Why Agile Transformations Can Fail: Sense of Urgency

At Polaris Solutions, we work with a number of customers that are looking to become more agile in their software development practices. We often help them move in that direction through adoption of new practices, tools, and roles within their organizations. Scale (the number of people/teams affected) and Scope (the degree of change involved) are the two largest variables that go into planning such a change. The bigger the scope and scale together tend to require more effort in order to ensure that the change will be successful and our customers will realize more value. In order to be successful at agile transformations you need more than agile knowledge and experience, you need to be experienced at managing change.

Over the years, as we’ve been involved in numerous transformations, we’ve noticed several patterns for success and many anti-patterns. In this post, which is the first in a series of posts that I will write, I want to deal with one common way that these efforts can go sideways or fail: Not establishing any sense of urgency.

The first question to ask – is why the transformation is needed? Is it actually an urgent need? Does your team or organization feel compelled to change now or is continuing standard operating practices considered generally acceptable? Before a team or organization is going to change, they will need to recognize the pain of not moving. It has been suggested that human beings change behavior only in response to pain (either emotional or physical), therefore, the greater the actual perceived or actual pain, the more the higher motivation to fix it. This is true for agile transformations as well.

Providing strong focus and investment in “the case” for an agile transformation in the enterprise will pay off many times over. The following are some suggestions to ensure that a transformation gets off to right foot that we’ve gathered from our experiences:

  • Ensure Awareness – I’ve seen too many organizations hope to enact change after 2 weeks of training and never talking again about agile. There are many degrees of education and experiences you can provide a team to illustrate the value of moving to agile. Giving awareness and knowledge can help make the case for agile as it largely makes sense to most team members. “Early and often” is a good rule of thumb when communicating in larger organizations.
  • Identify Champions and Hold
    Outs – The United States military would like to ensure that it has overwhelming force when engaging in battles, and you should as well when endeavoring to change a company’s culture towards agile. You have friends and allies that can be helpful – do not try to lead a change like this by yourself.
  • What Will Happen if We Don’t Change – Answer that question for yourself and for your team or organization. Perhaps the answer to this is “quality issues are causing us loss in customers or contracts.” You can use a combination of logic and reason and emotion to communicate this concept, but I have found that if it can be tied back to metrics and numbers – most people will understand and align with you.

None of these items really have to do with technology or agile in particular, but the people in our industry that help lead these changes need to consider these concepts if their engagements are to be successful.

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