Have you ever found yourself in the role of an agile coach who has to lead an agile transformation within a software company? If yes, you will know what I’m talking about in this post. If not, let me reassure you that this is not a piece of cake. On the contrary, it is one of the most complex cultural changes that you could ever facilitate within a company. Nevertheless, is also a very interesting life experience for all those who are involved, especially if it has a happy end. 🙂
So, if you’re on the dawn of such a transformation project, where do you begin from? Talking to various agile practitioners that were at a certain point involved in introducing agile to a new team, I noticed that there is a strong temptation to look at current practices and processes and to make assumptions about the difficulty of the transition, mainly based on the discrepancies between the agile approach and the current one. But, if you do that, you will very probably get a wrong impression. Because it is not about changing tools and processes, but changing people and their interactions1. Which is difficult. Very difficult. Sometime even impossible. So, how do you that? I have no recipe, of course. I’ll just share my experience and hope that it is useful to you.
I always liked the analogy between agile and a tree. The deep roots are the values, the strong stem is made of principles, the solid branches are the framework and the leaves are the practices that thrive when the entire organism is sound and healthy. Is a refreshing view upon what an agile coach must plant and grow within a company.
Since we’re talking about planting, first you have to make sure that the company management is aware of the complexity of this transformation. They are the soil of the new agile tree. And if the soil is not the right one, if is too rocky (inclined to tough discipline) or too acid (intolerant to mistakes), the tree won’t stand a chance. If you are lucky, the management already got an ideea about the implications when they decided to jump into this change. If not, I would strongly advise you to start from here: prepare the soil by spending as much time as you can talking to the right persons from management. Explain them as clear as you can what are the cultural changes that must occur for this transformation to be successful. Don’t be satisfied with just a complaisant nodding and a friendly hand shaking. Insist on the most hurtful topic: management has to let go on command and control habits. I’m not suggesting you to be rude and pushy to the managers, but to find the right words and the right context to introduce and emphasize the necessity of this very important change: from micro-management to leadership.
The next logical thing would be to get the tree. As a coach you already know how this tree should look like, so why not providing the teams with a fully grown one? All said and done: you just need to introduce the agile tree to the teams. Trainings should start as soon as possible. But there is a question that raises at this point: where should you start from with the first introduction of the agile tree?
The practice I’ve seen around me during the last years suggest that the most important aspect to talk about are the branches of the tree, which are the framework, be it Scrum, XP or Lean development. There’s where the fruits will grow, isn’t it? At the first glance, the mechanics of any Agile methodology are easy to understand and, as a trainer, there is a common trap to believe that introducing these aspects to team members is a huge step forward. It is a step, but — unfortunately — a small one. And the main danger on insisting about the mechanics is that people will get the wrong ideea that agile is just a new set of rules to be carefully followed.
I also assisted to introductory trainings where a huge emphasis was on agile values and principles. This doesn’t worked well either. At a certain point the trainer started to sound like a religious preacher, talking about a idealistic world where everyone is open and transparent, honest and courageous, dedicated and diligent. People became suspicious: is agile the right approach for us? why is this coach so oddly passionate about it? is this some sort of sectarian community that we must join?
So, you need to find the right balance between the two sides of the agile tree: mechanics and mindset. And my best advice is to build this iteratively, not incrementally. Don’t go for the full theory of mechanics, then move to mindset and values. Nor the other way around. Instead let the teams know a little bit about the fundamental values of agile, discuss briefly the principles and explain the basics of mechanics. Later come back on values, make some connections with the topics you already introduced, go deeper with principles and mindset and unveil some of the advanced aspects of the framework.
Every now and then, you should check on the climate around your new agile tree. How is the weather today? What is the forecast? I hope you got it that I’m talking about the HR crowd. Do not forget to have regular chats with them. Because you cannot talk to employees about agile values, when recruitment, hiring, induction and career management are based on different concepts. You cannot grow the agile tree if there is no rain to nourish the roots — performance management should follow and reward the good practice of the agile values and principles. Alignment of HR policy with the agile transformation is not facultative. And it is also important for the credibility of the entire change, because everyone is expecting this kind of consistency in the organization.
So, make no confusion: an agile transformation doesn’t come as a Christmas tree, fully grown and ready to be celebrated. Instead think of this agile tree as if you would plant it in a nursery. Let it grow gradually. Have patience. And make sure that along this journey the agile tree is always healthy.
- Everyone knows this in theory, but many of us forget about it in practice [↩]