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Got Agile? 8 Steps to Becoming an Agile Company

Why do companies fail to become more agile within their organization? This is the question that Grzegorz Szalajko addresses in his talk, “Making Elephants Agile”, and one that many leaders in business ask themselves regularly. As a Scrum Master working with mid-market IT companies for about 8 years now, I’ve asked myself this question a number of times. Regardless of how well you follow the “rulebook,” it sometimes feels impossible to get agile right.

Grzegorz’s speech cast a new light on my understanding of the agility of an organization and allowed me to formulate a new thesis surrounding agile, which revolved around his statement that:

“The worst implemented and the least agile projects are agile implementation projects in the organization”

Essentially, all young and dynamically developing companies are at the beginning agile, which enables them to grow so fast. When a company is in its early stages, decisions are made quickly, unnecessary documentation is rarely produced, and minimal solutions (MVP) are delivered quickly. This all positively translates into increased team motivation.

Unfortunately, along with growth, a company usually reaches a point where departments start developing redundant and “papery” processes. This tipping point usually occurs when various departments start to depend on each other to produce results. These interdepartmental dependencies can threaten the entire company’s agility. If one department is struggling to make decisions, the rest of the organization will slow down in response.

Increasing agility is a difficult and multithreaded process, and so it’s important to approach the process of change with a plan. When creating your plan of action for implementing agile change within your organization, you can look to John P. Kotter’s 8 steps of transformation that he wrote about in his book Leading Change.

Kotter’s 8-steps are a framework you can use to build your own unique action plan. Below is a summary of the main points to pay close attention to.

Step 1. Create a sense of urgency and importance

Before you begin implementing agile into your organization, you have to answer two very important questions:

  1. What can this agility provide the management team / company?
  2. What problems can this agility solve?

How you answer these core questions will influence how you implement agile methods. These questions will help you identify your goals, which create the urgency you need to drive agility to implementation. These should be clear and actionable goals, like shortening time to market, reducing costs through better MVP definition, etc.

Step 2. Build a coalition of “agile” leaders

Choose your leaders from all departments within the company. Doing so helps you overcome problems when making organizational changes. Building a coalition of leaders that represents all facets of the company will help you disseminate information and educate others within the organization without succumbing to potential pushback from within individual teams. Each leader will bring a different perspective to the overall vision, which will help you create a better agile approach to fit the entire company.

Step 3. Create a vision

Answer the question: What do you want your business and its organization to look like after you implement these changes? This answer will help you shape your vision. Keep in mind that for the vision to be consistent, it should also contain an accurate roadmap. Simply stating where you are now and where you want to be after implementing assumed agility isn’t enough. This is a process of change that will consist of many intermediate organizational states that need to be presented in your roadmap. From there, the vision should be adopted by your coalition of leaders who are open to change and who are aware that once implemented, the company will not be the same. It’s important that you are prepared and ready for the transition before you take your first steps towards it.

Step 4. Gather an army of volunteers

Your army of volunteers shouldn’t consist of those people who have nothing to do and so are delegated to this project by management. Trying to have those who sit on the “bench” tell people who are busy how they should change the way they work will end in failure. Instead, your volunteers should consist of a group of eager individuals who have experience at the company but who have not yet fully submerged themselves in the “status quo.” And remember to set aside a work environment - such as a common meeting place or analog boards - that will allow your army of volunteers to organize and follow the progress of planned tasks

Step 5. Remove all obstacles on the road to agility

When removing obstacles, your coalition of leaders or army of volunteers will come to the rescue. Breaking down these barriers that hinder change may involve seemingly trivial tasks that have a key impact on the entire process. You’ll find that sometimes little is needed to enable beneficial changes. It could be as simple as adding needed tools to help your workflow, such as whiteboards or software.

Step 6. Generate rapid successes

For rapid successes to become possible, you should create conditions that enable fast learning and that support experimentation. Doing so will cause you to of course make mistakes quickly, but you will learn even faster. Remember that experiments have a limited range, so you should look to test new processes at the single team level prior to taking a change department-wide or even global. As you test, you will learn and you should then implement your learnings as widely as possible across the organization. To this end, it is important to maintain transparency, providing adequate knowledge transfer and open learning conditions. You can support this in many ways, including finding a regular time and place for you to openly talk about the positive changes you’ve made thus far and the experiments you may be running right now.

Step 7. Maintain the pace of change

There will come a moment in which everyone will think that everything is working as it should and there is no need for further improvements. In fact, this is a sign that the organization has come to the point where it faces its biggest challenge. All agility artifacts are visible and in-use, i.e. tools such as kanban boards or processes such as daily meetings, but you still need to achieve an agile mentality across all members of the organization. What matters most is that an entire organization is aware of agile’s purpose, knows how to use its methods, and can introduce it to others. If a you have daily standups but someone is still unaware of why you do so, you have not yet successfully implemented agile.

To keep up the pace of change, you should constantly be improving your processes and increasing expectations across the organization. Doing so requires repeated goal setting and evaluation. You should always set the goal of delivering further success within your agile organization, as success is a measure of good implementation.

Step 8. Institute change across the organization

Bringing your agile change to institutionalization will enable further transfer of knowledge about the implementation of changes and the use of tools. Doing so requires a budget to support the maintenance of these tools, i.e. software license fees, whiteboards, etc. It also requires you to document the new process and regulations and then commit to following those new processes and not turning back to the old ways of operating. If you have not succeeded at this last step of institutionalization, you will find that the processes that were followed before the change are formally still in force.

If you are a part of a young but quickly growing company, it’s time to take a closer look at how your processes work right now to consider how this may change into the future. The above 8 steps are a great jumping off point for those attempting to increase the agility in their organization, but they are more like guidelines than actual rules. It’s important to take a look at the unique aspects of your organization and mold these procedures to fit your needs.

If you are looking for more materials on change management, I recommend reading John P. Kotter’s books Leading Change and Our Iceberg Is Melting.

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