Don’t be a bystander. 6 steps you can take to be the Leader who makes Agile Transformation happen

Organizational change has always been a challenging task. The process of starting something new often leads to uncertainty and insecurity. More so, when the end state after the change is not fully comprehended.

Such situations are often the case in large-scale enterprise agile transformations. Leading people through such times is a daunting task for any executive. Agile transformations are and should be disruptive unless you want a label for your marketing efforts.

True agility would involve moving to new working methods along with organizational restructuring that brings new roles and responsibilities. Before we can realize the promised gains, there is a dip in productivity that we must successfully manage.

Kubler Ross Curve

Kubler Ross Change Curve — Mastering Business Analysis

The Kubler-Ross model is often used to describe how people respond to change. For most people, initial reactions to a new change often involve shock, denial, frustration, or depression. Their context and personal dispositions often decide if they experience one or more of those and for how long. At some point, they move to the experiment stage, where they make peace with the change and may give it a try before moving on to further stages where they finally integrate with the change.

Before teams and individuals move to the experiment stage, they will need to go through the pain of shock, denial, frustration, and depression. While some will move through this pretty quickly, it could be a long journey for many others. Keeping teams focused and motivated through this period is essential for the change to succeed, given that the path to agility is for sure going to be a bumpy one.

A means to an end

It is important to remember the golden words of Drucker here.

Just as the essence of medicine is not urinalysis (important though that is), the essence of management is not techniques and procedures. The essence of management is to make [people and their expertise] productive. Management, in other words, is a social function

~ Peter F. Drucker (The Agile of Social Transformation)

Agile processes and techniques are a means to an end. The ultimate goal is for the organization to be more productive, do more for less and bring a culture of continuous improvement and more. Agility will always remain a continuous journey, never a single end state. The people aspect of the transformation is a crucial one to influence positively and proactively. There are concrete essential aspects that you can focus on as leaders to put yourself and your organization on the path towards better agility and a successful transformation.

1. Have genuine and visible passion

First and most important, your passion as a leader for the transformation needs to be genuine and visible.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Your true passion for agility is essential for spirited effort from the teams and is contagious. It will rub off on other people motivating them to consider the change much more seriously and giving it a fair chance to succeed.

2. Prepare yourself and other leaders.

While the future is hard to predict and might appear hazy for everyone, including the leadership, communicating the vision, intent, and the immediate steps towards that vision is critical. Local leaders and managers will need training and coaching to carry the message forward. This is especially more critical for large organizations with teams spread in multiple remote locations.

While they may be business leaders in their domains and fields of expertise, Agile and change management are most likely new. Training and coaching for senior leaders and middle management is a must, regardless of how busy they might be. The impact of skipping this is disastrous on the overall change effort.

3. Use multiple channels of communication

What works for one may not work for others. Multiple communication channels are essential to address the concerns and questions. A robust communication plan that keeps everyone abreast with the proceedings is critical.

In the initial stages, the why of change is most important, e.g., why are we embarking on the agile journey? Why we chose scrum over Kanban (or vice versa)? Why this framework over that framework? Such questions are natural and take the focus.

Direct people to people interactions like town halls, round tables, and one-on-one are the best way to address those.

As we move forward into the journey, people need more guidance on the new processes, practices, and tools. Information portals, training, and workshops are more useful for these. The adage “more information is better than less” very much applies here.

4. Don’t just listen to the field, Engage it.

While surveys are usually conducted and will measure the “State of the Agility,” It’s also essential to get feedback on the softer aspects of the transformation. You could ask a simple question in the net promoter score style: How likely are you to recommend the agile ways of working of your team to another team in the company? Or use some questions to judge the “Happiness Quotient.”

Get creative, but most importantly, listen to the field. Don’t limit yourself to the surveys. Do some Gemba walks.

To quote the legendary Dr. W. Edwards Deming,” ‘Management by walking around’ is hardly ever effective,” he once said.

“Management by walking around’ is hardly ever effective, The reason is that someone in management, walking around, has little idea about what questions to ask and usually does not pause long enough at any spot to get the right answer.”

Gemba walks are not about walking around the floor like a tourist but getting involved and engaged with the teams. Do that effectively.

5. Encourage people-to-people Interactions, Get out of the way.

Often, the center of excellence (or department of quality, or PMO) whoever drives the transformation efforts becomes a bottleneck. If the teams rely on such a central group for “good practices” that work in their context or guidance to try new experiments, its gains are far limited.

Through internal forums — both online and physical, encourage a direct flow of knowledge between the teams. The cross-pollination of ideas has a multiplier effect. The best ideas will go “viral” much faster — than a small centralized group — however competent and committed can hope to do. As a leader, your role in encouraging these patterns is essential. If your interactions are only with a limited group of people who feed information and status to you, it doesn’t help. It would help if you found avenues and opportunities to interact with a broader audience.

6. Give Intent, Not Instructions

David Marquet sums it up beautifully when he says in his famous “Greatness” video,

“If You Want People to Think, Give Them Intent — Not Instruction.”

Encourage acts of leadership at all levels. People feel more connected to the change when they have the freedom to think and act. They will find innovative ways to reach their goals. Let them have that freedom. Work with focused intent, not instruction. Successful transformation efforts would mean doing many things beyond the above. Provide a platform to try other experiments and achieve the desired outcomes.

Quoting Drucker again,

We are not going to breed a new race of supermen. We will have to run our organizations with people as they are.

The Wrap

Transforming an organization is a lot about transforming our people. Engaged and active leadership playing the catalyst remains a crucial success factor for organizational transformations.

Don’t be a bystander. Be the leader who makes the agile transformation happen. Help your organisation leap towards agility.

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You might also want to read my book “Perspectives on Agility”, available on Amazon in print as well in Kindle format. Kindle Unlimited users read it for free. You might enjoy a quick summary of the book before you buy.

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