Building an agile culture

How do large, complex organizations successfully transition to agile? How do they change their culture? How do they overcome past agile failures and ensure future agile successes? Below are key success factors for building an agile culture.

Business and IT leadership engagement

Agile projects and programs will not survive in large hierarchical organizations that have traditional command and control cultures without C-level support—period. The decision and drive to change how the organization operates has to come from the top down. It also must involve both business and technology operations, as most operational areas need to change for Agile to take root.

IT can’t implement agile alone. A close relationship and close collaboration between business and IT leadership is crucial. Enterprise agile must be co-owned.

Organizational readiness

Most organizations cannot go “all agile” at once. Instead, they need a transitional roadmap that provides the right amount of support based on the organization’s readiness. A purist approach to agile—where traditional development is completely replaced in one fell swoop—results in failure for many organizations, especially those that rely on tight controls, rigid structures and cost-benefit analysis. To build an effective change strategy, you must understand where the organization is at and define transitional phases in line with its maturity and readiness.

Team empowerment

In addition, agile requires strong team empowerment. IT teams must work differently when implementing agile. In a traditional waterfall environment, teams align themselves to a specific function such as development or testing, relying on processes and templates, and without a big picture view. They also often work in silos. Agile requires flexibility and close collaboration with teams who align to focus on the successful outcome of the initiative, regardless of function. Agile also provides teams with a great deal of transparency into the business objectives behind their work.

Working this way requires top-to-bottom change management that leads to a “learn and change” culture. In this kind of a culture, teams are empowered to innovate and create based on an understanding of where the business is headed and with the autonomy to act independently and collaboratively. We repeatedly see pockets of middle management actively or covertly pushing back on the agile transformation. This is understandable because, when we empower the worker, we don’t need as many layers of management. Swift, firm action from executives is required to address pushback from non-conformers. The organization needs to know that agile transformation is here to stay.

Transitional transformation

Building the right transitional plan to agile requires bringing together people, processes and technologies and identifying where it makes business sense to implement agile. As we noted above, agile is not a silver bullet. An assessment of the areas where agile would work best is required, which will then guide the transition. Many organizations start doing agile iterations right away, which can be too difficult. A well-defined transitional approach is required.

Agile program

Transitioning to agile can’t be done in an agile way for many organizations. An effective program for managing the transition and driving cultural change is required. Three key program requirements include the following:

  • Communication: This is the most critical requirement. Clear and consistent communication between the business and IT sides and among IT teams creates the level of engagement, understanding and collaboration required for agile success
  • Buy-in from the top down: A bottom up approach to agile adoption needs to be supported from the top in order to be successful. Buy-in needs to cascade from the top down.
  • Ongoing business and IT collaboration: As discussed previously, IT cannot implement agile alone. Business leadership needs to be involved from the outset and remained involved, providing ongoing input into business direction and objectives to guide the agile development.

Experienced agile partner

Transitioning successfully to agile also requires an experienced partner to provide the right guidance and support. Look for a partner committed to the following:

  • Working closely with your senior leaders to drive the necessary cultural change
  • Talking honestly and realistically about the pros and cons of agile development, without trying to sell it or present it as a silver bullet
  • Explaining where and how agile development can work within your organization
  • Demonstrating how agile development can drive value