How Leaders Support Agile Success

VersionOne publishes an annual State of Agile survey (see the 2016 9th annual report here).  Each survey includes impediments to Agile success in an organization.  Among the leading causes of failure in Agile transformation, and barriers to future success, are:
  • Company philosophy or culture at odds with core Agile values
  • A broader organizational or communications problem
  • Lack of management support
  • Lack of support for cultural transition
  • General organizational resistance to change
  • Management concerns about lack of upfront planning
  • Concerns about a loss of management control
  • Concerns about the ability to scale agile
  • Perceived time and cost to make the transition
In my experience, leaders above the director level throughout an organization think of Agile as applicable to software development teams and typically invest little of their time and energy to understand it and how their understanding and involvement influence the success or failure of Agile transformation efforts.  Most leaders at the director level and above, especially those outside the product/engineering organization, believe their attitude toward Agile has a neutral effect on transformation efforts.  

And therein lies the problem.  Ignorance and apathy toward Agile in product development have a negative effect on the success of Agile transformation efforts.  Agile is not a software development framework or product development process, it's a culture and attitude, a way of being more than a set of things to do.

The key terms from the list of impediments to Agile success are "philosophy," "culture," "organizational resistance," and "loss of . . . control."  Replace the impediments listed above with their opposites and you get:
  • Company culture that aligns with Agile values
  • Broader organizational understanding
  • Full management support
  • Full support for cultural transition
  • Organizational bias and support for change
  • Management support for less upfront planning
  • Management desire to relinquish control
  • Commitment to develop the processes and tools required to scale Agile
  • Commitment to supply the resources and time to make the transition
Organizational change happens over time as stakeholders work together to understand and thrive with the values, tools, practices and roles that are required to deliver value in the complex, dynamic technology environment.

Scott Ambler has written about a cultural impedance mismatch between software development professionals and data management professionals, and its negative impact on both groups and their stakeholders.  I think a similar cultural impedance mismatch can be identified between Agile engineering/product organizations and their counterparts in marketing, sales, operations, and finance.  To the extent that mismatch is not addressed, the cultural and organizational impediments to Agile transformation will continue to frustrate stakeholders.

Those in a Director, VP, or CXO role have the unique responsibility and authority to identify and remove cultural and systemic impediments to organizational success.  They are in the best position to understand how to replace ignorance with understanding, to align incentives and positive recognition with the right behaviors to achieve desired outcomes, and to create channels of communication and feedback that help everyone move toward target states.

Dan Greening has identified 5 organizational Agile base patterns that are a way for leaders to express their support for Agile transformation through actions and visible indicators (also see Dan's interview about these here):
  1. Measure Economic Progress
  2. Experiment to Improve
  3. Limit Work in Progress
  4. Embrace Collective Responsibility
  5. Solve Systemic Problems
Leaders who understand the leverage of their position and use it in ways to promote team growth lift their teams to much higher levels of success.


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