This post is a guest post from Abid Hussain. Abid is used to fast moving and dynamic programme environments in Retail, Gaming, and the Airline Industry (with projects delivered in BI, Ecommerce, Financial Services, Marketing, IT). He has extensive delivery experience in Europe, managing both IT and Business change working with stakeholders ranging from board level to technical and product teams. You can find Abid on LinkedIn
Anything other than a perfunctory application of Agile practices requires a major shift in an organisations way of thinking and this requirement invariably leads to the death of a fledgling desire to gain the benefits from the approach. In the majority of cases this is due to a lack of understanding of Agile and the best way to ensure successful adoption of the change.
“Agile is a set of values and principles that try and steer organisations towards greater autonomy within development teams, leading to more timely decision making, the ability to adapt solutions and create valuable products for our customers.”, David Leach, Agile Coach
Most of us involved with delivery will have come across organisations that refer to Agile when they really simply mean agile. Indeed, I believe ‘agile’ to be the most common word to be used in conjunction with air quotes in industry! A key decision point is reached when management realise that:
- Change is required to cultural practices and ways of thinking to develop a lasting culture of trust and autonomy.
- There is initial (as well as ongoing) investment needed in people and establishment of processes
- Existing ‘systems’ or operating processes need to be adapted and perhaps even developed from inception to support the new way of working.
The bottom line is that Agile is proven to work…but only if the framework it is allowed to work in is established and some ground rules agreed. This framework is the culture of an organisation and we all know how easy it is to change that…as easy as turning an oil tanker that’s out of fuel!
BusinessDictionary.com defines Organisational Culture as:
“The values and behaviours that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.”
In more basic terms, and in relation to delivery in particular, organisational delivery culture can be broken down into two aspects, established practices and established mind-sets.
Established practices: For estimation, planning, delivery, control, financial management. The issues in this space boil down to familiarity: whilst it may be acknowledged that something is not working, an innate fear of change will mean that there is reluctance to develop new practices and to adopt them once established. It also requires passionate, evangelical individuals that are prepared to raise their heads above the parapet and shout about the virtues of doing something in a way that is unfamiliar to many people. Sadly, there are just not that many evangelists that are prepared to put up with the constant challenge they would face if they were to take this step!
Change to established methodologies is the easiest to adopt but will only prove successful if it is done so in conjunction with a change in mind-sets. Many of us will have come across an apparent surge in an organisations desire to improve a particular practice by sending people on expensive courses and establishing new, leaner, project administration processes…only for wily old pro’s to adapt existing ways of working to fit into the new model with as little change to their day to day operations as possible.
Established mind-sets: Senior leaders are used to managing information provided in a particular way that allows them to quickly move onto key areas of concern. In many cases, the purse string holders only dip in and out of the delivery cycle and sometimes only during project definition i.e. They have limited time to invest in understanding a new approach therefore they will be inclined to stick with what they know.
The kind of objections that are likely to arise:
- ‘Iterative’ and ‘people centric’? What does that even mean and what is it costing me?
- So you are asking me to be flexible and pragmatic after showing me what looks like a fifth of what needs to be delivered? Already? This doesn’t bode well for the overall project.
- Bioteam, retrospective, Extreme Programming…is Dr Who part of your team by any chance?
- What do you mean there is a new reporting format – where is X, Y, and Z?
- What does all this ‘burn’ stuff tell me?
- Why are you bothering me with an update for the coming/last two weeks only?
- HOW many ‘sprints’ are there?
- What will this approach cost me in comparison to the way we’ve been managing change in the past?
- Tell me again why this way will deliver something faster and cheaper?
Of course, none of these challenges is insurmountable provided the transition is properly managed.
At the risk of stating the obvious, changing mind-sets is the key challenge to managing a transition of any kind and it can only be managed if the leadership are a) prepared to invest time in understanding the new approach b) prepared to allow time for their people to go through the learning curve with the view that they will be much more effective and efficient as time goes on.
Initial Thought and Financial Investment
Anybody can be trained and end up with a certificate that will be filed away never to see the light of day again. The question that needs to be addressed is whether it is the most effective use of money to train someone that is simply unwilling or unable to change their ways of working.
A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management. — W. Edwards Deming
The only way cultural change can be affected is if it is bought into at the top level – as it filters down from the top echelons of an organisation there will be greater acceptance at the lower levels. So, when an organisation is thinking about transitioning towards Agile practices, the first people that need to understand them need to be the key decision makers. In other words, rather than asking newly trained Scrum Masters (or the evangelical consultant brought in to show everyone how its done) to push against the tide and educate upwards the push needs to come the other way if an organisation is serious about the transition.
There are some people that argue for a big bang approach – everything or nothing using Agile practices – others argue that a controlled transition in small steps is the way to go. For example, select a discrete project and push it through Agile practices. Learn, develop, and repeat with either a bigger project or with multiple projects. Having a clear transition plan that, again, is bought into by senior leaders will go someway towards achieving success. It also means that an organisation can be selective about its use of a training/transitioning budget.
Change to Operating Processes
It is one thing to have a finely honed delivery team, supported by a newly converted leadership, and another for the transition to work within an established organisation.
Each operational function needs to be aligned with the new ways of working so that they are embedded in day to day operations.
- Facilities to enable daily stand-ups, teams to sit together. This is a fundamental need of Agile practices and also demonstrates an organisations commitment to development. Having cross functional project teams sitting together will not only benefit the project but will also assist with developing a more open culture.
- Contracts and agreements with suppliers/customers taking into account the iterative nature of deliveries and the responsibilities incumbent on each party. Nothing will be more terminal to the approach more quickly than a misalignment between the customer and the delivery team.
- Billing/payments/budgeting: methods of managing release/use of budgets and alignment to financial processing.
- Processes for requesting new work and educating sponsors about financial management in the new world.
- Resourcing requirements for projects/the pipeline and decisions relating to recruitment of required skillsets. Recruitment of the right individuals that support the new culture is crucial as these are the people that will bring in a fresh perspective and, just by virtue of the fact they are new, be more amenable to accept the new practices as being standard.
- Training and continuous development to reinforce change and protect the evolving culture.
It may be that there is little impact to a wider organisation in many cases. However, organisation wide engagement will support the shift in cultural change as well as assisting with the embedding of the approach. There is nothing like, lets say, the FD asking about the burn rate on a particular sprint to drive home the reality of an approach having been accepted!
Lots of words that say not a lot…there are volumes that exist in relation to cultural change in organisations – just search for ‘Organisational change’ in Amazon- it is difficult to do justice to the field in a short piece like this. The themes, though, will be familiar with people involved in delivery.
- Introduction of Agile practices in an organisation cannot be successful unless it is recognised that the underlying culture of the organisation needs to adapt.
- Success will only be achieved if there is buy in from the senior leadership.
- A proper and reasoned transition needs to take place to affect the change in thinking, touching all aspects of the organisation.