At Excella, we’ve helped a wide variety of clients get the most out of their Agile adoption. It’s never easy, but as long as you stay true to a few core values and principles, you can achieve transformative outcomes. We know that’s not always possible, and in the spirit of celebrating epic failure, we wanted to highlight the 5 things you should definitely do if you want to sabotage your Agile transformation.
Don’t Establish your Vision for Agility
Agile thrives in generative cultures where information flows freely, alignment is fostered by shared vision, and people derive inspiration from their organization’s mission. Effective Agile transformations harness this energy. A vision that explains why you’re adopting Agile, what you hope to achieve with it, and how it will positively impact your colleagues is essential for the kind of empowered, decentralized decision-making that Agile capitalizes upon.
Organizations that don’t establish a vision for their Agile adoption will suffer from wasted effort. Different teams and individuals will use agility to achieve their own, narrowly defined objectives, optimizing for their own performance instead of aligning to the organization’s goals. This local optimization will lead to competing definitions of success, limiting the effectiveness of your Agile adoption and undermining the chances of an effective transformation. From there, you have two choices, a second, more determined attempt to transform or an abandonment of Agile altogether.
Tell your Teams What to Do and How
The fastest way to demotivate a highly skilled group of people is to prevent them from using their critical-thinking skills. You’ve hired smart, talented, and creative people. Agile is designed to allow you to unleash their creativity and reap the rewards! But that’s only possible if you stop micromanaging them. Give them the necessary context to make decisions and stop making decisions for them. The result will be faster and better decisions, informed by your goals and objectives.
It’s obvious that decisions can be made faster when they’re decentralized because there’s no need to relay information up and down the hierarchy. What’s less obvious is that when decisions are decentralized, they’re also better. Your team members are closest to the problems; they have the latest information. If you give them the right context, they can rapidly choose the best path. General Stanley McChrystal explains this dynamic well in his book Team of Teams. He created a network of empowered teams and instilled them with a bias toward action that allowed the Joint Special Operations Task Force to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq. It worked for his organization and it will work in yours. But definitely don’t try this if you want your Agile Transformation to fail.
Don’t Break Down Silos between “Management” and “Workers”
Over a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management. Although very well-intentioned, Taylor introduced an explicit boundary between “management”—who decided how work ought to be done—and “workers”—who actually did the work. This boundary is still with us today and it prevents many organizations from effectively harnessing the creativity and initiative of their employees. Your workers make essential decisions every day and have the best understanding of how the business is functioning; Agile organizations understand this and make use of it by inviting their workers to use their knowledge to improve work products and processes. This blurs the line between “management” and “workers” for the benefit of all.
Many organizations that embark on an Agile transformation fail to recognize the importance of this shift. They maintain a traditional attitude by insisting that Agile is “just for development teams” or “not for leadership.” This reinforces existing silos, undermines morale and motivation, and prevents organizations from harnessing the creativity of their employees. If you want to limit the success of your Agile adoption, then maintaining the silos between “management” and “workers” is a great idea. It’s a common choice in organizations that care more about appearances than real value.
Ignore Organizational Impediments
Ignoring impediments is one of the fastest ways to ensure your transformation will fail. Agile is not a cure all. Agile will uncover problems quickly, but it is up to you to take action to address those problems and remove impediments that hinder forward progress. Agile teams tend to uncover impediments every day; they’ll take care of those that are within their sphere of control and escalate those that require higher level action. If you’re a leader, the ones that get escalated are important to focus on.
Organizations operate within a set of boundary conditions, or constraints, defined by their policies. Effective Agile implementations adjust these policies to allow teams to have a clear “line of sight” to the value they provide to customers and stakeholders. Impediments tend to arise from established policies that obscure that line of sight. When your colleagues say things like, “that’s the way things are,” “that’s impossible to change,” or “that’s just how we do business” they’re highlighting impediments that get in their way; leaders should be working to remove them by changing policies, adjusting constraints, and improving the flow of value. Unless, of course, they’re looking for an epic failure.
Try to Keep your Existing Culture
If you ignore the cultural aspect of your Agile transformation, at best you will become Agile in name only. Shifting to a more generative culture, where information flows more freely, and people are inspired by the work that they do, is an essential part of an effective Agile adoption. One way to begin to make the shift is to deliberately foster psychological safety.
Psychological safety is an essential part of organizational learning and peak performance. In her recent book, The Fearless Organization, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson shares her extensive research on the subject. She defines psychological safety as “a belief that neither the formal nor informal consequences of interpersonal risks, like asking for help or admitting a failure, will be punitive.” Psychological safety is similar to trust but goes beyond it. It is an atmosphere that allows the free flow of ideas so that collective knowledge increases, and organizational learning accelerates. Leaders play an essential role in creating psychological safety because they set the standards of behavior and performance; they create the environment within which psychological safety will flourish or wither. If you want your Agile transformation to fail, be sure to stamp out psychological safety wherever you see it.
To truly transform and reap the benefits of Agile, an organization must undergo a series of important shifts. Agile transformation requires changes in organizational policies and culture. It requires changes in relationships between managers and workers, leaders and teams, and executives and their staffs. There are many paths to an effective transformation. There are also many ways to botch it; in this post, we’ve tried to highlight a few of the critical mistakes you can make as well as reasons you’ll want to avoid them… unless you want to fail epically.