Getting Agile to work for your organisation, isn’t easy. We all want the benefits of Agile, but we don’t like the struggles that come with this. After a couple of years discussing ‘Agile ways of working’ and looking from the outside in and experiencing from the inside out, I’m more than ever convinced that it is culture we need to address before we implement Agile as a new way of working. The specialists will shout out: “You’re stating the obvious, dude”. I felt it was needed to be stated once more, and I hope many will keep on stating this! We’re too often still failing to use company culture as leverage for change. “Change does not roll in on wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle”, said Martin Luther King Jr.

You don’t know what you are any more, just know where you’ve been. It doesn’t matter how it all was before, let the present begin … what’s done is done! You need to set your ways. And that is you, You in your future days! (“Done is done”- Millencolin)

Implement Agile only when your leadership is embracing a true mindset of Agility

Employees often copy the behaviour of the leadership, at least if they are to be trusted. It’s like your favourite lead singer of a band. As a kid, you probably have been imitating the stars. Well, if you have a boss who’s good for you and that you can trust, you will probably copy some of his/her behaviour. In the current era of Digitisation, companies strive for enhanced agility but often, they’ll remain groping in the dark. The leadership heard about some benefits of Agile and interpreted it like things as: doing more work with fewer people, faster go-to-market, more value for money, less management because of self-organising teams. Ooh, the type of things senior leadership likes to hear, because it optimises costs and boosts sales. And so, they’ll appoint an expensive consultant to make a plan to change the company overnight. The leadership expects immediate results, and although small miracles happen everyday in the workplace, results don’t live up to their expectations: they simply don’t see the financial impact. Soon they’ll start to blame the consultant although often the leadership is the absentee landlord when needed the most. So it’s about cultivating the soil so it’s ready when you sow the first seeds. It’s about getting the leadership aboard, making sure they fully understand the journey they are about to start and remind them of their responsibility as leader! 

The first thing to do when you start your journey is actually change the mindset of the leadership. They’re vital to make the change happen, vital to boost the evolution towards enhanced agility. They’re the rockstars of the organisation: let them inspire, support, coach and lead! They’ll be the trusted guides along the way during this mind blowing journey.

Don’t simply start the ’transformation’ but relearn the leadership how work ‘works’ today. They need to have an Agile mindset before you can start, otherwise it’ll possibly be all money down the drain. They need to understand that they are key; they are the key people when it comes to nurturing the Agile culture. If they are rockstars, their fans will imitate them. If they are absentee landlords, the people will start talking and create their own environment. Senior leadership will never understand this underlying culture in their company and where it came from, although, they are the ones to blame. Don’t take mindset lightly when you want to move towards more Agility. 

Teams from the ground up

Once you have leadership in place, you can focus on rolling out Agile in the organisation. To make it easy in this article, let’s say Business & IT decide to work in a Scrum way. You might choose for a Scaled Agile framework to support you or you can build your own Agile organisation from the ground up and learn from the dependencies, hiccups and troubles along the way. Nevertheless, I believe you have to define some cornerstones, so it’s clear what type of culture you want to nurture inside your own Agile framework.

(Some) Cornerstones for an Agile Framework:

Installing the Scrum ceremonies, roles and artefacts is something we’re familiar with today. But in my humble opinion, it should come after a bath of inspirational sessions where you slowly start to change the mindset of all the people inside the organisation. The Senior Leadership is able to explain employees why the company is making the change for the better and rock stardom is necessary to inspire people and put them into motion. It truly is a change story! Then you start to install Scrum in the cross-functional teams as way of working. Be aware that you don’t switch your focus from people towards the process, but balance this out! And although the ceremonies should support this balance, it might be a good idea to have a program running to install the true Agile mindset and further nurture the Agile culture inside your company:

Implementing Agile and improve Continuously

From the start, you’ll have to start to measure (subjective and objective). This information is crucial to address continuous improvement. We’re used to improve continuously inside the team, but we also need to improve on a higher and bigger level in order to get an organisation that will get a cadence that reverberates. The outcome of the gathered information can be used to streamline your Kata. Kata, a Japanese word, meaning literally: “form”.

Kata originally were teaching and training methods by which successful combat techniques were preserved and passed on. The goal is to internalize the movements and techniques of a kata so they can be executed and adapted under different circumstances, without thought or hesitation.

Since Agile is an empirical process, you keep on learning from previous iterations. Whilst installing Agile as way of working in teams, I’ve never seen a mature Agile team from the first day they’ve started. Time to meaningfully support teams in every possible way .

“Great things happen to those who don’t stop believing, trying, learning, and being grateful.” -Roy T. Bennett.

So, let’s plan your first KATA based on the information you’ve collected from subjective and objective sources. Rollout training (or workshops) for a more general or a specific topic which is applicable for more than one team. Check the result in the teams after a couple of sprints. Evaluate and Review the result in depth and learn from the result. This approach is scalable, teams can copy this approach in order to improve continuously. The goal is to keep on repeating this, and so install a culture of continuous improvement. Because I firmly believe Continuous Improvement is the true driver for growing the Agile mindset.

Here’s an hypothetical example to make you understand how it works:

Business is complaining about the quality of the product. Scrum Masters indicate that their teams are complaining during the retrospectives about the vague analysis they’ve received so far. Reporting shows a huge impact on the budget because of poor quality, in casu many change requests. On a team level, the teams are rethinking their Definition of Ready/Done and they agreed to ask the Product Owner more questions before accepting a User Story that’s not clear. A Kata is developed about the theme:”user stories with clear acceptance criteria as a baseline for Behaviour Driven Development”. Expert will train analysts and Product Owners during a period in order to deliver better quality and the right amount of information. They learn them about the right kind of availability behaviour in an Agile Context. One of the immediate actions are updated definitions of done for each team. At the end of the Kata you’ve will measure the progress of the ‘poor quality’ and hope to see a decrease of change request. You see a changed behaviour from the team and from the Product Owner.

I don’t necessary say, we’ve done a bad job so far. But we need to be aware that an Agile culture can only grow if you invest in this. Kata give you the opportunity the make change possible and feasible to take in for your people. It gives the opportunity for the leadership to play their supportive role and give them the purpose of actually leading in stead of just standing at the sideline, questioning themselves what the hell is going on. Kata boost peer coaching and a culture of learning. 

Start to cultivate your Agile culture via focus on Continuous learning, Customer Delight and Employee Engagement. Evaluate (subjective reasons) and monitor (objective reasons) constantly the adoption of the Agile Mindset. 

It’s time to step up our game. Like Michael Jordan once said:”Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it”. If the wall today is lacking Agile mindset, don’t run from it, look for ways to make it work for you!