7 Obstacles that Impede Agile Transformation

This post is the fourth in a series on scaling Agile.

Family-Style Collaboration in the Workplace (Base Unit of Scaling)In my previous post, we introduced the Family Pattern for Team Collaboration, seven success criteria for establishing healthy teams. Although to some degree we can replicate the family environment in the workplace, we should not forget that workplace teams are not families. As natural as it may be at home, family-style collaboration is not natural in today’s workplace and likely won’t occur at all unless deliberate steps are taken and many obstacles overcome.

Organizational change management

Family-style collaboration in the workplaceFor example, a shared goal (criteria 4) comes naturally enough for a family. However, in the work environment special efforts will need to be made to provide the team with the information and context they will need to align on a goal, with each other and with the broader organization. Similarly, it’s natural enough for a child to learn to trust his parents after being sheltered for years in the comfort of their home. Workplace teams, however, will find it difficult to develop the trust relationships needed for mutual commitments and collaboration if their organizations don’t take steps to provide them with a private, protected space (criteria 6).

In addition to these examples, there will be many other steps the organization will need to take in order for healthy teams to form and persist. Although circumstances vary  by organization, there are impediments that occur frequently enough for us to identify them as recurring obstacles to Agile Transformation.

Here are 7 stumbling blocks that prevent Agile transformation:

1. Lack of physical team space

As mundane as this challenge may sound, it’s sufficient to kill an Agile initiative or stop it before it ever gets started. Collaboration thrives when teams are in intimate proximity. Maybe an exceptional team can overcome this challenge, but not the many teams of a larger Agile transformation. Once teams get established and members have effective working relationships, the team has a greater chance of surviving if some members are dispersed. Also, an Agile program involving many teams does not need to be completely co-located in order to be successful. What is vital is that small groups of people intimately work together and develop the trust and mutual understanding necessary for effective collaboration. It will be extremely difficult for small groups to achieve this state if they are never afforded the opportunity to work in a shared, physical space.

2. Lack of available business collaborators

Each team needs a single point of contact business representative (a.k.a. sponsor or customer). Known as the “product owner” in Scrum, this person needs to frequently engage with the team and have the authority to specify, prioritize, and accept the team’s work. It’s surprising how often organizations attempt to go Agile without taking steps to fulfill this role in a meaningful way (or even at all!). Not properly fulfilling this role will curtail the efficacy of your Agile initiative, even kill it.

3. Incompatibility with existing governance policies

Unlike the first two impediments, it’s unlikely that any one incompatibility will outright kill your program. However, collectively over time they can cause the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. Here are a couple of typical examples:

  • Quality gate sign-off policies. Memorialized documents such as project plans, requirements, and design documents may not be amendable after formal sign-off from upper management (without formal change requests). However, Agile won’t work if teams and their product owners are not empowered to make changes to tasks, estimates, priority, and design.
  • Capital expense-tracking procedures. The mechanisms used to track CapEx are sometimes disrupted by new Agile processes. If new procedures are not revised that are conducive to Agile and CapEx policy, this can result in the organization clamping down on how broadly Agile methods are used.

4. Exclusion of supervisors and line managers

When teams are empowered, supervisors sometimes lose job responsibilities. Yet too often organizations make no provisions for addressing these changes in line manager function and status. This can result in active and (less addressable) passive resistance to the Agile transformation from an important and influential constituency. To add insult to injury, Agile programs create new work to support and advocate for teams, if teams are to remain productive and fulfill their full potential. Yet no effort is made to discuss with supervisors (or anyone else) how they might fulfill these new responsibilities.

5. Individual performance management systems

This impediment takes two forms: A short form and long form. The short form takes place early in the Agile transformation as employees are assigned to teams and their new Agile team roles conflict with their current individual performance agreement. For example, going with the team may mean losing the ability to complete individual work items, thereby jeopardizing your bonus. The long form of the impediment, like slogging through an every-deepening marsh, slows you down and eventually stops progress as you become deeply mired in clashing values. On the one hand you force-rank peers, putting them in a zero-sum game competition where to win means your peer must lose. On the other, the Agile value is commitment to the team, where all “win” or “lose” together. These two systems are not reconcilable.

6. Out of phase with upstream and downstream work streams

The Agile team is somewhere in the middle of a larger flow of work or value stream. It increases frequency of inflow and outflow to every two weeks, maybe even less. If the cadence of work upstream and downstream from the team does not also change, then delays and log jams can occur.

7. Single team assignment

Like stumbling block #1, this impediment corresponds to an element of the family pattern for team collaboration (criteria 7). People who are simultaneously committed to more than one “Team” are unable to make meaningful delivery commitments because of inevitable conflicting team imperatives. If members can’t make meaningful commitments, Agile won’t work. This problem grows in magnitude as the program grows in size and more teams are involved.

In some cases such as #1, lack of physical team space, the stumbling block means something new needs to be added. In other cases, as in #5, individual performance management, something needs to be revised. Taken together, everything that you need to change conditions on the ground, revise policies, and overcome impediments in order to achieve your desired outcome is (organizational) change management. Organizational change management is especially crucial to the success of Agile transformation initiatives because for most organizations profound changes are needed in the behavior and even the attitude of the people affected.

Change management

Generally speaking, as the scope of the change increases, the need for change management accelerates. This is because as organization’s size increases, organizational complexity also increases, as does organizational inertia. Consequently, any Agile-at-scale initiative, with many teams that are part of a large, dispersed organization, will generate a significant amount of organizational change need — so much that a dedicated organizational change program will be needed to achieve any assurance of success.

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