Agile transformation experiences

On 22 and 23 September the first Agile Get-Together glocal agile conference, organised by Sprint Consulting and UST took place in Budapest and thanks to online streaming, worldwide as well. The main sponsor of the event was Morgan Stanley. The conference provided a valuable overview of the state of agile transformations in general, highlighting the similarities and overlaps between the unique challenges faced by organisations in significantly different domains, and the overall state of agility in the market. In order to get the most complete picture, the above themes were explored from three different angles: we could hear case studies from the speakers of participating organisations (Lufthansa Systems Hungária, ExxonMobil Hungary, John Deere, SmartBear, Morgan Stanley, thyssenKrupp Components Technology Hungary), with their own organisation’s experiences, we could hear anonymised case studies from external consultancies (Sprint Consulting, UST), and several talks dealt with general experiences and trends synthesised from the experiences of numerous transformations from the last few years (Sprint Consulting). Three key observations from the presentations are presented.

Strategic planning involving all levels of the organisation

It is almost a stock phrase that an Agile transformation cannot be either top-down or bottom-up. A top-down implementation without the support of the lower levels of the organisation is doomed to fail, because the lower level colleagues will have only one goal: to find the acceptable minimum to meet, in order to be able to pretend to their management that they are now Agile. The changes will therefore be merely superficial, and no progress can be expected in solving the root causes and problems that necessitated the transformation. The only exception is when the management’s objective in implementing the transformation was pure marketing: unfortunately, we have seen quite many cases where market pressures from the client side have given rise to a desire for presenting agility. In such cases, management is not aiming for a true Agile transformation either, they will be perfectly happy with mimicking some of the ceremonies, with the Agile buzzword appearing in their promotional materials and on their website. Of course, this path is only viable until the client side becomes sophisticated and experienced enough to distinguish suppliers with true Agile values and an Agile mindset from the marketing-agile organisations described above.
(You can read more about what agile really means on our blog.)

The failure of bottom-up transformations is guaranteed because of the strong limitation on the changes that can be implemented: in a traditional, rigidly structured organisation with a traditional project approach, although small results can be achieved by low-level, locally introduced changes, their value is likely to be dwarfed by the frustration caused by the impossibility of real change (e.g. involving the customer side, rethinking contractual terms, removing barriers to progress, etc.).

It has long been known that one key to the success of Agile transformations is to create a demand for change throughout the organisation, at all levels. It is also known that to make the results of organisational development sustainable, all the stakeholders in the organisation must be involved in the transformation process.

In his presentation Bringing Agility to Strategy, Jeev Chugh (UST, UK) pointed out why it is important that transformation not only guarantees shared buy-in, a common need for improvement and continuous collaboration, but also that the definition of organisational strategic goals is done with the participation of all levels of the organisation.

Jeev used the OKR – Objective / Key Results technique from Google to take an Agile approach to corporate strategy in an organisation that was anonymised during the presentation. The technique in short: after defining the main strategic goals (Objectives) of the organisation, it selects, for a predefined period (e.g. quarterly), the measurable, quantifiable results (Key results) that are set as the goals of the respective unit / department / team or even person during the period in order to help the organisation achieve the corresponding Objective. These targets will ensure that the focus of the organisation’s efforts will be synchronised with the strategic objectives, not taken away by exciting, attractive tasks that are in fact of no value to the organisation. In Jeev’s experience, the key to successful strategic planning is that the OKRs are not just top-down, but that they are informed by the knowledge and experience of the lower levels. It is easy to see the usefulness of this: colleagues with the deepest practical knowledge of products, at the lower, execution level of the hierarchy in traditional organisational structures, can uncover many opportunities for the product that are not available, not identifiable at higher levels.

The importance of making strategic planning more organisational is another argument against rigid organisational structures and in favour of promoting formal and informal, position-independent communication channels, which are important in agility.

Letting go of rigid structures requires a new leadership approach and mindset. Read more about agile leadership competencies in our blog article.


The transformation can never end

Consulting firms, including us of course, have long stressed that an Agile transformation is not a finite process, and maintaining the new organisational values and mindset developed during it requires continuous attention amongst the personal, market, business etc. changes the organisation faces. This does not mean, of course, that organisations undertaking Agile transformation are forever dependent on external consultants; indeed, one of the hallmarks of a decent consultant is that they see it as an important task to educate the organisation to be self-reliant, to shape and train the internal team responsible for sustaining the transformation.

Joining the conference from Brazil, Gabriel Jank, a key member of John Deere’s local transformation team, thought it important to emphasise this message not as an external consultant, but as an internal member of the organisation, an employee. Their transformation starts with a 90-day incubation period for each team, during which they carry out the basic steps of the implementation, but after this period the team has access to internal consultants who work as a team to ensure that the progress made is maintained and progress continues.

What does not develop, declines, to quote the famous saying. But progress is not free, it cannot just happen in stolen time, it requires dedicated, focused individuals who have insight, access to the whole organisation and are available to all members of the organisation.

Disrupt the system

Gábor Erényi (Sprint Consulting, Hungary), in his provocative presentation titled You don’t need an Agile Transformation, pointed out that organisations that have not yet undergone a single Agile transformation seem to be hard to find nowadays. Consultants often arrive at a time when the organisation has already “implemented” agile five, six or seven times. Something is still not working, because if all was well, management would not feel the need to seek external help. However, as a consultant, this role is quite ungrateful, as the organisation is tired of constantly trying and failing, they are lacking faith, lacking willingness. In such a situation, one more transformation is not enough, something else, something more is needed.

Gábor recognises that behind the series of failed implementations, however different each organisation, however different their field or even industry may be, there is a common root cause: previous implementations have been attempted while trying to operate the system peacefully. It is as if the message from management is to change everything, but to do so while keeping everything the same. No wonder the result is exactly that: everything stays the same, or maybe it gets a little worse, because some things have been changed – halfway. Gábor also stressed that agility is a continuous learning process. His advice can be summed up in one sentence: disrupt the system. The most effective way to improve the system is to divert it (in a controlled way, of course) from its usual course, and to deal with the sudden change in the situation, with external help, using the new approach the transformation aims to instil, based on new values and new ways of thinking.

The messages of Jeev Chung and Gábor Erényi were reinforced by Andrea Török (Sprint Consulting, Hungary), in her talk More than an Agile transformation – Organisation design that leads to success. The presentation on Lean Portfolio Management highlighted that successful design, definition and continuously successful decision making of a product portfolio is highly dependent on the interoperability of the organisational structure, the two-way flow of goals and information. As with Agile transformations in general, the introduction of Agile management of the product portfolio cannot be achieved with the undisturbed “peaceful operation” of the system. This shows that one of the keys to a successful transformation is timing.

If you want a real, effective transformation that delivers long-term results, take a look at our solutions.