Agile Transformation: Tips for Organizational Change

Agile Transformation: Tips for Organizational Change

Jason Little describes his career as helping organizations "discover more effective practices for managing work and people." He is the author of the book, "Lean Change Management: Innovative Practices for Managing Organizational Change," a speaker, agile coach, Certified Scrum Professional, ScrumMaster and Scrum Product Owner. 

In this interview, Jason reveals what to watch for when trying to implement agile into an organization -- especially in larger companies that value control and stability. Here, we'll dive into the concepts featured in his course on Front Row Agile: "Agile Transformation: Four Steps to Organizational Change." 

In your course at Front Row Agile, you talk about the idea that understanding your organization’s culture is a good start, but it may not be a good idea to intentionally try and change it. Why is that?

Jason: Despite the agile community’s consistent message that agile isn’t a quick fix, it’s still perceived as being one. The pace of change, disruption and innovation is constantly increasing, and agile isn’t going to undo years of cultural baggage and organizational debt in a short time period.

I mention it’s a good idea to understand what your culture is because it’s important to pick an approach that is more likely to work. That means in a “control” culture that values structure and stability, you may want to start with considering agile to be a new process. 

What I mean by that is approaching an agile transformation in this type of environment by leading with the agile values and principles might be perceived as “fluffy,” and it may turn people off. 

In this environment, people might need a bridge built between how their processes work today and what they might look like tomorrow. For example, larger organizations I work with have more governance in place so developing an “agile governance process” can be a good short-term strategy for people to figure out how to move forward. 

After they’ve seen how what they do works in an agile environment, then more focus on agile values and principles might be a good approach. 

You teach different options for how organizations can learn about what agile means before they get started. Can you elaborate on that?

Jason: Back in 2007 when I started with agile, there weren’t nearly as many options as there are today for learning about agile methods. I still see organizations using only training and certification as a way to learn about agile, which is one of many ways to get educated about agile.

The agile community has grown substantially since 2012, and there are numerous conferences, meetings and virtual learning opportunities.

One of my favorite education tools is to send people to agile coach camps of which there are many around the world. That is a great way to connect people in the organization to experienced agile coaches that they can learn from.

You stress the importance of retrospecting often in your course. How can larger organizations use this technique at scale?

Jason: I recommend conducting retrospectives at the team, management and organizational layer; this helps get people focused and aligned around the purpose behind transforming to agile in the first place.

I recently used that technique with an enterprise client. Their team wanted to know the answer to one question: After a year, do we want to keep going with agile?

I coached the internal coaching team lead on how to do a large-scale retrospective for 30+ teams, management and executives. The short version of the story is that the answer to the question was yes. Even with all the problems and pain, they wanted to keep going.

The interesting part of that exercise was how it was executed. I worked with the internal coaching team lead on how to do the technique, and she then coached the existing Scrum Masters and Kanban team leads to do that exercise with their teams. 

This way, there was no single bottleneck. We took full advantage of a network of people, and then the coaching team lead took all the data from the teams and compared it with the data from the manager and director retrospectives.

She found it to be a great deal of work, but well worth it in order to see where staff, management and executives were aligned or misaligned.

“Scale” often scares people, but it’s not difficult to do large-scale retrospectives. It simply takes a little more planning and coordination. 

Organizations often lose sight of how their journey towards agile is going because they get too caught up in the day-to-day challenges and organizational problems agile is exposing. Taking the time to stop and reflect shows a serious commitment by leadership to helping make agile work.

For more info from Jason or to get in touch, head on over to his website.


About Mike Cohn of Mountain Goat Software

Mike Cohn is one of the world’s most sought-after and well-respected certified Scrum trainers, currently the founder of Mountain Goat Software. In addition to being an in-demand speaker and consultant around the globe, he’s also the author of three books: User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning and Succeeding with Agile.

As an agile development thought leader and expert practitioner, Mike’s approach to software development and project management is efficient and effective. There’s a reason why so many top companies seek out Mike to train their employees.

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