gile, the transformative force in modern project management, has ridden a wave of innovation that has reshaped industries and redefined success. But, do you know which ‘wave’ of Agile your organisation is currently riding? Join us as we dive into the dynamic world of Agile-based methodologies and discover why understanding your position in these ‘waves’ is not just a choice but a crucial compass for navigating the seas of organisational transformation.

Why Understanding Agile Waves Matters

In the tumultuous seas of Agile transformation, determining your organisation’s position in the ‘waves’ is not a mere exercise in self-reflection; it is the compass that guides successful navigation. Uncover the significance of identifying your Agile maturity and learn why it holds the key to overcoming challenges and embracing the full benefits of Agile-based methodologies.

Looking back at Agile

Agile innovation methods have revolutionised information technology and project management as a whole. Indeed, over the past 25 to 30 years, agility has significantly increased success rates in software development by improving quality and speed to market, and enhancing the motivation and productivity of IT teams. Today, Agile-based methodologies have become a radical alternative to command-and-control-style management, thanks to the new values, principles, practices, and benefits they bring. These highly sought-after characteristics have enabled agility to spread across a broad range of industries and functions and even into the C-suite.

When you speak to Agile-implementing organisations, you’ll hear some say they unsuccessfully ‘tried to go Agile,’ learned from their mistakes, and then tried again by rectifying the mistakes they made at the outset such as not aligning governance, not setting clear boundaries and more. This ‘iterativeness’ that involves learning as you work is part of what Agile is all about after all. In other words, some organisations pass through what Agile Management Office (AMO) founder Fatimah Abbouchi terms ‘waves of Agile’ in their Agile transformation journey – by failing in the first wave and then continuing to try with another wave. She notes that many companies are now in their 3rd or 4th waves but haven’t given up. Why? Maybe because they are seeing some of the benefits.

What is the Agile-Based Method of Project Management?

At its heart, the Agile-based methods are usually about cutting red tape, speeding up the delivery of products and services, and making it easy to get things done. It’s an iterative approach to project management and software development that helps teams deliver faster by focusing on continuous releases and customer feedback, among others.

Although it has its origins in software development, the Agile concept has evolved and is now applicable in any industry and among companies of all sizes. There are various forms of Agile, each with its unique characteristics. Some of the notable Agile-based methodologies include:

·        Scrum
·        Kanban
·        Lean development
·        Extreme Programming (XP)
·        SAFe

These Agile-based methods offer diverse approaches to project management, catering to different needs and preferences. We’ll delve into some of these Agile-based methodologies in more detail later.

One of the most renowned aspects of Agile is the “Agile Manifesto,” articulated by Jeff Sutherland and 16 other software engineers in 2001. This manifesto has become the leading guide for practitioners who prefer Agile-based methods, serving as a foundational document that outlines the core values and principles of Agile development.

Why Agile?

Being Agile offers a number of major benefits when compared with traditional management approaches. These benefits have been extensively studied and documented including:

Employee Satisfaction and Team Productivity:

Agile is shown to increase both employee satisfaction and team productivity, fostering a positive work environment.

Minimizing Waste:

The mention of minimizing waste addresses common inefficiencies found in traditional management practices, such as redundant meetings and excessive documentation.

Customer Engagement and Satisfaction:

Agile’s adaptability to changing customer priorities is emphasized, leading to increased customer engagement and satisfaction.

Faster Time-to-Market and Predictability:

Agile’s impact on bringing valuable products to market faster and more predictably is highlighted, showcasing its efficiency.

Risk Reduction:

The reduction of risk through Agile practices is mentioned, indicating a more reliable and controlled project management process.

Enhanced Collaboration and Organisational Experience:

Agile’s ability to connect diverse team members and encourage collaborative, multidisciplinary teamwork is emphasized, contributing to mutual trust and respect.

Empowering Senior Managers:

Agile’s positive impact on senior managers is outlined, freeing them from micromanagement to focus on higher-value tasks, such as creating and adjusting the organisation’s vision and prioritizing strategic initiatives.

Creation of Self-Managed Teams:

The shift from functional silos to self-managed, customer-focused multidisciplinary teams is highlighted, accelerating growth and nurturing skilled personnel.

Also, by dramatically minimising the time wasted on micromanaging functional projects, agility allows senior managers to focus more on the higher-value work that only they can do, such as:

  • Creating and adjusting the organisation’s vision
  • Prioritising strategic initiatives
  • Simplifying and focusing work
  • Assigning tasks to the right people
  • Increasing cross-functional collaboration
  • Removing obstacles to progress

Agility brings people out of their functional silos and organises them into self-managed and customer-focused multidisciplinary teams. This accelerates profitable growth and helps to create a new generation of skilled personnel. A study by McKinsey found that in comparison with non-Agile organisations, Agile practitioners experience 93 per cent better customer satisfaction; 93 per cent better operational performance; and 79 per cent improved employee engagement.

Agile Transformation challenges

Though agility can help teams define and proceed on a journey of creating and maintaining higher-quality, ever-improving products and services, it first has to be implemented successfully. However, for some companies, the first Agile transformation wave is far from smooth and not as successful as envisaged. But the benefits of successfully transforming to Agile are numerous, so rather than quit, these companies try to learn from their mistakes by iteratively proceeding to a second wave of Agile transformation. If things still don’t work out as planned, then a third and fourth wave (or more) becomes inevitable. The idea is to continue trying until you succeed.

But why is implementing Agile such a struggle for some organisations?

Well, while many such executives throw about Agile jargon such as “sprints” “stand-ups” “time boxes” and so on, the reality is that they don’t have an in-depth understanding of how agility works simply because they lack the requisite training needed to implement Agile on an organisation-wide scale. As a result, they unwittingly continue to lead in ways that do not conform with Agile values, principles, and practices. This undermines the effectiveness of Agile teams in units under their oversight and can eventually lead to a failure of that transformation wave.

In summary, here are some of the most common challenges in implementing Agile:

Little or no education and training: Insufficient understanding and training in Agile-based methodologies hinder effective implementation, leading to misinterpretations and suboptimal practices.

Lack of clarity about what Agile really is in their context/environment when starting: Ambiguity surrounding Agile’s applicability and benefits in a specific context creates confusion, hindering a clear and targeted implementation.

Conflict with traditional management techniques: Resistance arises when Agile principles clash with established traditional management methods, impeding the smooth integration of Agile practices.

Resistance to change/lack of cross-departmental buy-in: Organisational resistance and a lack of buy-in across departments hinder the adoption of Agile, as collaborative efforts are crucial for its success.

Failing to adapt to changing roles: Inability to adapt roles and responsibilities to fit the Agile framework leads to confusion, affecting team dynamics and hindering progress.

Reluctance to empower team members: Hesitation in empowering team members with decision-making authority hampers the self-organizing nature of Agile teams, limiting their effectiveness.

The need for robust daily communication: Agile’s emphasis on daily communication requires a shift in communication practices, and a failure to establish robust communication channels can impede progress.

Taking the team’s focus away from the customer: Losing sight of customer-centric goals disrupts Agile’s customer-focused approach, affecting the delivery of valuable and relevant products.

Inadequate support leadership: Leadership that does not actively support and champion Agile practices can hinder its successful implementation, creating a disconnect between vision and execution.

Failure to address changes to governance ecosystems: Neglecting the alignment of Agile practices with governance structures results in inefficiencies and conflicts within the organisation’s overall ecosystem.

Risk aversion: A culture averse to taking risks inhibits experimentation and adaptation, essential components of the Agile mindset, limiting the benefits that Agile can bring.

Agile Transformation Best Practices

Mistakes are a human attribute. The key is learning from them for continuous improvement. Whatever wave of Agile your organisation is, adopting the six crucial practices below will help its leaders capitalise on the huge potential of Agile-based methods. These practices are recommended by Agile Manifesto signatories Jeff Sutherland, Darrell Rigby, and Hirotaka Takeuchi.

Apart from his work on the Agile Manifesto, Sutherland also helped develop the Scrum Methodology (the oldest, most popular, and one of the most widely used Agile methods). He says he was partly inspired into Scrum development by a 1986 HBR article co-authored by Takeuchi titled The New New Product Development Game. Rigby is an experienced Agile executive and co-author of Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos.

1. Learn How Agile Really Works

Many executives tend to associate Agile with anarchy (anybody does whatever they want). For other executives, being Agile means ‘doing what I say, but faster.’ But none of these perspectives accurately describes any of the major types of Agile – all of which have a lot in common but emphasise slightly different things as shown below:

  • Scrum: emphasises creative and adaptive teamwork in solving complex problems
  • Kanban: focuses on the reduction of lead times and the amount of work in the process
  • Lean development: prioritises continuous elimination of waste

Comparing the Major Agile-based methods

As noted above, Agile innovation methods have shared values and principles but differ when it comes to emphasis or focus. Experts often combine various Agile approaches to achieve desired results. Here are three of the most popular Agile-based methods and the contexts in which each works best.

2. Understand Where Agile Does or Does Not Work

Agile should not be seen as a panacea – it is most effective and easiest to apply under the following conditions (mostly found in software innovation):

  • The problem requiring a solution is a complex one
  • Solutions are initially unknown, and there’s a greater likelihood that product requirements will change, going forward
  • It is possible to modularise the work
  • Possibility of close collaboration with (and rapid feedback from) end users
  • The creative teams assembled will typically outperform command-and-control groups

According to Sutherland, Rigby, and Takeuchi, these conditions exist for many product development functions, strategic planning, marketing projects, supply-chain challenges, and resource allocation decisions. They are not as common in routine operations like accounting, plant maintenance, sales calls, and purchasing. And because agility requires training, behavioural change, and often, new information technologies, executives must decide whether the expected payoffs justify the effort and expenses involved in a transition.

The Right Conditions for Agile

CONDITIONS FAVORABLE UNFAVORABLE
Market Environment Customer preferences and solution options change frequently. Stable and predictable market conditions.
Customer Involvement Close collaboration and rapid feedback are feasible.
Customers know better what they want as the process progresses.
Requirements are clear at the outset and will remain stable.
Customers are not available for constant collaboration.
Innovation Type Problems are complex, solutions are unknown, and a lack of clearly defined scope. Product specifications may change. Creative breakthroughs and time to market are important.
Cross-functional collaboration is crucial.
Similar work has been done previously, and innovators feel the solutions are clear. Detailed specifications and work plans can be predicted with confidence and should be adhered to. Problems can be solved sequentially in functional silos.
Modularity of Work Incremental developments have value, and customers can use them.
Work can be broken into parts and executed in rapid, iterative cycles.
Late changes are manageable.
Customers can’t commence testing parts of the product till everything is complete.
Late changes are costly or impossible.
Impact of Interim Mistakes They provide valuable learning. They may be catastrophic.
Source: Jeff Sutherland, Darrell K. Rigby, and Hirotaka Takeuchi – “Embracing Agile,” May 2016    –    © HBR.ORG

Agile innovation is also dependent on having a group of enthusiastic participants. Enthusiasm corresponds with one of Agile’s core principles:

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

When most operators in a company, a function, or a team decide to adopt Agile-based methods, leaders may resort to pressuring the holdouts to buy in or even replace them. However, it’s preferable to enlist passionate volunteers than coerce change resisters.

Agile is not a one-size-fits-all solution; its effectiveness is most prominent in complex problem-solving scenarios, particularly in software innovation. Conditions favoring Agile implementation include a problem with an unknown solution, the potential for changing product requirements, modularizable work, close collaboration with end users, and the assembly of creative teams. These conditions are prevalent in product development, strategic planning, marketing projects, supply-chain challenges, and resource allocation decisions, but less common in routine operations like accounting and plant maintenance. Executives need to weigh expected payoffs against the effort and expenses of an Agile transition.

Agile success relies on enthusiastic participants aligned with Agile principles, emphasizing motivation, a supportive environment, and trust. While pressure may be exerted on resistors to adopt Agile, it is preferable to enlist passionate volunteers for smoother transitions.

 

3. Start Small and Let the Word Spread

Initiating Agile-based methodologies on a small scale, often within the IT department where familiarity with Agile values exists, is a pivotal strategy for success. Large companies typically opt for massive change programs, but the most successful Agile implementations begin modestly. By commencing in a familiar environment, such as IT, where software developers understand Agile principles, organisations pave the way for a smoother transition. As success unfolds, Agile practices organically extend to other functions, with initial practitioners assuming coaching roles. This incremental approach not only ensures a solid foundation but also cultivates passionate advocates within the organisation, eager to share the proven benefits of Agile-based methodologies. Starting small fosters a culture of gradual adoption, enthusiasm, and sustainable transformation.

4. Allow ‘Master’ Teams to Customise Their Practices

“Shu-ha-ri” is a concept in Agile methodology that signifies the stages of learning and mastery, starting with following established practices (shu), progressing to adapting and branching out (ha), and finally achieving a state of intuitive mastery where one can improvise (ri). Japanese martial arts trainees, especially those undertaking training in Aikido, are often taught a process known as shu-ha-ri. At the shu level, they learn about proven disciplines. As soon as they’ve mastered shu, they proceed to ha where they can branch out and begin modifying traditional forms. Afterwards, they move over to ri, by which time they’ve so thoroughly internalised the laws and principles that they enjoy the freedom to improvise as they like.

Developing a mastery of agility is similar to Aikido. Before starting to modify or customise Agile, it is necessary that the individual or team first practice the widely used Agile methods that have proved successful in thousands of organisations. For example, it’s a wise decision to avoid commencing with part-time assignment to teams or with rotating membership. Empirical data indicates that stable teams are 60 per cent more productive and 60 per cent more responsive to customer input than teams with rotating membership.

Over time, experienced Agile practitioners should be allowed to customise Agile practices. For example, there’s this principle that teams should always keep their progress and roadblocks visible. Originally, the most popular way of achieving this was through a manual progression of colored sticky notes from the ‘to-do’ column to ‘doing’ to ‘done’ on large whiteboards (called kanban boards). Many teams still engage in this practice and tend to enjoy non-member visits to their team rooms to see and discuss progress.

But others are leveraging software programmes and computer screens to reduce input time and allow the simultaneous sharing of information in multiple locations. This type of improvisation is premised on a key principle: a team that intends to modify or change particular practices should first experiment and track the results to ensure that the modifications are improving customer satisfaction, team morale, and work velocity rather than reducing them.

5. Practice Agile at the Top

Practicing Agile at the executive level involves applying Agile-based methodologies to C-suite activities, fostering collaboration, and embracing Agile principles in strategic decision-making, resource allocation, and breakthrough innovations. This approach not only improves executive productivity but also aligns leadership with Agile teams, enhancing overall organisational results.

Agile-based methodologies are not suitable for some C-suite activities. Some examples include routine and predictable tasks such as performance assessments; press interviews; and visits to plants, customers, and suppliers. But Agile also works well with many other C-suite activities (arguably the most important of them). Included here are activities such as strategy development and resource allocation, improving organisational collaboration, and cultivating breakthrough innovations.

Senior executives who collaborate as an Agile team and learn to apply agility to their activities achieve far-reaching benefits, including improvements in their own productivity and morale. They speak the language of the teams they are empowering. They face common challenges and learn how to overcome them. They recognise and stop behaviours that work against Agile teams. They learn to simplify and focus work. Consequently, results improve, boosting confidence and engagement across their organisations.

There are organisations that have reallocated 25 per cent or more of selected leaders’ time from functional silos to Agile leadership teams. These teams rank-order enterprise-wide portfolio backlogs, create and coordinate Agile teams elsewhere in the organisation to tackle the top-most priorities, and systematically remove all obstacles to their success.

6. Destroy the Barriers to Agile Behaviours

Research by Scrum Alliance, an independent non-profit boasting over 1,000,000 members found that over 70 per cent of Agile practitioners report tension between their teams and the rest of the organisation. This may be because of following different road maps and working at different speeds.

Sutherland, Rigby, and Takeuchi give an example of a large financial services firm they examined. The company launched a pilot project to build its next mobile app using Agile methods. Logically, the first step was to put together a team and then a budget request to authorise and fund the project. The request landed in the batch of submissions competing for approval in the company’s forthcoming annual planning process. After reviewing the project for months, the firm finally approved its funding. The pilot yielded an effective app loved by customers, and the team was proud of its effort.

But before the app could be released, it had to scale through vulnerability testing through a traditional “waterfall” process (a lengthy sequence that involves testing the computer code for documentation, functionality, efficiency, and standardisation). The queue for the process was long and the app had to be integrated into the core IT system which also involved another waterfall process with a timeline of between six to nine months. In the end, there was just a marginal improvement in the total time to release. Here are some tips for overcoming such barriers to agility:

Keep Everybody on the Same Page

Individual teams tasked with small aspects of large, complex problems need to see and work from the same list of enterprise priorities— even in situations where all the teams responsible for those priorities are not utilising Agile processes. For instance, if creating a new mobile app is the top-most priority for software development, it must also be a top-most priority when it comes to budgeting, vulnerability testing, and software integration. Otherwise, implementing Agile innovations will be a struggle. This is an important duty of an executive team that itself practices Agile.

Example: A large tech company implemented a unified project management tool accessible to all teams, ensuring transparency in project priorities. Whether in software development, budgeting, or vulnerability testing, everyone referred to the same platform, promoting alignment.

No Need to Change Structures Immediately; Change Roles Instead

Many executives have this assumption that establishing more cross-functional teams will lead to major changes in organisational structure. But this is rarely the case. Some form of matrix management is necessary for highly empowered cross-functional teams but this primarily requires different disciplines to learn how to work together in a simultaneous rather than separate and sequential way.

Example: An insurance company transitioned to Agile by introducing cross-functional teams without a major organisational restructuring. While maintaining existing departments, they empowered teams to collaborate on specific projects, fostering a more Agile mindset without disrupting existing structures.

One Boss Per Decision

Unlike human beings who can have several bosses, decisions often cannot. In an Agile system, the person responsible for commissioning a cross-functional team, selecting and replacing members of the team, appointing the team leader, and approving team decisions must be crystal clear. Oftentimes, Agile leadership teams authorise a senior executive to identify the critical issues, design procedures for tackling them, and appoint a single owner for each project or innovation initiative. It is a must that other senior leaders avoid overturning or second-guessing the owner’s decisions. It’s okay to guide and assist, but if the outcomes don’t impress you, then change the initiative owner rather than incapacitate them.

Example: A manufacturing company adopted Agile principles in its product development. Each project had a designated leader responsible for decision-making. Senior executives guided and supported but refrained from overturning decisions, ensuring clear ownership and accountability.

Have a Team Rather Than an Individual Focus

Research conducted by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and others reveals that though individual intelligence impacts team performance, collective or team intelligence is not only more important but also far easier to change. Agile teams use process facilitators such as Scrum masters to continuously improve their collective intelligence. Some instances of this include role clarification, ensuring that team members contribute equally, and teaching conflict resolution techniques. Shifting metrics from output and utilisation rates to business outcomes and team happiness also helps, as do recognition and reward policies that rank team results higher than individual efforts.

Example: A software development company shifted its metrics from individual developer productivity to team outcomes. They implemented Agile ceremonies like retrospectives to enhance team collaboration and performance, recognizing collective intelligence as vital for success.

Leadership With Questions Instead of Orders

Rather than dish out orders, Agile leaders should instead learn to guide with questions. For example: ‘How long do you think the task will last?’ ‘What do you recommend?’ Such a management style helps employees grow from functional experts to general managers. It also helps enterprise strategists and organisations evolve from power and resource-tussling silos into collaborative cross-functional teams.

Example: A financial services firm encouraged Agile leadership by training executives to guide teams with questions. Instead of dictating solutions, leaders asked teams about their recommended approaches, fostering a culture of collaboration and empowerment.

Conclusion

Agile has reshaped project management, proving highly successful in software development for the past 25-30 years and extending its influence across diverse industries. To navigate Agile’s transformative journey, organisations must identify their position in the Agile “waves” and grasp the significance of its evolution.

Despite widespread adoption, common implementation challenges persist, including a lack of education, resistance to change, and conflicts with traditional management. Best practices for Agile transformation involve mastering major methodologies, recognizing favorable conditions, initiating in the IT department, allowing practice customization, and introducing Agile at the executive level.

Real-world examples, such as tensions between Agile teams and the broader organisation in a financial services case study, underscore these challenges. Organisations may undergo iterative waves of Agile transformation, underscoring the importance of continuous learning and adaptation. Recognizing Agile’s effectiveness in specific conditions and encouraging executive involvement are critical.

Overcoming barriers requires addressing challenges like alignment, role changes, clear decision-making, team focus, and leadership guided by questions. As Agile increasingly dominates project management, organisations investing in learning its pitfalls, workforce training, and embracing agility are more likely to succeed in their initial transformation wave. Even staunch proponents of traditional project management, like waterfall, acknowledge Agile’s prominence, prompting some to adopt hybrid Agile-waterfall approaches.

Companies experiencing iterative waves of Agile transformation often grapple with challenges stemming from a lack of knowledge, resistance to change, aversion to risk, and other shortcomings. Organisations dedicating time and resources to understanding Agile’s pitfalls and fostering agility within their workforce are poised for success in their initial transformation wave.

Which wave of Agile are you up to?