“Our business transformation program is two years old,” the client began. “And true to the well-worn adage, our legacy culture is eating our Agile strategy for breakfast.” Agile practices make work both visible and manageable, but how do you visualize and manage the all-pervasive attitudes, behaviors, and habits that make up your organizational ecosystem? Values statements, social contracts, and other intangibles are all efforts to define and shape culture, but they often prove to be meaningless because they are not actionable. Sustainable business transformation requires more than new ways of working, mood marbles, and motivational meetings.
The transformation began with two pilot teams learning Solution-Focused Agile (SFA) in an onsite workshop, followed by virtual coaching. Validated results included immediate Kirkpatrick Level 1 (positive feedback) and Level 2 (demonstrated knowledge) implementation, soon followed by Level 3 (measurable culture change). Level 4 (business results) followed within months, measured by employee engagement and customer Net Promoter Score surveys. The overwhelming success of the pilot program led to additional SFA workshops with senior executives who enthusiastically endorsed a broader transformation. Today this Fortune 100 company is scaling SFA across the enterprise. As one executive put it, “We lost our way because we were focused on our problems; now we’re dreaming again!”
Achieving Enterprise Agility
“IT can’t get anything across the finish line!” was a continuous refrain from every member of the C-suite interviewed at this fast-paced, rapidly growing company. “Of course we can’t get anything across the finish line!” responded the CIO. “We spend half our time managing technical debt, and the other half of our time creating more technical debt.” With more than 50 “development priorities” in the pipeline, their numerous challenges included a broken governance and portfolio management system, too much work-in-progress, “waterfall” ways of working, and functionally-aligned organizational silos. “We just can’t take it anymore!” was the sentiment among employees at all levels of the organization. “We’ve reached the breaking point!” exclaimed one executive.
The “breaking point” was the “tipping point,” and the first step in the turnaround was leadership training and coaching on the K2 Transformation Model. Team-level training and coaching soon followed, incorporating end-to-end value stream mapping, a reorganization into squads and chapters, and introduction of SAFe scaling and DevOps practices. The organization’s mantra soon became: “stop starting; start finishing.” Their CEO wrote on the portfolio Kanban board: “This is great! I look at it every day! Very helpful!” And their CIO won the industry’s “Rising Star” award as productivity increased 57% over the next two quarters. And the “Agile joy,” as their CIO named it, soon spread to Marketing, Sales, Human Resources, Legal, and across the enterprise, contributing to a greater sense of optimism, teamwork, and productivity.
Agile in a Regulated Environment
“You can’t do that in a regulated environment!” was the typical reaction as we introduced Agile across the enterprise. “Can’t do that here,” we quickly learned, meant “don’t know how and don’t care to learn.” But everyone knew they had to do something different. The company’s survival depended on replacing their flagship product, which was a hodgepodge of more than a dozen legacy systems, all slowed to a crawl by growing technical debt. Estimates to rebuild the product ranged from three to five years and tens of millions of dollars. They didn’t have that much time or money. Two prior efforts had failed, key people lost their jobs, and management responded by imposing even more “command-and-control.” Productivity and morale continued to plummet, while turnover was on the rise.
The culture had become toxic and intervention was needed on multiple levels. The first step was weekly coaching sessions with the executive team. Then open-space invitations were extended company-wide to brainstorm and prioritize solutions. Utilizing principles and techniques of Solution-Focused Therapy and Appreciative Inquiry, corporate culture underwent a radical and rapid transformation. This was followed by training teams across the organization on Design Thinking and Agile practices, as well as working closely with regulators and auditors, of course. Replacing the flagship product, their top priority, was completed in less than fifteen months, at one-third the original cost estimate. Upon launch it received significant press coverage and won an industry award.
Solution Focused Agile Interventions
Never before had we been introduced as “marriage counselors.” “We’re in this together and must find a way to make this relationship work.” These were the words of an account executive to her CIO client and his management team. The relationship was so strained that we were met with eye rolls, icy stares, and turned down handshakes. Yet two hours later we had co-created, for the first time, a social contract, including social metrics, to augment their existing contracts and service level agreements. And we had agreed to a plan for introducing our Design Thinking and Solution Focused Agile techniques to employees of both organizations around the world.
This was part of a pilot program run with three clients of a Fortune 100, global company, to stem revenue erosion. Two quarters later, pilot results were enthusiastically reported: double digit NPS improvements per account, over $90M in contract extensions, more than $100M in quantifiable cost savings, and $16M per employee profit increase.
In addition to continuing our work with the pilot participants, the success of the pilot led to rapid scaling of the program as we conducted train-the-trainer sessions for more than 50 Agile coaches around the world. The global transformation continues today both internally at this company and with their clients. Several journal articles and a book contribution have been written about this work; a full-length book is in the works.