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It’s time to hit the accelerator on Agile transformation.

Agile has been around for nearly two decades, evolving from a niche software development methodology into a way of working that transforms entire organisations. Despite evidence that Agile can radically improve business productivity, and the availability of purpose-built technology, many organisations are holding back on rolling it out across their enterprises.

McKinsey’s recent research showed that the pandemic brought the differences between the ‘digital haves and ‘have nots’ into sharp focus. Organisations who’ve prioritised their digital and Agile transformations responded to the crisis faster and more successfully.  Others are racing to catch up.

For organisations seeking a way to catch up to their competitors, it’s crucial that they take time now to reflect on why their transition to Agile has slowed down (or stalled) and what you can do to move quickly in the right direction.

What causes Agile transformations to happen so slowly?

The reasons for a slow transition generally fall into a few distinct categories.

Our love of deadlines has created divided organisations.

Organisations have long favoured traditional waterfall-style project management techniques and software such as Microsoft Project. Their laser focus on deadlines and tasks – a quality valued highly by senior leadership and managers – is brilliant for keeping staff on track, but fails to manage the more critical components of project success: people, processes and collaboration.  Processes are rarely evaluated or configured into project management tools, teams work in silos, and it’s often only the project manager who guards a single version of the master Gantt chart who has visibility of the entire project.  But these approaches worked, projects were completed, and they became a standard way of working.

Software developers frustrated with these drawbacks of traditional approaches created the Agile methodology, which allowed them to use repeatable processes to create and release updates to their software quickly and more effectively, regularly improve their processes, and work collaboratively. In larger organisations, this resulted in two distinct working styles – one used by the developers and one used by everyone else.

The environment has since changed with tools like Atlassian that make it easy to adopt Agile organisation-wide. However, success is limited by team members who refuse to change while working alongside those who’ve embraced Agile. Their mindset, which a) sees failure as an adverse event, rather than a step towards progress, b) believes ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’, and c) ignores the fact that successful projects rely on effective teamwork, data sharing and visibility, is one of the hardest, yet most essential to change for Agile to be successful.

Organisations underestimate the cultural shift required.

Asking people to shift from a top-down, command and control hierarchy to a system that empowers teams and cross-functional working won’t come without some resistance. However, organisations who place little to no focus (or budget) on culture to address this resistance, find their Agile transformations are slow to materialise. And McKinsey’s research reflects this: the people element – specifically transforming the culture and ways of working – is the biggest challenge that organisations faced when undertaking an Agile transformation.

Agile is as much a mindset as it is a methodology and requires a solid strategy that espouses the value of Agile, led by the executive team and HR, to shift culture and attitudes (such as those mentioned above) and support people in a new way of working.

There is a lack of support from the top.

Experts in Agile, including McKinsey, have frequently reported insufficient executive and financial support (both up front and ongoing), as a significant challenge to achieving a fast transformation. This often stems from a lack of understanding by senior leadership teams of what an end-to-end Agile digital process can deliver which results in the transformation falling to the bottom of the strategic priority list.

Executive support must include a large up-front financial investment and ongoing funding, a public commitment to the value of Agile, and a firm place on the organisation’s list of strategic priorities.

Focus is placed on the wrong things.

Unless the configuration of workflows within your Agile platform accurately reflect your processes, these processes are of high quality, and people understand them, a noticeable transformation won’t happen.

It used to be quite common to employ an ‘enterprise architect’ to map an organisation’s tools and workflows to help with this, but they were often too removed from the processes and rarely talked to the people involved. Organisations ended up with high-level diagrams of networks and servers without any indication of how the integration between tools, people and processes worked in practice.

Conversely, focusing on cementing processes and governance changes over understanding and practising Agile principles can be just as damaging. The very nature of Agile means that processes should be continually changed and improved – but you need to make a start somewhere.

There has been a phased or ad hoc adoption of an enterprise-wide solution.

Phased approaches are a common when executive teams want to see Agile processes and platforms prove themselves in one or two units before committing to an organisation-wide rollout. Alternatively, they may ‘dip a toe in’ because they don’t fully understand or value Agile, so are hesitant to make a financial commitment until they see results. Alternatively, when independent teams choose to adopt Agile on their own, they inadvertently create a patchwork quilt of platforms and processes.

Taking any of these approaches will mean that the benefits of Agile – enhanced collaboration, increased productivity and incredible innovation – will be slow to eventuate.  This is because having one isolated team working more efficiently doesn’t make a massive difference if the teams they work with don’t work at the same pace. For a fast and complete Agile transformation, all teams need to be brought together on one platform with an agreed set of processes.

What are the risks of a slow Agile transformation?

Think about a group of people building a roof: those employing Agile are using the equivalent of a set of power tools, while those working in a traditional way have a hammer and a bag of nails. If your competitors are using Agile (the power tools) and you aren’t, they can innovate and deliver products faster than you, their staff attrition rates will be lower, and their customer service experience will be better than yours.

Unfortunately, the slower your Agile transformation is and the earlier you are in your journey, the harder it can be to catch your competitors and the bigger the financial risks to your business. Furthermore, a slow transformation means you miss out on cost-effective and easy productivity gains.

However, even if you started a decade ago, you’ll have at least one team with tools and support in place, and conversations will have already happened at higher levels. This means you have the foundations in place to speed up your Agile transformation radically.

How to speed up your Agile transformation.

Now really is the to put your foot down and ‘hit the gas’ to move things along. And it isn’t that hard if you follow these steps.

Step 1: Acknowledge that the process has been too slow and find out why.

Bring the executive team together with key stakeholders from each business unit and acknowledge the roadblocks that are slowing you down. These will be different for each organisation, but once these are identified, you create a plan of action to address them.

Step 2: Secure financial support on an executive level.

An up-front investment of time and resources will be needed to speed up your transformation and iron out the challenges you identified in step one. The level of investment required depends on what we call a ‘process debt’ or the level of inefficiency you need to address. Fortunately, you will see ROI as soon as the Agile transformation starts, and those benefits will be ongoing.  We often find that although organisations with the biggest challenges need a significant investment, they often see incredible transformations quite quickly.

Agile isn’t a ‘set and forget’ system, so a budget will also need to be established for ongoing improvements to your platform and processes as your business evolves.

Step 3: Partner with an expert third-party.

If your Agile transformation has been slow, it is unlikely that you have the skills you need in-house. Partnering with an experienced consultancy helps you avoid the ‘It’s not my job’ and ‘I don’t know how’ scenarios.

Digital transformation experts can lead your transformation with insider industry knowledge and skills. Often experts can find inefficiencies and opportunities that people inside the organisation can’t see, which can greatly improve the Agile transformation outcome. You may then want to appoint an in-house Agile specialist to support people in the long term.

Step 4: Focus on changing the culture around ways of working.

Senior staff must communicate the proposed changes to the entire organisation at the same time. After all, an Agile transformation will bring everyone together as one team. The dissolution of silos will be challenging for some, while communication channels’ opening will welcome others’ relief.

The executive team must remain committed to this cultural shift and constantly model and support the behaviours needed to be Agile. It’s vital that they recognise and celebrate each win, big or small, with everyone in the organisation to keep up the momentum.

Involving HR at the outset is critical as they are best placed to identify and implement the role and structural changes that the shift requires. They can also help address skills gaps. In particular, managers and supervisors may require training in Agile to enable them to support their teams in their new way of working.

Step 5: Clean up your existing platforms and processes.

This involves evaluating and consolidating your entire technology set up so that all staff are on the one platform. This can be overwhelming, but removing duplicate licenses and unused software will save you a considerable amount of money.

At the same time, document which critical processes should be configured into your new productivity platform. This is best done by involving your people ‘on the ground’ so that the processes actually reflect the way they need to work and the type of customer experience you want to create. It also helps to think about your staff and customers’ journeys each day when interacting with your business.

Then determine which processes and tasks can be automated. Get these set in stone first, and it will make the rest of the process much easier.

Step 6: Get the right tools in place and begin training.

Choose tooling that suits the way people work and how your customers interact with you. The great thing about Atlassian is that, in addition to the major applications, there are thousands of apps built for almost any task.

Critically, ensure everyone gets sufficient training on the new platform and application. Results will often be slow to show themselves if people don’t know how to use their tools!

Final words

Being able to transform into an Agile organisation is contingent on your ability to change. New tools can’t transform things on their own. Once the cultural foundations are in place and teams have the tooling and process they need – they’ll be able to drive change quickly and safely.

The events of last twelve months’ forced many organisations to fast-forward elements of their digital transformation to safeguard business continuity. In 2021, as organisations learn how to work in an environment that is both recovering and changing simultaneously, it’s time to examine how they work and align ongoing digital transformation with Agile to gives them greater flexibility and competitive advantage.

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