Agile IT Transformation

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Talking about agile transformation specifically, it’s such a huge topic that I’ve often found myself trying to get my head around how to possibly explain it and where to start.  In terms of my own experience, having successfully transformed two large media companies in the UK, I have found there are 6 broad areas that need to be addressed in order to make a successful transformation to a truly “agile organisation”.

The first is the vision.  Any transformation will always work best when there is a real business imperative.  “If we don’t change, we’re out of business”.  “In order to survive, we need to be more responsive to customer needs and deliver value earlier”.  “In an increasingly competitive marketplace, we need to be quicker to market or we can’t compete”.  I’m sure you get the picture!  It helps enormously if that imperative is clear to everyone, articulated clearly from the very top of the organisation, and broadly bought into by staff.   Of course it’s possible that Agile isn’t the solution, but I’m talking about cases where there is an acknowledged desire to become agile in response to these kinds of challenges.

The next 4 points are things that must all be addressed for a successful transformation:

  • Structure – the organisational structure may need to be changed to set the teams up for success in an agile environment.  Small teams, business aligned, multi disciplined, ideally co-located, product oriented, shared goals, persistent teams, etc.  This might also include changes to the recharge or funding model of the IT organisation.
  • Principles – of course this is the stuff about ‘being agile’, not just ‘doing agile’.  There are the 4 principles of the agile manifesto, the 7 principles of lean, and the 10 key principles of agile I’ve written about on my blog that attempt to extract the key principles underlying all major agile methodologies.
  • Practices – this is obviously the stuff about ‘doing agile’.  There are the most popular methodologies of Scrum, XP and Lean/Kanban, and the set of practices most commonly used by agile teams.
  • Technology – and then there’s the need to invest in technology to support a more flexible, adaptive (agile) environment.  Things like deployment automation, automated tests, CI, and potentially an investment in architecture to make the applications more adaptive in nature.

Underpinning all of this is a need for strong leadership.  The courageous executive.  Leadership to make all this change happen.  And also a completely different style of leadership than we see in most large organisations whose traditional culture is command and control.  This is the stuff Jim Highsmith touches on in his excellent paper ‘Adaptive Leadership‘.

Agile practices may be simple, but no wonder agile transformation is hard, especially if you’re trying to make the change on a large scale and while in flight.  It’s not like changing the wheels of an aircraft while it’s in flight, it’s more like re-engineering the whole thing!