For many organisations, agile transformation is often closely associated with cloud modernisation. Maybe you’ve started your agile journey and a move to cloud is the next logical step to accelerate your pipeline of value delivery. Or maybe you’ve come to cloud from a cost-saving perspective but are now seeing the opportunities it creates to automate your delivery pipeline and realise business value faster.
Whichever is the case, agile transformation (or any form of business transformation) comes with many opportunities and challenges. In this article, we’ll explore some key learnings from our work over many years and a wide variety of transformations.
Successful transformation journeys start with strategic alignment
Traditionally, technology teams (whether internal or external) have been engaged as a service provider, with a focus on contractual frameworks that prioritise utilisation and outputs. This creates the situation where the aims of both parties are rarely aligned around actual business outcomes.
The challenge was to try and force more change through a system with limited capacity.
Most successful businesses have now realised that harnessing technology is central to their success and that their technology team should be treated as an equal partner in both the planning and execution of business strategy.
The agile mindset shifts the challenge from doing more, to doing the right thing, fast. This enables enterprises to respond to customer needs and market changes quickly, outpacing competitors and maximising their return on investment.
This business-technology partnership requires an honest and collaborative approach that can be quite far removed from the traditional contractual relationships. Ideally, modern contracts should make allowance for such honesty and collaboration, and be flexible enough to account for or incorporate any changes that may arise as a result of the agile approach.
Set business rather than technology goals
Over the years, we have both seen and worked within IT organisations who would maintain large backlogs of change initiatives that focused on the technology components rather than business or customer outcomes. The size of the backlog wasn’t the issue, but the nature of it.
IT Leaders were frustrated that they couldn’t seem to get the business support and funding required to replace their enterprise service bus or rewrite a legacy application. These projects were often seen as being owned by technology teams and having little business benefit.
But with acceptance of the new paradigm that every business is a technology business technology, leaders have reshaped their project proposals around what business outcomes they would drive. For instance, direct measurement of customer satisfaction rather than traditional indirect proxies such as system uptime.
This alternative approach also provides technology teams with greater meaning in their day-to-day work, with a clear line of sight to the business impacts that you want them to drive.
Top down, bottom up (and don’t forget the middle)
For any transformation to be successful, it is well accepted that there must be buy in from the top - starting with the CEO and their senior leadership team. Where change is focused only within technology teams or, even worse, only the development function, benefits are severely constrained. To unlock bigger gains, agile transformation will inevitably impact the broader organisation.
Project officers/owners/managers will change the way that progress is measured, forecast and reported. Finance teams will adapt the way that work is budgeted to reflect longer term product investment rather than short term projects. People and Capability teams will focus more on organisational culture and evolve their approach to recruiting, rewarding, and retaining people with the right skills and mindset (feel free to watch a webinar on this subject featuring our Director of People and Capability, Kate Selway).
However, equally important for success is pairing this with a bottom-up approach. Any transformation has a better chance of success if everyone is onboard. Frontline workers need to understand the drivers for and expected outcomes of the transformation and to see the direct benefits to their work. The good news is that people at all levels have many ideas that can be harnessed. In an agile enterprise, teams are provided with direction and lightweight frameworks, paired with the autonomy to experiment with their own solutions.
So, top down and bottom up, but don’t forget the middle.
Mid-organisational roles such as team leaders and technical leads often fear that they have the most to lose and the least to gain from transformation. As hierarchic structures flatten, traditional middle leadership roles of decomposing and allocating work are often transferred to cross functional teams who are empowered to self-organise. Investing in training these individuals and turning them into advocates and even coaches, will likely help your transformation to progress faster and with less friction.
Be data driven in practice, not just theory
There’s been considerable research about how metrics can be poor surrogates for what is actually important to a business and how setting targets can drive unexpected outcomes as we optimize for one outcome in isolation of other impacts. So, the use of data within transformation projects definitely comes with a warning label.
That label says that data is useful as long it is used in the right way. Metrics and particularly trends in metrics over time provide leaders with the opportunity to have useful conversations. Avoid setting targets for velocity to increase by 50% (can lead to inflated estimates) or for cycle time to reduce by 30% (can lead to reduced quality). Instead, use data as a conversation starter to gain greater insight into what is happening and critically, why. Why does the scrum master think their team’s velocity has increased consistently over the last quarter? Was it the additional team member, their efforts to automate the deployment process or something else entirely unexpected? Insights from these types of conversations can tell us a lot about what is and isn’t working. And the better the range of data you have across different indicators the more likely you’ll see any unintended consequences of optimization in one area.
Keep an eye out for our next article, where we’ll explore practical ways to kick off your transformation project. Until then, feel free to check out other articles in our blog or check out our podcast.
James Sayer is the Delivery Transformation Lead at Jade. James has spent the last eight years designing and implementing operating models of scale, as well as helping optimise agile operating models. He has also worked with leadership teams through to the development teams to make the implementation programmes successful – in both the short and long term.