So you want to make your organization Agile

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When I first discovered Extreme Programming a decade ago, I was a software developer wanting to produce the best, and best fitting, software that I could. In those days, it seems that most Agile adoptions were from the bottom up.

Now I find a lot of Agile adoptions are from the top (or, at least, middle) down. Managers have heard about the improved results that companies are achieving using Agile development, and they want some of that for their organizations. That’s not surprising, and it should result in both better results for the organization and better work life for the employees.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. What is it that goes wrong with these top-down Agile transitions? More importantly, how can a well-meaning manager conduct a successful Agile transition?

A manager used to working in a plan-driven manner is prone to some assumptions that can work against a successful Agile transition. I’ve never seen, or heard of, a transition that succeeded by defining a plan up front and then following that plan. It could happen, but it be luck that brought about the success. Instead, an Agile transition has to be steered to success. It has to be conducted in an Agile manner–a hard thing for a manager without Agile experience to do.

I’ve seen other managers go to the other extreme. Instead of planning their transition, they operate as if an Agile process can be installed like a new carpet. They order “enough Agile to cover the number of developer offices” and expect the Agile Coaching company to deliver the transition. There are several misconceptions common behind such an approach. One is that Agile is just for the software developers, and the portfolio management, the governance processes, and the involvement of both business and management can stay just as they are. Another misconception is that the transition itself is easy–just a matter of training–and people will change how they’re working because they’re told to do so.  Both of these misconceptions underestimate the effort required to make a transition, and are also deleterious to making a successful transition at all.

Enough about how to fail. How can we succeed in acquiring those Agile advantages?

For an organization of any size, planning the transition is essential. The plan, though, is not nearly as important as observing what happens, making adjustments, and re-planning as you go along. Thoughtful managers can anticipate some of the changes needed. If you’re currently using a waterfall approach with phase gates where further spending is justified, you’ll need to figure out an analogous process using functional slices instead of development phases. If you’re used to “capturing the requirements” in a document that’s shipped off to remote development teams, you’ll need to figure out ways to increase the interactivity between those deciding what needs to be built and those building it. These types of changes, whether anticipated or noticed during the transition, are highly dependent on the context of the organizational needs and the people involved. While there are many successful strategies, there are no easy cookie-cutter solutions.

Few managers are well equipped to anticipate the change process itself. This is a skill and knowledge area that’s not part of the day-to-day software development management needs. To most managers, understanding and managing change is not something they want to spend time and energy to learn–they’ve already got enough work on their hands. Yet it’s not practical to entirely subcontract the change management to an outside organization. Their leadership is essential in a successful transition. At the same time, a manager attempting a first Agile transition will have difficulty spotting some of the choices to be made–at least, spotting them before they become big problems. This is precisely why most managers are well-advised to get coaching for their Agile transition–not just for the development teams, but also for themselves.

You may think that this advice is entirely self-serving. After all, I am an Agile coach and I do this for a living. And, in a way, it is. You see, I’d much rather coach a wildly successful transition than a troubled attempt at one. But I’d rather you be successful whether or not you hire me as a coach.

But first, arm yourself with knowledge. Study up on what Agile is and how it’s done. Gain clarity on what you hope to gain from it, and what you know will have to change. Think about the relative priorities of these goals and changes, and of the risks involved. Forethought is a great ally.

But also think about the process of transition, itself. I recommend reading Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges. This will give you some insights into the process of managing change in your organization, and some good advice.

Feel free to ask me for advice, also.

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