Photo: Joshua Coleman
“Agile” has been a buzzword thrown around Silicon Valley, startup conferences, town halls and HR department meetings for years now. Additionally, in the past several weeks we’ve heard “agile” again in large volume as companies rapidly try to adjust to remote work and the new realities we’re all living in due to COVID-19. While it’s true that adopting an agile mindset may be more valuable to companies than ever, it’s much more than successfully managing a quick transition from in-office to work from home.
Though the idea originated way back in 2001, there still is not a widespread understanding about what agility really is, and how it can benefit organizations of all sizes — especially now. From addressing internal dysfunction to helping a business overcome competitive challenges, to coping in a world filled with VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), embracing agility can give businesses the edge they’re looking for, ultimately transforming the way they work.
For the transformation to be successful, however, agile has to be more than a buzzword. If it’s just showing up in memos, on Slack channels and PowerPoints or mentioned in passing at meetings, you are doing it wrong. To go from just saying or writing agile to actually being agile, you need to know where to start and what to watch out for.
Here are four of the most common barriers experienced when trying to implement the agile mindset, and how to overcome them to become a truly adaptive organization — and thrive in these uncertain times:
If Agile Is the Answer, What’s the Question?
In my work as a Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Coach and Certified LeSS Trainer, I occasionally come across teams that want to be agile just so they can say that they are agile. I call this “agile for agile’s sake,” and it’s a big warning sign. Too often teams haven’t sharpened their focus enough before attempting to embrace adaptive practices. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and ironically, the opposite of agility. Another large warning sign is if you see heavy slide decks and best practices books popping up all over about how you’re going to become agile. They often mean that DDT (Deck Driven Transformations) is underway, as it is usually instituted by a large consultancy. When employees are still tasked to work through the controlled process of long development and feedback cycles for a project, then they are using up their valued time and resources, and a growth in documents contradicts what agile is all about!
Instead, figure out what agile will fix for your organization. It’s imperative to understand your own organization’s priorities – to know the why behind implementing agile – if you want your transformation to succeed. Otherwise, you’re just using a new buzzword, without any true meaning behind it.
Agile is an OS, Not an App
Another common pitfall I see are teams looking to jump on the “agile bandwagon” and expect it to be a quick and easy process. These are organizations looking to put a check mark next to “agile” and cross it off on its to-do list. We often see organizations “buying, unwrapping and installing” a popular, commercially available heavy framework or producing an internal over-engineered operating model that resembles a traditional model, spiced up with agile buzzwords.
But that’s not how it works. It’s not an app that you can simply download, install and be up and running on within moments. Agile is an Operating System – it will impact how everything is done (remember, the goal is transformation), and it can take some getting used to.
Setting realistic expectations about what the agile framework is and is not, and how long it will take to transform into an adaptive organization is extremely important. Without this mindset, team members’ commitment to the transformation may wane, undercutting everyone’s efforts to evolve, as full, company-wide buy-in is necessary for success.
Swim a Lake, Don’t Boil the Ocean
Another problem I’ve seen when working with companies looking to embrace agile is starting off too broad and shallow – looking to overhaul everything at once. Instead, I recommend focusing narrowly but going deep in specific areas, and then expanding, for example, like in Large Scale Scrum, where the idea is to descale an organization, in order to scale agility. The bigger the organization, the more important this is.
To do this, identify a product or function where impact can be felt in real terms quickly. This is your best bet about where to start. Oftentimes, HR is a great department to include in an agile transformation. This is because HR policies are incredibly important, as it involves changing the way employees are treated.
It is interesting, however although maybe not surprising, lean companies are having a less painful experience adjusting to the unprecedented conditions we’re currently in, because being lean helps with adaptive-ness (agility), and it is based on the degree of organizational “descaling.”
Urgency as the Catalyst to Change
Finally, in my experience, there needs to be a sense of urgency for an agile model to really take hold and thrive within an organization. The team must know and feel that something is fundamentally broken, and that embracing new practices and methods is essential to survival. Without the understanding that something must be fixed, the likelihood of a successful transformation is significantly lower. This is because those without a sense of urgency are resistant to change.
This is true from the top to the bottom of an organization. Without buy-in from the entire team, creating real change, real transformation is impossible. When it comes to senior leaders, getting them engaged and invested can make all the difference.
Contrary to how you may have heard the word “agile” used previously, it’s not about cutting costs. That has never been the primary goal of being an agile company. Agile is about moving beyond the buzzword to become more adaptive and nimbler. This allows a company to transform the way it works fundamentally, innovate quickly and ultimately become more competitive. This ability to adapt and innovate has never been more important than it is today, where the entire fabric of work is changing with unprecedented unemployment and entire industries turned upside down by the pandemic. The businesses that can adapt fast will have an edge on those that are moving slowly: ultimately, the faster you can adapt, the more economically feasible your business is in our rapidly changing world.