How to Create an Agile Organization: 7 Steps to Building Agility
From the 5 stages of grief to the 8 steps to change, there’s a plethora of stage-by-stage transformation plans. Admittedly, many can seem superficial, but others have been thought through and tested with several organizations. Emergn has worked with a great many companies trying to introduce or spread the adoption of Agile ways of working. Agile often requires changes far beyond the development process or teams, and without preparation the efforts falter and stumble. Inspired by the work of several leading thinkers as well as by our own experience, we’ve formulated our own seven key steps to creating an Agile organization.
Step 1: Answer the question ‘why?’
Do you have a compelling reason for why you want to change?
Transformation is not easy. Why bother at all if there’s not a compelling reason? It’s your job to establish what that reason is (ideas and concerns that everyone recognizes, and of which they can understand the importance).
Of course, the needs and circumstances of your organization are unique. Only you can really appreciate what is required, but at Emergn we look at three main themes as a starting point: Value, Flow and Quality.
- What value do you need to capture or improve?
- What opportunities have you missed?
- What have your competitors done that you wish you had instead?
- What’s happening in the market that worries or excites you?
- Are there opportunities or needs for operational efficiencies and mergers that could reduce costs?
- Do you feel you’re working on the right things? Are the ideas, needs and wishes of customers and employees captured and acted upon?
- How long do projects take to complete? Do you wish you could go faster?
- Is it easy to change direction?
- Are your teams and people motivated; do you find it easy to attract and retain talent?
- Can you take on more projects or scale up when required?
- Do you know where or if waste exists within your process and is there an active plan to remove or reduce it?
- Do different parts of the organization work well together, or are their problems through miscommunication and conflicting priorities?
- Do you have full visibility of the work in your organization and feel confident about when it will be completed?
- Are there elements of your product or service that customers don’t like or want to see changed?
- Are you meeting all of your customers needs as they wish? Are there elements of your products that customers do not use or for which they prefer competitors?
- What technical or engineering concerns do you have?
- Are problems or complaints resolved swiftly?
- How often does the organization review and improve processes?
This process can generate a lot of ideas. These will need to be whittled down to a core set of themes and ideas that can help galvanize people rather than scaring them. Asking what’s wrong can seem depressing because it feels as if everything needs improving. Refrain from it becoming a doom and gloom session, and focus on the top 3-5 things that would make a big difference.
Step 2: Define who will get you there and build a team
It sounds obvious, but this is often where an Agile organization stumbles, before it has even fully begun. Often leaders create teams of people who are keen to change – but who lack real power and real resources.
To succeed, a team must be a real working group with proper time to devote to change, rather than a ‘steering committee’ who meet once a quarter for lunch. The team will achieve little if the ‘Agile’ element is merely added on top of their existing jobs. Proper time and space must be devoted to this, which means freeing individuals from existing commitments. Several levels of the Agile organization should be represented – those who already exert significant power and influence, as well as those with energy and ambition. The relevant expertise from different areas of the business should be gathered together. Be sure not to limit the team only to enthusiasts. One of the best ways to break down barriers is to include people who have the capacity to say no, but whose involvement will help convert them into saying yes.
Within an Agile organization, the challenge is that the team also needs to remain small enough to be truly effective as a working unit – between 5-7 people. Create a long list and then begin the process of selection. Since you need team members to devote time, a good question to ask is: who can be spared from other urgent work?
It’s important that you give the team sufficient resources, including money and time, if they are to make a difference. Perhaps the most effective way to build trust and a shared commitment is to begin working together – normally on step 3.
Step 3: Develop a shared vision that inspires others
Teams need a compelling, achievable goal. The goal must have a sense of urgency as well as being meaningful – something that really matters to the organization and to the team. It must also be within the realms of possibility that the team can succeed – ‘solve world conflict’ is not inspiring because teams know it is beyond their capabilities.
All goals must be mapped back to the required business outcomes that you identified in Step 1. If you identified the need as ‘to go faster’, then the team would start investigating the full breadth of that, examining areas for improvement in speed in order to identify meaningful goals and investigate practices which might help. That’s why it’s also important to make clear where the team’s boundaries lie. Most speed gains are made not in the software engineering part of the process, but at ‘the fuzzy front end’ or in testing and integration – if you exclude such areas from the team’s remit then your results will be equally limited.
Step 4: Tell everyone about it, listen and check for understanding
You wouldn’t have begun this work if the problems you identified in Step 1 were not crucial. Communicating that urgency is important if you want people to agree to change, but this is a two-way process. You need to listen and adapt your ideas depending on the input of others. Not only does this mean people are more likely to accept the need to change, but you will also gain many valuable ideas and avoid potential blocks through the dialogue.
To make this a real consultation and not an ‘exercise’, you need to show that you are accepting ideas. Rather than having your vision neatly typed up, try talking it through and then writing a new version as the discussion occurs with each group. Keep it hand-written – the lack of formality will encourage people to feel they can make changes. Make it clear the project is not a one-off, and follow this up by reviewing the statement frequently as part of the change process. You’re looking for a strong, simple message founded absolutely on truth. This is not an advert, but there’s no reason not to involve people creatively – helping to create metaphors, analogies or even creating the vision as a poster or newspaper headline. Try some of the games from innovationgame.com.
Don’t forget that this step also includes communicating results. Our example was about speed – in this case you would want to make current lead times visible, and update with new results as lead times reduce.
Step 5: Remove barriers and support the supporters
Transformations often stumble because in a system-wide approach there will undoubtedly be one or more structural elements which act as blocks. These often feel immovable and are notoriously slow to change. Organizational structures exist for good reasons – and yet they are stopping any progress.
It might be the test development environment, often a constrained resource, which is delaying releases. It might be the approval process itself, slowing down decisions so that projects take months to get off the ground. It might occasionally be people – managers whose habits and incentives pull in the opposite direction. Making changes to these is difficult: the constraint is unlikely to be removed easily; governance is unlikely to be rejected; confrontations can be very painful and may not work.
The key is to bring those who want something together with those who can do something about it. Give the team access to key decision-makers – both the internal board, but also customers. The ideal is to have a real customer as part of the team. This helps to clearly set the priority, allowing the rest of the organization to align behind it. It’s important to ensure that individual incentives and KPIs are not pulling in opposing directions – this kind of conflict will undermine any attempts to optimize the whole.
Step 6: Deliver value with immediate, tangible wins
There are several different benefits to setting achievable objectives for small increments in the short term. Never underestimate the extent to which success breeds success. Early wins create a positive atmosphere which should generate further support from senior management and buy-in from the rest of the organization. Even a simple objective – set up the new home page – makes ideas and concepts visible and concrete, allowing people to provide better quality feedback. It also provides a sense of urgency – from a vaguely worded and grandiose ‘transformation’, the team drill down to immediate goals that will be examined within days – gain a new customer; sign up 10 people to trial the prototype; deliver a single feature.
The objectives are specific to your business and industry, but these should be small and clear. Think at the micro level – what could we do this week; what improvement can be made immediately?
It also provides the usual advantages of incremental delivery – you benefit from any improvements straight away and for a longer time. Even if the whole project should collapse, you will still have those initial benefits (and any associated learning). One of the best examples of this is the World Bank’s project to raise productivity in small and medium-sized farms in Nigeria. Progress on the 5 year project was slow, until three small teams ran pilot projects. Along with all the advantages listed above (learning, motivation and greater buy-in), it also meant that by the end of year 1 of the project, the pilot farmers were producing more. Just 100 farmers producing at the higher level at the end of year 1 was worth 400 doing the same at the end of year 5.
Step 7: Establish the learning
Quick wins are not primarily about generating support, although they often do. They are opportunities to evaluate your course. Within an Agile organization, real projects with real results (increasing value, flow or quality) are the most valuable feedback to help you frame future decisions. A change project which only trumpets successes and hides failures is not encouraging risk-taking, it is stifling it – and putting more blocks in the path of true change.
We want to cut failures and reinvest in winners. If something is not working, don’t simply continue with it, try to find out why not and then make changes accordingly. If there are too many factors to determine which is the problem, then it’s a sign that you’re not making your increments small enough – try to take even smaller steps until you can establish which elements work and which don’t.
Other employees who see learning truly embraced are often more likely to embrace it themselves. It also gives more people a sense of ownership, a chance to set up projects for themselves at a lower risk (if it fails no-one is going to shout at them for not doing it right). This in turn embeds the principles more thoroughly throughout the Agile organization.
You know how to create an agile organization – Now what?
Get started building an Agile organization. And keep moving towards the goal.