The upside of a downward spiral
Downward spirals can be great. Having spent many afternoons with my three-year old at the neighborhood playground, I can attest to how much fun going down the same twisty slide over and over for an hour can be. Well, at least it’s fun for a toddler.
When it comes to organizations trying to adopt an agile approach, however, getting caught in a downward spiral isn’t any fun at all. In fact, it’s often a major blocker—not just for agile projects, but also for the opportunity to use agile for true organizational transformation. Interestingly, nearly 70% of executives we interviewed as part of our CGI Client Global Insights scored their organizational agility for transformation at 6 or less on scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest.
Anatomy of an agile spiral
We discuss the agile spiral further in our new viewpoint, Getting unstuck: Making the PIVOT to business agility, but in short it goes something like this: Agile initiatives, typically led by IT, start out with enthusiasm in establishing hand-picked pilots, training teams and celebrating initial results. Early teams are staffed with known disruptors or enthusiastic groups who are open to changing how they work. As early teams return to their day jobs, and agile is pushed across an organization to those less receptive to change, initiatives lose steam without proper mentoring and enablement in new ways of working.
Disillusion and resistance sets in as the new agile way clashes with established policies and processes. Repeated patterns and missteps stall progress, and support for agile initiatives starts to fizzle. A course correction typically follows as leadership falls back on established management paradigms and tries to instill consistency, rigid practices and internally created tiered certification levels. Old habits of execution take over, the business disengages, and agile is dismissed as just another IT initiative.
Agile is a key driver of transformation
Nobody likes to see their IT initiatives fail, but too many organizations have become accustomed to this fizzle as a foregone conclusion. They say 70% of change initiatives fall short of their goals. I’m sorry, but not on my watch. This is because, unlike other IT initiatives, agile has such great potential to be a key driver of transformation. So, seeing an agile initiative head into a downward spiral is a bit heartbreaking.
I’ve seen firsthand the impact agile can have on an organization going through a transformation initiative. A global retailer, for instance, had its 10-year business and IT modernization program stall out using a waterfall methodology. By adopting agile over the course of eight months, however, they went from being 11 months late, to being 16 months ahead of schedule.
Reversing the agile spiral
If you feel you’re caught right now in an agile spiral (or if you’re worried that you’re about to be), it’s not too late to reverse course and find success at scale with agile. While every organization has its own unique journey, here are four things that highly successful organizations are doing to prioritize in their approach to agile:
- Getting buy in from internal partners. For agile to succeed at any level, it requires a shift in the way IT interacts with the business and operations. Creating a partnership among all three areas will allow an organization to identify and iterate value faster. Seeing this rapid success when all three groups work together helps to reverse the direction and build an upward spiral.
- Investing long and investing short. Avoiding the spiral also requires investment at both a strategic and a tactical level. At the strategic level, this means executive leadership commitment to invest in agile as a force for transformation. At a more tactical financial level, it means shifting an organization’s financial models to fund capacity versus projects
- Focusing on getting done. Traditional waterfall approaches reward motion and activity, focusing on how the activity contributes to planned milestones. Agile methods reward completion, measuring impact by objectives and key results (OKR) vs. key performance indicators (KPI).
- Embracing additional modern methodologies. On its own, agile at scale is a powerful tool for transformation. But, when you combine agile along with other modern methodologies, including lean, agile at scale and DevOps (what we call LADx™), the effect is not merely additive – it becomes a force multiplier. (You can read more about the LADx multiplier effect in my previous blog.)
Again, every agile journey is different, but with a bit of planning and foresight, organizations can create positive momentum. When done well, agile is a powerful catalyst for digital transformation. If you’re interested in keeping your agile strategy on an upward spiral, I highly recommend downloading our whitepaper for some additional ideas and inspiration.