Agile Transformation? Slow Down!

I’ve worked with dozens of Scrum teams over the past three years. A couple of years ago it was rare to meet anybody with Agile experience. Today many of my clients have some experience–and some horror stories. One lesson learned from retrospectives with these folks is way too many new teams are trying to do way too much way too fast!

A couple years ago Agile slipped in the back door and spread by osmosis. Today, Agile is paraded through the front door as the panacea for all our ills. And too often it’s introduced this way: “Do you know other companies deliver software every two weeks? I know it takes us two years. But now we’re going to do something called Agile!”

Good luck with that. Agile is first and foremost a culture change. It’s a different way of thinking before a different way of working. And change is hard, requiring lots of hard work, lots of time, and lots of leadership credibility. The only exception is when everyone understands that we either change now or die. (And I have done a lot of this in Finance and Automotive.) In a crisis, change can be mandated from on high. Otherwise, your Agile transformation should be, well, Agile—iterative and incremental.

Where, then, do you begin? The first step is thinking through your business case for Agile. Why do you want to be / do Agile? What are the costs and benefits, both organizationally and personally, that you expect to see? What’s working today and not working? If whatever you’re doing now works, keep doing it; any change will be a hard sell.

If you’re struggling today, consider an Agile pilot. You want a project that is not mission critical, of course. But it should be important enough to secure business engagement. And low-hanging fruit with quick win opportunities would be great.

Be sure you have strong sponsorship; sponsorship alone can make or break any initiative, Agile or not. And let me make one point loud and clear: if you’ve been hired, based on previous Agile successes, to lead an Agile transformation, your job is double-trouble. Why? Because the bar is high and you have no leadership credibility in your new organization. Strong sponsorship in such cases is doubly important.

And don’t underestimate the time required to get up and running. You will need not only a Sprint 0 but probably a Sprint -1 and maybe a Sprint -2. Getting a new Scrum team up to speed, preparing your product backlog, etc., are hard work that can’t be done overnight.

Then find your sustainable pace. This is so important that it’s encapsulated as one of Agile’s 12 Principles: “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

You wouldn’t believe how often I hear, “Agile is killing us. The team is totally burned out. We just can’t get software out the door in two weeks!”

Two things are happening here: this team does not understand how Agile works and they’re trying to do too much too fast. Start slow, maybe one month sprints. As you mature and automate, you will move faster. But “sustainable” is the key word. What is sustainable? It’s as fast as you can go without stressing the team and destabilizing the environment. Your two best metrics here are employee engagement and software defects.   

Finally, be sure you and your organization are continuously learning and improving. Work closely with your sponsor, your customer, and other primary stakeholders. And go the extra mile with Architecture and the PMO. It’s very important that you’re working with these folks, not against them, because they will become either your most formidable foes or your biggest allies. And you don’t need any more obstacles to overcome.

The bottom line is this: start slow to go faster!

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