There is no doubt that agile methodologies are now present in most companies. From “hip start-up” to global companies, from the automotive industry to banks and government departments, hardly any company has ignored new methodologies such as Scrum or Kanban.The “State of Agile” report states that already 97% of companies are already using these methods.
Within the last few years, the push for agile methodologies mainly came from IT departments. They have planted the seeds of agility and inspired other employees and departments with their agile processes and way of working. They gained experience in these new methods usually by starting with small teams and developed their own best practices. Step by step they dispelled doubts and concerns, whether by team members or management. Great results and products reached market maturity more quickly, often with a higher level of quality, helped by such processes. Also, the satisfaction and innovative power of the teams and their members are often clearly noticeable.
The Agile approach will continue to grow.
Despite the initial euphoria, the high rate of dissemination and many success stories, most companies are still at the beginning of their journey towards becoming an “agile” company. Often only some of the teams have switched to Agile methods (see graphic; source https://www.stateofagile.com/#ufh-i-521251909-13th-annual-state-of-agile-report/473508). Furthermore, the diffusion rate of an agile mindset and the deep understanding of the new challenges are often still at an early stage. Newly established processes are often still incomplete and not adapted to the respective environments.
Sustainability as a factor for success.
When agile methods were established, the focus was often on introducing new processes and filling the associated roles. Some companies just renamed project managers or team leaders to Scrum Masters or business analysts to product owners overnight. Business went on and the Agile transformation was considered to be successfully completed. As a result, methods like Scrum were quickly dismissed as “old wine in new bottles” – and rightly so in these cases. Without corresponding experience, training or the exchange of best practices, the working methods and tools used usually remained the same. The desired positive effects such as higher customer and employee satisfaction or shorter time-to-market failed to realize.
Therefore, the goal must be to create a sustainable agile transformation. This includes offering the people involved the best possible basis for putting agile methods into practice in their projects and establishing them sustainably. Agile methods must not be forgotten, but must constantly be adapted to changes and needs in the company. The tools and methods described below are a good first step to do this.
Basics and advanced workshops and training.
A first step could be a broad training program for employees in the chosen Agile methods or frameworks. Everyone must understand what the overall construct looks like and how it works in order to be able to classify and fulfill their own role correctly. This includes tools and methods that are relevant for the respective role, for example story maps or pair programming.
Establishing communities or guilds for the exchange of experiences.
However, training can only provide the basis. The experiences gained afterwards are extremely valuable. The most sustainable way is certainly to gather this experience with a lot of “blood, sweat and tears”. At the same time, this is not the most efficient way. Therefore, it is a good idea to establish communities or guilds for people with similar roles or interests where they can exchange their ideas and experiences. This way everyone benefits from the experiences of the others and it prevents people from getting isolated or lost.
Continuous improvement and the adaptation of the Agile approach to one’s own needs.
A continuous improvement process does not only play an important role in Scrum in retrospect. It also makes sense on other levels or and in other areas of an organization to regularly reflect on activities, working methods and team results and to decide on actions or “experiments” that could help to improve even further. This applies, for example, to cross-team cooperation, the leadership and management team, but also the change management team that accompanies the Agile transformation.
The mindset is crucial.
Agile methods can only be successful if the right “agile mindset” prevails in the team and in the organization. This term subsumes common principles and values, such as openness or transparency (cf. also Scrum Values; https://scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html#scrum-values), a positive error culture or focusing on the customer. The Agile Manifesto is often cited for this.
Considering only the process level at an Agile transformation, without including the company culture and the fundamental attitude of the employees towards each other, the company and the team, will not achieve the desired effect. This part of the agile transformation is usually much more difficult than the adaptation of processes and roles described above. For this, the organization, as well as each individual employee, must embark on a longer journey. This is because the mindset and company culture cannot be changed by training programs or work instructions alone. Instead, the employees themselves must realize that a change is needed and that the current path is not conducive to the development of the company, but also to their own satisfaction and development. Once this realization has matured, the next step is to accompany the employees and work with them to create the basic conditions for a more positive culture in the company. This process is prepared and accompanied by agile coaches and a change management team.
Building up the technical base.
In the context of an agile transformation, there is also another aspect, beyond the actors involved and their interaction. The architectures and technologies used by the company must also be part of the change. Monolithic systems or even outdated Cobol applications are anything but conducive to agile development.
They are typically characterized by high complexity, unmanageable technical dependencies and long development and deployment cycles. A high degree of specialization is required among the developers, and the result is a multitude of dependencies between the developers themselves, teams or even entire departments.
Due to the high effort required for deployments and releases, it is much more difficult, if at all possible, to get timely feedback from stakeholders or users.
Thus, the goal must be to align the systems technologically and architecturally in such a way that they do not hinder or slow agile working methods and practices, but rather support them. This means, for example, that the monoliths must be broken up and transformed into small, flexible components (e.g., in the form of microservices). Their deployments can usually be automated more easily and thus contributes to fast release cycles. Conway’s Law should also be taken into account when making the cut. This states that the structure of the systems should be oriented to the communication structures of the organization. Otherwise, the effort for coordination between organizational units will increase immensely. This in turn leads to increased complexity and thus susceptibility to errors.
Design and architecture must be lightweight and decisions should be made as late as possible. But agile development practices such as prototyping or feature toggles must also be easy to implement.
Establishing new leadership styles and organizational structures.
Companies are faced with a generational change. The new generation of employees demands more personal responsibility, co-determination rights and freedom and at the same time enjoying a good work-life balance. Also, the business world has evolved more than ever into a VUCA world (see infobox).
This cocktail of challenges makes it necessary to look beyond the team level during an agile transformation. Introducing Scrum or Kanban is just short-sighted. Rather, one should also address the question of what can and must be done on a company level to promote agility. This includes, for example
- more efficient communication and organizational structures
- the consolidation of decision-making authority and knowledge carriers as well as self-organization
- an understanding by leaders that supports these changes instead of slowing them down
- an open and courageous corporate culture that promotes innovation and motivates employees.
Agile coaches and organizational developers can help and provide methods and tools on how employees and managers can develop their organization themselves.
This is how further change succeeds.
Our longtime experience shows that many companies are not yet aware of the scope of an Agile organization. It often helps to bring in expertise from outside the company, for example through meet-ups or consultants as people tend to organizational blindness and even see the necessity of changes or possible starting points.
Furthermore, it makes sense to understand the Agile Transformation as a long-term process. Forcing it into the strictures of a classic project with a duration of a few months is certainly not an adequate solution. Rather, it requires a well thought-out and organized change management approach. This includes the establishment of a change management team that takes care of all aspects of the change. It is important to act according to the principle of “inspect & adapt”. Employees must be involved early in the process. Without their understanding of – and their agreement to – the changes, all efforts will peter out. Kotter’s 8-step model has proven to be a good approach (see figure).
Allowing agility to continue to thrive
Just like a plant, it is not enough to sow a seed to be able to harvest fruits. The seed must be watered and fertilized in order to provide it with nutrients. If this does not happen, it remains a sapling or the plant dies completely. It is similar with agility: it is not enough to introduce Scrum selectively. To be able to exploit the full potential of agility one must not rest on one’s laurels. Agile methods must be introduced broadly, knowledge and experience must be deepened and the company must be adapted to new needs.