This trait of adaptive leaders is critical because every agile transformation experiences bumps.

Measure your success

Even when you have a culture that embraces an agile mindset and has strong leadership, it still can be difficult to measure success. How do you know when your organization's transformation is successful?

There are many ways to define and measure progress and outcomes, and there are tools that can help, such as Agile Transformation's Agility Health Radars. Using such tools, which can be customized for your DevOps and agile practices, your organization can see each team's progress. And because agile promotes continual adaptation, your organization will never stop learning.

A major agile transformation is never easy, but it starts with having a culture that aligns with the agile mindset, driven by leaders who model that mindset throughout the organization. With these in place, your organization is sure to see continued improvements.

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