Leading People through an Agile Transformation – Concrete steps you can take as a Leader

The article was first published on LinkedIn

Organisational change has always been a challenging task. The process of starting something new often leads to uncertainty and insecurity. More so, when the end state after the change is not fully comprehended. This is often the case in large scale enterprise transformations. Leading through such times is a daunting task for any executive. True agile transformations are and should be disruptive, unless of course you just want a label for your marketing efforts. True agility would involve not just moving to newer methods of working but organisational restructuring as well with new roles and responsibilities. Before the promised gains can be realized, there is a dip in productivity that must be successfully managed.

Before teams (and individuals) will move to the experiment stage, they will need to go through shock, denial, frustration and depression [ Kubler Ross Curve ]. While some will move through this pretty quickly, for many others it could be a long journey. Keeping teams focused and motivated through this period is essential for the change to succeed given that the path to Agility is for sure going to be a bumpy one.

It is important to remember the golden words of Drucker here.

Just as the essence of medicine is not urinalysis (important though that is), the essence of management is not techniques and procedures,” wrote Drucker. “The essence of management is to make [people and their expertise] productive. Management, in other words, is a social function.

Agile processes and techniques are a means to an end. The ultimate goal is for the organisation to be more productive, do more for less and bring a culture of continuous improvement. Agility will always remain a continuous journey, never a single end state. The people aspect of the transformation is a crucial one to influence positively and proactively. There are concrete essential aspects that you can focus as leaders to put yourself and your organization on the path towards better agility and a successful transformation.

Spirited effort

First and most important, your passion as a leader for the transformation need to be genuine and visible. “You must be the change you want to see in the world”, said Mahatma Gandhi. Your genuine passion for agility is essential for spirited effort and is contagious. It will rub off on other people motivating them to consider the change much more seriously and giving it a fair chance to succeed.

Prepare yourself and other leaders / managers

While the future is hard to predict and might appear hazy for everyone including the , communicating the vision/intent and the immediate steps towards that vision is critical. For large organizations with teams spread in multiple remote locations, local leaders/managers will need training and coaching to take the message forward. While they may be business leaders in their own domains and fields of expertise, Agile and change management is most likely new for them. Training and coaching for senior leaders and middle management is a must, regardless of how busy they might be. The impact of skipping this is disastrous on the overall change effort.

Multiple channels of Communication

What works for one, may not work for the others, so multiple channels of communication are essential to address the concerns, questions and provide clarity. A solid communication plan that keeps everyone abreast with the proceedings is critical.

In the initial stages, the why of change is most important e.g. why are we embarking on the agile journey? Why we chose scrum over Kanban (or vice versa)? Why this framework over that framework? Such questions are natural and take the focus. They are best addressed through direct people to people interactions like town halls, round tables and one on ones.

As we move forward into the journey, people need more guidance on the newer processes, practices and tools. This is best addressed with information portals, trainings and workshops. The adage “more information is better than less” very much applies here.

Don’t just listen to the field, Engage them.

While surveys are usually conducted and will measure the “State of the Agility”, It’s also important to get feedback on the softer aspects of the transformation. You could ask a simple question in the NPS style : How likely are you to recommend the way you do agile in your team to another team in the company? Or use some questions to judge the “Happiness Quotient”. Get creative, but listen to the field.

Don’t limit yourself to the surveys. Do some Gemba walks. To quote the legendary Dr W. Edwards Deming,” ‘Management by walking around’ is hardly ever effective,” he once said. “The reason is that someone in management, walking around, has little idea about what questions to ask, and usually does not pause long enough at any spot to get the right answer.” Gemba walks are not just walking around the floor like a tourist, but actually getting involved and engaged with the teams. Do that effectively.

Encourage people-to-people Interactions, Get out of the way.

Many times, the centre of excellence (or department of quality, or PMO) whoever is driving the transformation efforts becomes a bottleneck. If the teams rely on such a central group for “good practices” that work in their context or guidance to try new experiments, its gains are far limited. Through internal forums – both online and physical, attempts should be made to encourage direct flow of knowledge between the teams. The cross pollination of ideas has a multiplier effect and the best ideas will go “viral” much faster – than a small centralized group – however smart and committed can hope to do. As a leader, your role in encouraging this pattern is important. If your interactions are only with a limited group of people who feed information and status to you, it doesn’t help. You need to find avenues and opportunities to interact with the wider audience.

Give Intent, Not Instructions

David Marquet sums it up beautifully when he says “If You Want People to Think, Give Them Intent—Not Instruction”. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels. People feel more connected to the change when they have the freedom to think and act. They will find innovative ways to reach towards the goals. Let them have that freedom. Work with focused intent, not instruction.

Successful transformation efforts would mean doing many things beyond the above. Thinking in the SPICE direction provides a platform to try other experiments and achieve the desired outcomes.

Quoting Drucker again,

We are not going to breed a new race of supermen. We will have to run our organisations with people as they are.

Transforming an organisation is a lot about transforming your people. Good leadership playing the catalyst remains a key success factor for agile and for that matter any kind of organisational transformation.

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Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh is an enterprise agile coach with interests in varied disciplines. Frequently writing on Agile and Lean related topics, he also occasionally ventures into other stuff like Artificial Intelligence as well..