Three Keys for Leading a Successful Agile Transformation

A quote from the latest State of Scrum 2017-2018 performed by the Scrum Alliance says,

“Any organization that does not go through an Agile transformation will die. It is the same as a company refusing to use computers. Agile is all about fast feedback and thus fast learning. In today’s complex world those organizations win that learn the fastest.”

If agile transformations are a necessity to survive, what can be done to help your organization prepare? In this article we will discuss the three steps successful organizations take to prepare their teams:

  1. Start with yourself
  2. Create the environment for success
  3. Fertilize grassroot growth

Start with Yourself – Be the Change you Want to See

While paradoxical, the first step in helping your teams improve their business agility is to begin with yourself – to embody the change you want to see. Your guidance and championing of the improved organizational culture is paramount. Start practicing the new culture you want to create. Remember, you can not change people. People have to want to change themselves. Your personal example of agility will be the most powerful change agent.

Possible personal behaviors could include getting data before making decisions, allowing reasonable failure, promoting experimentation, maintaining expectations for high levels of quality, not overcommitting (or demanding overcommitment), telling the truth (even if uncomfortable), and being vulnerable with your team members and co-workers.

Successful organizations begin with a vision of what they want to become. While the vision may be somewhat foggy at first, they understand the direction and primary outcomes they want to achieve. This vision will be a critical component for enabling teams to transform. Without it, teams will not have a compelling reason to change. High performing teams will need to understand “the why” for the transformation, and you better have the answer. (See Forbes Insights: The Elusive Agile Enterprise, 2018 for popular agile transformation reasons.) Once your vision is clear, then lead by example in moving toward that vision.

Learn Agility for Yourself

The next step will be to educate yourself. Many options exist for better understanding business agility. We recommend taking an introductory scrum course such as Certified ScrumMaster (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) or a Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) course. Many useful books are also available. Reviewing, even memorizing, the Scrum Guide will also be helpful. Your understanding and ability to exemplify agile values and principles will enable others to follow your lead.

One of the key observations you’ll make from the training is the concept of empowered, self-organizing teams where decisions are made by the people most familiar with the customer’s problem. The top-down hierarchical command and control approach of management will sunset in an agile organization. Get comfortable with seeing your organization’s work through a servant leadership lens. Many leaders find they must learn new skills in order to lead more empowered teams.

Create the Environment for Success

Next, the teams will need an environment that supports them and their work. Most begin with an assessment of their current state to better understand what issues will need to be addressed. An outcome of the assessment will be an agile maturity roadmap that can serve as a good starting point. Partnering with an experienced guide makes the transformation journey a lot easier. However, be aware that they will not transform your organization for you. Only you can do that. Hold fast to agile principle 5, which says:

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

Many organizational change management approaches are available. The Prosci ADKAR or Kotter’s 8-step Change models are good starting points.

The Agile Transition Team (ATT)

The first step is to form an agile transition team. The ATT is the beginning of the executive sponsorship anchor. Made up of higher level, cross functional organizational leaders empowered to change the organization, the ATT will lead by example in using scrum to do their work. Their purpose will be to address any organizational impediments preventing the teams from reaching their potential. The pilot team’s retrospectives will feed the ATT’s backlog of organizational improvement ideas. The pilot team’s velocity will be constrained by the organizational environment in which they work – and ONLY the ATT, your ATT, can remove those constraints.

Considering potential ATT members is a crucial step in the organization’s transformation as discussed in “Transformation Success is Dependent on an Agile Transition Team.” The momentum created by the ATT is the “secret sauce” of successful agile transformations.

The Scrum Alliance has found that most organizations (through the ATT) need to address these primary environmental impediments (in descending order by most common response):

  • Organizational design and culture make it difficult
  • No sponsorship/support from senior management
  • Support for teams transitioning to Agile thinking
  • Alignment with other projects in portfolio
  • No clearly defined metrics to measure success
  • Lack of trust
  • Desire for perceived predictability
  • Fear of transparency
  • Had to convince clients

State of Scrum 2017-2018

These are the typical changes made by organizations to become more agile (in descending order by most common responses):

  • Hired a 3rd party consultant to help us become more agile
  • Introduced an agile mindset as part of our culture
  • Created incentives to promote agility
  • Reorganized our work processes
  • Reorganized reporting structures
  • Trained/employed workforce to lead agile processes
  • Created a position/group responsible for agility
  • Introduced a flatter structure

Forbes Insights: The Elusive Agile Enterprise, 2018

Other environmental success factors you’ll want to consider (i.e. can you answer “yes” to the following?):

  1. Can small, near-proximity (same time zone, location or region, for example), cross-functional teams be formed? Can teams work together (even remotely) throughout the work day, every day?
  2. Do the legacy SDLC, change or release management processes enable teams to own their products and learn from failures?
  3. Does a culture of experimentation exist?
  4. Is failure and early learning accepted, even celebrated?
  5. Are team members incentivized to work for the good of the team at a constant pace (rather than rewarded for individual heroism and firefighting)? (agile principle 8 – promote sustainable development)
  6. Have organizational barriers that distance developers from the customer been broken down?
  7. Are toolsets and training available to support continuous integration and test automation?
  8. Is technical debt maintained at a reasonable level? (e.g. refactoring is common practice, test automation coverage is comprehensive, technology stack is current, etc.).

Fertilize Grassroots Growth

With your foundation of a clear vision, agility education, and a formed ATT, preparations can now be made for the pilot team.

Many teams before the transformation are large, dispersed, siloed and specialized. Offshore interactions, like a shackle, are common. Many barriers have been placed in front of the teams such as change advisory boards, architecture and quality assurance approvals. These have been built up over years based on reactions to incidents. The IT organization is purposefully hidden behind a curtain from the customer. PMOs may have been in the business of enforcing compliance to SDLC gates or controls under the banner of “improving quality” or “controlling costs” rather than enablement of business agility. Business agility requires a different way of thinking, understanding and working.

To prepare teams for an agile transformation, they’ll need to start with education, usually starting with training. A new mindset will need to be created about how to approach their work and customers. Effective training should be interactive and give team members an opportunity to learn agile values, principles and techniques, such as scrum, in a safe environment taught by instructors with deep industry experience.

Training will also create momentum for change that they’ll want to apply immediately.

The support of a professional agile coach will be helpful in maximizing what was learned in training as well as to apply the learnings to their real work. As teams are formed, they’ll also want to be able to work together throughout the day. Focus on building one team at a time. Help them achieve a predictable velocity before forming the next team. Be aware, however, high performing teams are built over months and years, not weeks or days. Resist the temptation to shuffle the team. Enduring opportunities require persistent, stable teams.

Arrangements will need to be made to backfill or stop team members’ legacy work so they can pursue conquering their first team sprint and release goal. Being prepared with multiple backfill options will be helpful as the transitioning team members will be anxious to start sprinting. They’ll need the help of the coach as they interact closely with the ATT to ensure the team has the appropriate environment for success.

For those not part of the transformed team, careful planning will be needed to ensure they are successful with whatever legacy work or organization remains. They’ll need reassurance that they are not forgotten and that their jobs are secure.

One way the new team will know they are implementing scrum correctly is that a potentially shippable product increment will be created during every sprint. Some teams struggle to create a fully developed and tested product increment that has met their “definition of done” standards every sprint. They may feel historical pressures to overcommit. They’ll need encouragement from the ATT and leadership to not give up, and to utilize their retrospective to make adjustments.

Be sure that your grassroots growth does not hit a grassroots “ceiling” with your leadership team. Your goal will be to create teams who have an obsession to enhance customer value above all else.


Successful organizations who create high performing teams understand that the transformation begins with strong leadership support. Leaders must set a clear vision, identify the desired outcomes, identify potential change agents, become educated on business agility, create an environment for success supported by professional coaching.

With this foundation in place, teams will thrive once they begin thinking differently about their customer’s needs through agile training, physical and electronic environments to promote teamwork, backfill or transition plans, and reinforcement and encouragement from leadership.

Remember, with agile transformations momentum is everything. Use your momentum to catapult your organization to the next level!

Contact us. We can help!


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