Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 7

Seventh in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the seventh in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 7: Engage Stakeholders & Supporters

Once you have executive buy-in, you’re now ready to engage your supporters.  It’s imperative to get the right people on-board early on.  The Agile Champion requires a group of people around them that are dissatisfied with how work is currently performed and are willing to make a change.  Stakeholders and supporters fall into three (3) broad categories:

Executives: Executives will approve and / or sponsor the agile project.  You’ll want support from an executive that has a vested interest in the success of new projects.  If possible, try to find an influential executive, one that is seen as a leader amongst their peers, someone they trust to bring great vision and planning to the organization, and try to get him or her to sponsor your agile project.

Individual Contributors: Your Individual Contributors are the folks that will actually be carrying out the agile project.  These are the guys who will need the agile training to execute the agile work processes.  You’ll want good representation with this group of people.  If your organization has certain disciplines (application development, database, project management, etc.) or product lines, you’ll want though leaders representing these groups.

Middle Management: Every Individual Contributor on your team reports to someone.  You’ll want to figure out who those people are and talk to them.  After all, these people write the performance reviews of your Individual Contributors.  Even the strongest Individual Contributor still must do what their manager asks; that’s how they retain their position.  It’s extremely important to gain middle management buy-in because very often, middle management is directly responsible for executing the operation of the IT department and are unlikely to pose future, unforeseen process barriers if they are engaged early.

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders and supporters, schedule meetings to discuss the agile transformation initiative.  Educate them on what you’ve learned about agile and how it can meet their objectives.  Discuss your plan and key milestones in the agile transformation initiative.  These meetings are not the “one-and-done” type.  Expect to have multiple conversations as people learn more.  You must give people time to learn, to think through agile concepts and how they will impact their day-to-day.  Everyone learns at different speeds, so be prepared to be patient.  You will be doing ongoing research in order to answer everyone’s questions.  If you’re able to answer everyone’s questions and sell them on the benefits, they will follow your lead during the changes ahead.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 6

Sixth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the sixth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 6: Gain Executive Buy-In

Executives have motivations and you must work to understand their nuanced agendas and how they are measured while getting them to agree on a specific course of action. You’re going to need a coalition of aligned executives if you wish to get your agile transformation effort off the ground. Discuss the problems that you are attempting to solve, help them understand why a change is required, and educate them on how you came to explore agile as a solution.

The first step of executive alignment is gaining consensus on the problem statement. If executives have differing opinions on what the problem is, they will naturally have differing opinions on the solution. Conversely, executive consensus on a problem statement makes it much easier to gain concurrence on the problem’s solution. You should be able to articulate the problem using actual results from previously completed projects. Empirical evidence such as budget, schedule, and quality data can be examined and used to justify the problem statement. If existing project intake and / or request management processes cannot keep up with demand, this can be further used as justification for change. Many of today’s software products are subscription based with regular updates included as part of the service. A traditional waterfall approach may not support the quick release cadence demanded by your customers. Whatever your justification may be, it’s important to not only cite the problem statement, but to also provide concrete, salient examples of the problem; incidents that everyone can point to and agree that they are actual examples of the problem statement.

Once you have executive alignment on the problem statement, next you must help executives understand how agile solves the problem. Reiterate the benefits of agile from lesson #3 as you map them to the problem statement. Solving the problem statement also involves addressing the, “what’s in it for me?” question. When having this discussion with executives, frame it in terms of cost, risk, and rewards.

The agile transformation can expect hard costs for training of the pilot team, and an agile coach, if you choose to use one. You can expect to encounter soft costs for staff transitioning to a new methodology and tools as their productivity temporarily slows until the new processes are institutionalized. You must do your homework to ensure these costs are accurate, complete, understood, and accepted.

In my opinion, there is more perceived risk than actual risk in an agile transformation. Fundamentally, we’re not changing the way software is written, we’re simply changing the way we organize the work of software development. Sure, if you don’t have a plan for how to get from point A to point B, you’re going to get lost, but if a plan (like the one outlined in these lessons) is followed, risks only materialize in a few areas. Risks should be logged and managed with a mitigation plan for each that is regularly reviewed with the executive team. Doing this builds trust that risks are being managed and confidence that the effort will succeed. The most common risk is insufficient buy-in from executives or team members. This can clearly be managed before an agile transformation initiative is undertaken by additional training and education. Healthy skepticism of a new process is welcome, but active sabotage will be detrimental to the effort so it’s important that the right people are on-board and all pulling in the same direction. Risk of business impact can be mitigated by executing a pilot agile project first, and then using the results of the pilot to further refine the rollout.

Everyone likes to look good to their boss and executives are no different. You’ll want to figure out each executive’s performance drivers, but like everyone else, executives want to be valuable and promotable. Like all leaders, they want to demonstrate their leadership skills, achieve faster product delivery, lower operating costs, and in increase profits. You’ll want to again re-emphasize the speed of product delivery reward expected from an agile transformation and highlight how their sponsorship and / or support of a major organizational shift, such as this one, will demonstrate their leadership abilities and increase the bottom line.

Advantages and Risks of Hit-and-Run Plays

Chad Greenslade is an established Dallas, TX-based IT project management executive who offers solutions-driven consulting services. Passionate about baseball, Chad Greenslade excelled in the sport in high school and continues to play in adult recreational baseball leagues.

One of the foundational offensive strategies with a man on first base is the hit-and-run, which involves the runner on first base breaking toward second as the pitch is delivered. At the same time, the batter swings at the ball and attempts to connect.

With one of the infielders needing to cover second base, an opening is created on the left or right side of the field which can allow a ground ball to pass through to the outfield for a hit. In addition, the chances of a ground out double play is reduced, as the runner has a jump on the action.

There are risks associated with the hit-and-run, including a high likelihood that the runner will be thrown out in cases where the batter fails to connect with the ball. This has to do with the runner not taking as large of a lead off from the base as when stealing.

In addition, the hitter is obligated to try to connect with the ball, even if it is well outside of the strike zone, to protect the runner. This can result in balls that are weakly hit, leading to easy outs.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 4

Fourth in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the fourth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 4: Understand Common Environmental Constraints

There are some common organizational environmental constraints that you will encounter when moving to an Agile delivery model.  Each of these must be considered and addressed for your Agile transformation effort to take root and flourish.  Each of these should be considered “difficult” to address and requires ongoing effort to engage key players in the organization and change their perspectives to align with transformation goals.

The first and most common constraint is simply the one of management “style”.  Management style can either be a hindrance or an enabler to the transformation.  If your organization is an older one, especially one that has been around since before the Agile manifesto was published in the early 2000’s, the management “style” is most likely a top-down, “command-and-control” model.  In this model, the methods by which lower-level employees carry out work are dictated by higher-level management personnel.  “Command-and-control” is also frequently used in smaller organizations that may have no knowledge of Agile principles or practices.   Agile requires collaboration.  Collaboration necessitates that decision-making occur at the level where the work is taking place.  Agile believes that the resources performing the work are best equipped to guide their own work and successfully navigate obstacles when they present themselves.  In simple terms, the folks doing the work must be empowered to make decisions about the work.  Since collaboration is a bed-rock principle of the Agile manifesto and “command-and-control” does not foster collaboration, the “command-and-control” management style must be regarded as detrimental to an agile transformation in that it stifles collaboration.  Shifting from a “command-and-control” model can be difficult, especially if the next three constraints are not adequately addressed.

The second constraint to overcome is your organization’s willingness to accept change.  In a “command-and-control” environment, the notion of, “we’ve always done it that way” may be prevalent.  Clearly this won’t work when attempting to institutionalize a culture shift.  In this type of environment, you’ll need to confront unwillingness to change head-on.  You’ll want to tout expected Agile benefits (Lesson 3) and reasons for moving to Agile (Lesson 2) and ensure they are well understood by key leaders, stakeholders, and resources.  You should be looking for the, “let’s give it a try” response to your transformation proposal.  When you lay out the case for Agile and start small, you will be able to build confidence on your successes and get more folks on-board with your vision as your experiment progresses.

A major environmental constraint that exists in many organizations is a “process-heavy” culture.  Process-heavy organizations are those with rigid activities that must be completed in order to progress an effort.  This typically manifests itself with paperwork, and lots of it.  Agile requires lightweight processes.  This means that unnecessary or “non-value add” steps are skipped.  Agile is focused on just enough process to get people what they need to complete the work at exactly the right time.  If you’re in a process-heavy culture, you’ll need to reset management’s expectations relative to the process rigor that will be employed.  It’s not that no process will be used; it’s simply that required process will be employed.  For example, if there’s a process that must be followed to introduce new changes to the production environment, you’ll most likely want to follow it.  However, if the traditional waterfall process dictates that a full-blown detailed technical design be completed before any actual coding begins, this can be problematic and antithetical to Agile’s tenets.  You’ll want to thoughtfully analyze existing process and have a meaningful, collaborative discussion with oversight bodies to gain agreement on exactly which processes will be followed and which will not.  When having these discussions, stress the benefits of “speed-to-market” and reduced costs associated with an Agile effort.  You may also find yourself in the position of re-writing the “rules of the road”, specifically for Agile initiatives.

The last key environmental constraint that you must address is trust.  Trust is an absolutely essential component to Agile.  A key item to keep in mind is that trust is earned over time.  When trust does not exist, management tends to micro-manage the engaged resources.  When trust exists, management will get out of the way and let the workers carry out the work.  Trust is required to start an Agile pilot project, and management, including the Scrum Master, must trust the folks carrying out the Agile project to get the job done with quality.  By starting small and demonstrating value delivery, trust will be gained and increased over time.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 3

Third in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the third in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 3: Understand Expected Agile Benefits

Agile implementations produce benefits for both the team members executing agile and the managers of agile teams.  These benefits, however, can only be realized when company management commits to making the changes necessary to realize them.  Further lessons will expand upon the changes and buy-in required, but for now, understand that teams that adopt agile practices must move away from traditional “command-and-control” and “wishful-thinking” (a.k.a. “predictive”) management philosophies.  Agile can appear to be simple, but key concepts such as self-organization and continual inspection and adaptation have subtle implications that require a change to management’s status-quo approach.

Industry studies show that approximately half of software features developed are never used.  These studies indicate that required features can be developed in half the time by avoiding unnecessary work and waste.  Via continuous prioritization of development requests, agile teams avoid building features that will never be used and focus only on delivering those with the highest business value.  Prioritization is further extended to impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”) that surface during daily meetings.  Discovered roadblocks are prioritized and removed resulting in a further increase in quality and productivity.

Agile is known to improve the quality of life for the team members executing it through elimination of the pressures inflicted on the team by management personnel.  A sense of autonomy is instilled when teams are allowed to select their own work and then self-organize around the best way to complete the work.  This fosters the development of innovation within the team, produces higher team productivity, and delivers higher customer and team satisfaction levels.  Allowing the team to deliver a functional and effective product that achieves the market and financial goals of the company produces team spirit, ownership, and results in increased employee retention.

Finally, agile is known to improve the profitability of the company by affecting components of the profit margin.  These include customer retention, innovation, timely and accurate delivery, and workforce motivation.  Customers are retained when they are cared for and provide critical referrals necessary to grow the business.  Accurate and timely delivery of exactly what customers need, when they need it, enhances customer satisfaction and revenue streams.  Innovation ensures synchronization with market trends and anticipation of future customer requirements.  A motivated workforce is a productive workforce and one that provides an edge over the competition.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 2

Second in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the second in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

 

Lesson 2: Understand Common Reasons for Moving to Agile

 

I believe there are three (3) common reasons for moving to an agile delivery methodology. These reasons have nothing to do with IT specifically, but rather align themselves more generally with the common goals of product delivery. These are timely delivery, resolving quality deficiencies, and speed to market.

 

In the traditional waterfall model, an IT project could have a duration of several months or years and not produce anything of value for the business, if it produces anything at all. A common stakeholder complaint is that they rarely, if ever, know when anything will be delivered. Sponsors and stakeholders become reluctant to allow the project to continue when there is no end date or discernible deliverables in sight. An obvious and common risk is that a new opportunity or project will present itself resulting in the original project being cancelled, ending the work before anything of value is delivered. An agile delivery methodology alleviates concerns related to timely delivery by producing incremental product units on a pre-defined timescale.

 

Today’s business environment is constantly changing. Whether it’s new products being developed, old products being retired, competitors being acquired, divestitures, market expansions, new legislation or regulations, the only constant is change. This has an overwhelming and obvious effect on the information needs of the organization required to make accurate business decisions. Furthermore, a business is often willing to invest in building a solution to meet these information needs before all of the needs are fully known or understood. The traditional waterfall model is not conducive to the ebbs and flows of today’s business environment. It creates a situation in which a project team attempts to collect all requirements at the beginning of the software development effort, even though they may be unknown at the time of collection. The project team then takes the requirements as defined (or undefined) and attempts to build the solution over the course of months or years while discouraging changes to the requirements during the development process. This invariably breeds an environment in which the product delivered not only fails to meet the initial requirements, but also fails to address the changes in business conditions that occurred since the original requirements were collected. Stakeholders regard these as quality deficiencies even though the system may be coded exactly as the requirements specified. An agile delivery methodology alleviates quality concerns by continuously engaging the consumers of the information system throughout the development lifecycle and embracing the inherent changing requirements of today’s business environment.

 

A key theme of a successful business is continuous innovation. A common complaint from an executive whose business is failing to innovate could be, “our competitors are consistently beating us to market with new products or features.” An agile delivery methodology keeps the organization focused on product release milestones via the inherent cadence that accompanies the methodology. It also seeks to discontinue the use of non-value add activities such as unnecessary documentation or process which further refines the focus of the product delivery team.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 1

First in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the first in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 1: Identify the Agile Sponsor & Champion

Before you start your Agile journey, you must identify a Sponsor or a “champion” from the ranks of the executive team.  The Sponsor will be similar to the captain of a ship.  You will work with this person to define the destination and ensure the “ship” (the Agile transformation effort) is on the right course.  The sponsor will keep the larger executive team up-to-date on a regular basis.

In order to identify a Sponsor, you’ll want to find someone that is involved in several high-profile, important initiatives within the company.  You’ll want someone who is approachable and understands the importance of relationship building.  You’ll also want someone who is familiar with, and has influence over, gaining the funding you need to make the transformation.  Finally, you’ll want someone who identifies the fact that the transformation you seek won’t happen without training the folks involved in the transformation and is willing to throw his / her support behind an Agile education initiative.  Your Sponsor will be tasked with selling the need for proper training for both the teams executing the Agile practice and the executives consuming the Agile product.

Your Sponsor will be the organization’s representative for the transformation effort.  You’ll want to work with this person to establish tenets of the transformation vision and clearly articulate why the organization is undertaking the initiative.  The development of “talking points” and “elevator speeches” will be critical to effectively allay concerns of folks involved with, and affected by, the initiative.

The Sponsor will be the person that removes the “roadblocks” encountered during your journey.  For this reason, it’s important to select a person who is comfortable with people at all levels of the organization.  The Agile transformation team must be comfortable with sharing honest and open feedback with the Sponsor and requesting his or her assistance in accomplishing their objectives.  Like any good leader, your Sponsor must possess active listening and follow-through skills in order for team members to feel heard.  The Sponsor does not have to be a “technical” person but they should have a firm grasp of the delivery process.  The Sponsor should be universally regarded as a leader throughout the organization and someone who has the influence, not necessarily the power, to get things done.

Lastly, it’s critical that the Sponsor have a firm grasp of the “big picture” and understand the cultural mindset shift that must occur.  Prior organizational rewards mechanisms may need to be changed in order to properly incentivize people to make the changes necessary.  It will be important to measure the transformation effort against established success criteria and publish successes, or setbacks, as required via development of necessary publication materials.  Open recognition and publication of successes is critical to boosting team morale and enforcing the change that you need in order of the transformation effort to be successful.