Doing it right

You will encounter some challenges during your Lean/Agile transformation, and you will most probably not do everything right on the first try. Follow the Agile mindset, review your work, look at what you could have done better and improve. Other people have gone this way already, and you can learn from them before embarking on this adventure. One of the best-known names in the context of organisational change is John Kotter. In his book “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”, he describes the pitfalls. Unfortunately, they are very common and you have most probably observed at least some of them at some point in your career. The eight pitfalls are described below and applied to situations we observed at the customers we accompanied during Lean/Agile transformations.

Your employees need to understand that this is not a fun experiment. It is something that is absolutely necessary so your company can continue to be successful.

Something needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. Do not be afraid to tell everyone that the consequences of doing nothing could be catastrophic. People often refuse change as they want to continue doing things like they always have. If they do not feel that something needs to happen, they might come up with reasons why in their specific role Agile will not work, or why right now is not the right moment. Establish a sense of urgency throughout the organisation, so people understand that something needs to happen now.

Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency

You need people who go out there and win your employees. Leaders who understand how 

to excite others for the future. A good leader does not make you follow; he makes you want to  follow.

Without a guiding coalition, your employees might follow the Agile methodology, but still think in silos. This is the homework you have to do before starting this transformation: Who are the leaders within your organisation who can win people over? Who do you want to have on your side?

Not creating a powerful enough guiding coalition

You need to understand the “why” behind your action. It is not about breaking the silos! It is also not about becoming Agile! This is the “what”.

The “why” is that you want to become more innovative, or you want your cost structure to remain competitive, or you want to better adapt to changing markets. Whatever the “why” is, make sure you and your employees understand it. It is easy to forget the vision in the heat of the moment, when everyone is excited about what is coming next. The risk is that people start following Agile for its own sake. They conduct sprint planning meetings, but do not really understand why. Or they think they are doing all this to fulfill some KPIs, which, let us be honest, is not really motivating.

Lacking a vision

Once you have communicated the vision, communicate it again. And then again. Scrum teams often write the product  vision in big letters on the wall of their project office. That is one way of reminding everyone where the journey is going.

Also, make sure everyone understands the vision. Repeat it with different words, through different mediums, until it has been really understood.

Under-communicating the vision

Few things frustrate employees more than being asked to change something but not having the power to do so. So, one very important step in change initiatives is to remove obstacles and empower people.

With Agile teams, empowerment becomes even more important. If you want your teams to work autonomously, you have to give them decision-making power. What we often see is that management has not really internalized the Agile principles and does not accept the team’s decisions, or it interferes in the sprint planning with top-down demands. Obstacles such as  missing know-how and organisational structures need to be removed early. This is where the vision comes into the game: if your employees understood and internalised the “why”, they will be much more resilient against obstacles.

Not removing obstacles to the new vision

Short-term wins are a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you want to keep the momentum alive. You want to feed into the excitement. You also want people to be bold and move fast.

On the other hand, you do not want them to achieve first wins  and think the transformation is done. You also do not want to throw everyone off guard by changing their complete (working) life overnight. Find the right balance. Celebrate short-term wins, but do remind the teams that you are not done yet.

Not systematically planning for and creating short-term wins

So, you have broken the silos, your interdisciplinary teams are already at their third sprint and your company creates value for the customer. You are Agile now.

Well, not quite yet. This is a common misconception. Just because you successfully went through a couple of iterations does not mean that the processes are fully understood, let alone internalised. Agile is a mindset, and it needs time to settle. There is no room for complacency in Agile.

Declaring victory too soon

If you want to anchor the change, you have to repeat in and repeat it until it becomes “the way we do things here”. If the new way of working does not become your new culture, you will observe things slowly moving back to how they used to be.

This is where the cycles, in which everything takes place in an Agile world, come in handy. You repeat the process and repeat it again until you break old habits. Until the employees and the leadership live and breathe Agile. This is perhaps the toughest challenge, but the one that will ensure long-term benefits. However, it may also backfire if done poorly. If things are done  for their own sake, because the methodology says so. If Lean/Agile start to become like a religion. This is when new walls emerge, when things are done because that is how it has  always been done. That is contrary to the very principle of Lean and Agile. Keep teaching your employees why some things are done this way. But also keep questioning what you are doing.

Not anchoring changes in the corporation's culture

ERNI - Swiss Software Engineering

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