Agile for Transformations: The Complete Guide

agile for transformations - geometry chalkboard
Posted by Nathan Gampel in Expert Insights, Future of Work on Jan 25th, 2019 08:08 CST

These days, it seems like everyone is undertaking a business transformation. Whether it’s about reorganizing to be more competitive, deepening customer connections, or simply not having an option not to change, executives are obsessed with transformation … and that’s a good thing.

Identifying an opportunity to transform your business is only the beginning, however. To prepare for a business transformation—and attain meaningful results—you must focus not just on completing the program but also on how you transform. Winning organizations have recognized that implementing a successful transformation is different than executing a new business strategy, and it requires a different approach.

In particular, many companies are looking beyond the classic tools of project management, change management, and future state design to techniques that are commonly used in software development, like Agile development.

Proponents of the Agile Methodology say it fosters closer alignment between workers and end users. Agile enthusiasts also boast that the methodology fosters greater independence and ownership among teams, which in turn leads to improved predictability and planning.

And Agile offers a unique opportunity to redesign how work gets done both during and after transformations. By leveraging Agile, my consulting practice has delivered complicated transformational programs more predictably and cost-effectively. We have also helped clients lay a foundation for moving towards an on-demand talent model and creating a more agile organization.

So how do you start employing Agile techniques during transformational initiatives? In a recent white paper, I introduced a methodology I call “Agile for Transformations” that details how leading organizations can use Agile techniques to foster change and deliver transformational programs faster and more cost-effectively.

Below, I’ll summarize the paper—and outline when Agile techniques are appropriate, how to introduce it into your organization, and how to tailor it to your specific needs and timing. To see a complete copy, get in touch.

What’s Unique About Transformations

A business transformation is about changing how your organization operates. To succeed, you must develop an approach that reflects your goals and encourages organization learning and culture development throughout. You must also make sure that your organization is ready to transform. This is particularly true with digital transformations, where focusing on new technologies often causes people to lose sight of business goals—and transformations become more about integrating new systems than driving meaningful change.

To solve for this, make sure your transformation is:

  1. Sponsored by management. Are leadership and key stakeholders aligned on the goals, objectives and expected outcomes of the effort?
  2. Adequately resourced. Do you have subject matter experts—whether internal or external to the company—who can participate without harming business as usual?
  3. Adequately funded . Transformations typically require a heavy investment of time, money, and resources. Is your organization prepared for this expense? Are you prepared to see it through? Does the cost of the transformation outweigh the risk of doing nothing?
  4. Quantifiable. Can you articulate the benefit you expect from the transformation? Are your stakeholders aligned on that benefit, and can you express it with meaningful metrics?
  5. A departure from business as usual. Transformations are different and disruptive. They require more thought around change, investment, and staffing than typical programs do. They also require you to make a clear-eyed assessment of whether your organization is truly ready. Will people accept the change, or will they revert to tried and true methods when the going gets tough? Can you articulate what’s in it for them?

By revisiting these questions throughout your transformation, you can continuously reorient the program towards its goals and help achieve your vision for the future.

Why Agile?

Before Agile became one of the business world’s biggest buzzwords, it referred to a methodology for developing software. Centered around an iterative, team-based approach, Agile replaced detailed requirements with terse, user-defined stories organized in a hierarchical structure. These stories are planned in a product backlog, and development occurs in fast-moving cycles known as sprints. At the end of each sprint, the team demonstrates the value and usability of the work they’ve produced.

Among the documented benefits of using Agile are improved productivity, visibility, and business/product alignment. On transformations, Agile also improves predictability, accountability, motivation, communication, and alignment with stakeholders and customers.

But the push for Agile doesn’t end there. Increasingly, it has also become a key delivery success factor for Digital Transformations, as leaders recognize that continuous delivery with end users and closer business/product alignment are key factors for success. And some business leaders have looked to Agile principles as they attempt to make entire organizations more flexible in the face of change. These factors are core drivers for the broader adoption of Agile outside of software development—and a key reason to consider using Agile during transformational initiatives.

Of course, moving to Agile is not without challenges—first among them, knowing when and how to implement Agile so you get the most out of it.

Using Agile For Transformations: Knowing When

Using Agile for transformations starts with understanding how transformational initiatives unfold. To do this, we posit the model below, which is grounded in Lewin’s seminal change theory and illustrates the fluid nature of transformations, where each phase may present in different ways as things progress.

agile for transformations - knowing when

Ready. The Ready phase is all about clarifying goals and aligning leadership.
Change. The Change phase concerns planning and actually doing work. This is where the use of methodologies, such as Agile and feedback loops, comes in to play.
Refreeze. Refreeze is about recognizing when it’s time to begin shifting to business as usual—and complete the move from a transformational initiative to the future state.

Transformation Leads sit at the center of all this. If they can guide your transformation through these shifts, they will be able to foster the emergence of a new operating culture organically rather than forcing it via a standard change and culture program, as is so often the case.

So when should you introduce Agile? Here are a few times it may make sense:

  1. You are in the change phase. Agile will help keep your team engaged, productive, and accountable for all deliverables.
  2. Requirements are ambiguous. Agile is a great way to smash through comments like “I have no idea where to start” or “this project is so big and there is so much detail that we don’t know how to make a decision.”
  3. Team resources are rapidly shifting. Agile can help teams stay focused when resources or needs are in flux and the need for communication and openness is at a peak. Responding to this symptom with Agile is fundamental to designing the on-demand staffing model.
  4. You have or can get a strong Product Owner and Scrum Master. Agile will not work without a strong leader and Scrum Master to oversee the effort. If you don’t have the right resources or can’t get them, then don’t do it.
  5. The team is falling behind and you need a new approach. Agile can also be used as a mechanism to jumpstart a flagging team that has run out of gas. I’ve used the intervention effectively on carve-outs, stand-ups of centers of excellence, and multiple forced transformations (responses to regulation).

Using Agile For Transformations: Understanding How

Once you’ve determined that the time is right to use Agile, we recommend a 5-step implementation process we call the ATTAC method. Here’s how it works.

  1. Align. Start by aligning your leadership and your team about the use of Agile. Making changes in any program’s operations can be challenging, and even more so when adopting Agile. Preparing the team for this change is therefore critical for success.
  2. Team Design. Team Design is about ensuring that you have the right resources available and can design a governance structure that enables your Agile and non-Agile teams to continuously coordinate their work.
  3. Team Planning. Team Planning is where Agile delivery begins. Collectively, the team maps the project and constructs a backlog that’s broken into tasks and a sprint plan. This phase is where the benefits of Agile methods will start to accrue—and the breakdowns. Team members must change how they think about work. It is therefore incumbent upon the transformation lead to work closely with the Product Owner to properly identify the places where Agile is appropriate. It is also the lead’s responsibility to ensure there is a master, integrated project plan that brings Agile and non-Agile work together in a seamless, integrated fashion.
  4. Assemble. During the Assemble portion, the team works through their sprint cycles to deliver valuable work products. You’ll leverage Agile’s work breakdown structure and its definition of “Done.” You’ll also need to monitor closely for fatigue and dissention. Teams that are unaccustomed to Agile will quickly burn out and turn on the transformation lead. Balancing delivery with sensitivity to the team’s morale are important considerations for when to pull back.

    Evangelists will tell you that Agile is something that gets better with practice, and it is up to the lead to ensure this is the case. As the Transformation Lead, Product Owner, and team work together and begin delivering, a new culture will form, and new modes of thinking will be established. If fostered, this will contribute to new operating cultures once the transformation initiative ends.

  5. Continuous Delivery. The final part of implementation is Continuous Delivery. This is one of the core benefits of Agile, since it enables users to interact frequently with completed pieces of work. If you do this properly, it will clarify open questions and limit integration risks. It will also help team members who have to live within the new future-state environment gain comfort with the result—and lay the groundwork for the ongoing use of Agile in the company’s future state.

    Your transformation lead should work to manage this feedback loop. As the iterative delivery unfolds, she or he must constantly monitor the situation and foster dialogue so the change sticks and a new culture emerges.

If done right, savings can be substantial. Imagine completing a transformation for one-third of the traditional cost and reducing ongoing costs and operational risk? We have seen this in our practice and believe the trend will continue as more organizations look to methodologies like Agile for transformations.

Building an Agile Workforce

The Agile methodology is all about empowering development teams to make fast, intelligent decisions about where to go next. By deploying so-called big-A Agile, you can start to build a more broadly agile organization, matching the right talent to the right challenges and opportunities, becoming more receptive to change as it occurs, and maintaining predictability in the outcome.

The growth of the gig economy enables us to take this a step further by disrupting traditional talent management norms, both during a transformation and after it. Agile teams need access to the right resources at the right time—internal and external. By leveraging a mix of contractors, managed services, and big firms, companies have a unique opportunity to create a more efficient and economical solution to staffing.

New Agile HR Technologies like flexible employee benefits and human cloud models are helping to make the notion of on-demand staffing even more of a reality. When used together with the right governance and operating model, they provide a powerful mix that supports implementation of on demand staffing.

Agile represents a shift in mindset, and the promising results it has yielded will only grow as companies become more adept at applying its principles to other areas of work. Through a structured approach, transformation leads have an opportunity to bring the benefits of Agile to enterprise-wide change initiatives. Results include faster, more effective, and more cost-effective delivery. More importantly, Agile helps facilitate a closeness and a culture that will permeate the new organization once the program ends and business-as-usual begins.

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This article was condensed and edited from a draft by Simpel and Associates, LLC.


Nathan Gampel

Nathan Gampel

Nathan Gampel is an experienced management consultant who helps organizations realize change in record time. He has led transformational initiatives at some of the largest companies in the world; his areas of expertise include operating model design, program leadership, and digital technology.

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