How to explain agile to senior execs (and why it’s important you do)

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FACT: Agile methodologies can accelerate transformative business outcomes. At the same time, it can be challenging to explain the approach concept to senior execs. Here we look at how to do it and why you should.

Agile has become something of a dirty word today. While adoption is widespread – 80% of organisations now employ agile methodologies in at least some capacity1 – just one in five of the 3,000 organisations surveyed said that they were “very” satisfied with agile practices within their company. And a fairly large percentage (28%) weren’t happy at all.

So why do we seem to be going sour on agile? 

There’s the inevitable buzz word fatigue. Just like digital transformation, when a term is used constantly – and often incorrectly – it’s natural to get some push-back. That’s when we start seeing discussions about living in a “post-agile” world…as if everyone’s nailed it and it’s time to move on to the Next Big Thing™.

More importantly, senior execs have seen (or heard about) failed agile transformations. They’ve been promised “twice the work in half the time” and a slicker and more efficient tech department and projects may not have delivered. 

It’s true that agile is suffering something of a reputational crisis. But there’s undoubted value in the approach and countless examples where it’s delivered truly transformational outcomes. The key, when talking to senior leadership teams – particularly if they have little practical experience – is to position agile correctly and not to overpromise (then under deliver). 

1State of Agile Report 2022 –

Here are my thoughts:

Focus on the principles, not the processes

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Working software over comprehensive documentation. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Responding to change over following a plan.” I’ve borrowed four tenants from the Agile Manifesto because they provide a vital signpost towards thinking about agile in the right way.

In my experience, the responsibility for leading the discussion around agile within an organisation usually falls upon the CTO. When it comes to explaining agile to their peers, they frequently find themselves needing to do a little demystification, which quickly takes them into very specific mechanics. As a result, rather than focusing on the bigger picture, the agile conversation usually revolves around process.

While that’s not necessarily wrong, it does set the concept up to fail. It makes it very easy for the C-suite to see agile as a set of processes, almost as if there’s a textbook filled with workflows and frameworks that – if followed – will result in guaranteed success. Explaining agile effectively means starting with its cultural implications, not Kanban.

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Agile is an end state not an end date

How long will it take? How much will it cost? Exactly which of our teams will be agile when we’re done? If you’ve ever faced these questions in relation to agile, rest assured that you’re not alone. The tendency to fixate on process isn’t just limited to the actual workings of the agile philosophy, but the structure that surrounds it too.

Whether this is symptomatic of software development or something else entirely, many organisations simply see becoming agile as a project that has a defined end date: “Get people into Scrum training,” they might think, “switch some job titles around, and at some point in the future we’ll have a fully agile workforce”. There’s a reason that so many companies believe that they’ve already “done” agile.

In reality, of course, agile is about achieving a state of continuous improvement, adaptability and flexibility. Moreover, it’s about making space for a mindset that prioritises continuous improvement. Pitching agile in the right way means making sure that people are signed-up for the long haul, not just the next few months. 

Lead with the business outcomes 

When it’s implemented correctly, agile can lead to improved productivity, greater adaptability, and better morale. These are nice to have, of course, but it’s what they can lead to that really matters when explaining agile. Communicating its benefits to the C-suite means dwelling less on what it means for individual teams, and more on what the ability to work smarter means for the company as a whole. 

As author and business guru Simon Sinek suggests, “start with why”. 

At its core, adopting agile methodologies should be a transformative event. Like any other form of transformation, that also means that it needs to be tied to wider objectives – goals like better customer experiences, reduced time to market, service differentiation or cost reductions. Tying agile to those strategic imperatives, and showing how it can deliver very real, high value outcomes is vital.

Is the above a sure-fire way to position agile effectively within your own organisation? Absolutely not. Like the practice itself, there’s no set way to do it right, no guaranteed path to success. However, by ensuring that agile is positioned appropriately to senior leaders, we can do our best to match up expectations with reality. 

If there’s anything in this article that has spiked your interest and you would like to chat further, please do get in touch.