Agility - The Most Important Challenges for Company Transformation

Agility & Company Transformation

The Most Important Challenges

Agility - The Most Important Challenges for Company Transformation

Now that we know what the main transition models of moving towards agility are, it is time to dive more into details. First thing that comes to people’s minds is “what can possibly go wrong?”. And this is exactly what I will try to address in this blog post. Let’s have a look at the most typical challenges an organization can face during the transformation to an agile way of working. Believe me, there are lots of them!

Lack of Understanding from the Management

As Alfred Hitchcock said years ago “A film should start with an earthquake, and then the stress should continuously increase”. In this article I would like to begin with such a small earthquake – issues coming from the top management. Some may say “hey, but all this agility and scrum is for the IT department, right?”. Well, not really. Agility is a culture, a mindset in an organization. It not only affects a single team, but the whole organization. Therefore, it shouldn’t only be on the agenda of developer teams, but also, and maybe in the first place, on top of the management’s to-do list. But how may a group that usually starts the change possibly be a threat to it? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Not treating the change as a priority,
  • Not taking part in the change,
  • Setting wrong expectations,
  • Lacking the understanding of the change in general.

The adoption of a different working style is sometimes perceived too much a pilot project that only a few teams will contribute to it and the rest thinks “we’ll see how it goes” rather than promoting a huge change, that (properly implemented) can increase a company’s value delivered and competitiveness on the market. The top management often operates on a different level than what they perceive as the transformation level. As it is not treated as a priority, not properly understood and adopted, the top management might decide not to participate actively in the change itself. As a result, an organizational dichotomy comes into effect. Middle and lower level employees are trying to work in an agile way but are expected by the top management to still be working in the old way, to be working better and more efficiently according to old ways of measuring the output rather than the outcome. Those metrics usually do not have much in common with the actual value, hence it is nearly impossible to spread agility. Such expectations are indirectly stopping the change, leading to further frustration both caused and felt by the top management – “They were supposed to work more efficiently! This whole Agility thing (with capital letter naturally) is just useless!”.

The described is part of a loop that always starts with no understanding of what the change is about and what the key points are. As a result, change is not treated as a priority and/or the top management has “more important stuff to do” than taking part in the change. Consequently, they set the expected results/KPIs/any other metric in the current form, not representing the new ways of organizational work.

To overcome this challenge, a very conscious and understanding top management is needed. Even if it does not possess the required knowledge, there is a number of professional trainers and companies that can help with that issue. The important thing is to remember that an “agile mindset” is crucial. Experience and knowledge are of great importance, but the way of thinking is the key.

Well-Established Corporate Culture, Customs and Processes (aka “concrete”)

I have been fortunate enough to work with (usually) open-minded people. This made my work a pleasure – working with a person who is not willing to change and says “no” to everything new is tough compared to someone open for new ideas and concepts, someone who likes to experiment and learn. Now imagine a whole organization of people “made of concrete”. Making a change in such a place is extremely hard or even impossible. So, what can we do about this? Well, first we need to know why they behave like this.

There can be several reasons, to list at least a few:

  • Fear of change,
  • High position combined with lack of skills,
  • Herd behavior.

Fear of change is for most of us a natural reaction. In general, our organisms love stability and predictability. New or unknown environments might seem hostile to us, which causes fear (which in general is useful in case of dangers as it causes us to run away or fight for survival in case of dangers). As we are afraid of the unknown (we do not know how to react, what to expect and what others can expect from us), the natural reaction is escape (“Sorry, we have a critical issue with servers, I won’t make it for the planning”) or fight (“What kind of nonsense is that meeting? We only meet! We should work, this is just a waste of time!”). The greater the fear the harder the fight. In such cases the first thing to do is to find the source of fear and work on it together with the person. It needs a lot of empathy, time, patience and strength of will and the result is not always guaranteed.

Have you ever worked with a dev/business analyst who discusses every simple detail and when everyone agrees what needs to be done requires the help of two other people to fulfill the task while he or she keeps discussing without delivering anything? Such employees might be reluctant to change due to a lack of skills. After a few years of this kind of work experience those people are becoming completely tied to the organization they work in. Any change (either in the current organization or when applying for a new job) can be harmful, both in terms of money and position, as it might show their lack of skills, hence they oppose it. In teams that are working agile such behavior becomes transparent. It is important to detect it and react in such cases – this might be frustrating for others in the organization. Reactions can vary, each case is individual. It might result in moving the person to another department, to another position (that matches the skills of the person) or ending cooperation.

Leo Murray indicates “cohesion” as one of the crucial success factors in his book “Brains & bullets: how psychology wins wars”. One thing impacts it a lot – herd behavior (both in a positive and negative way). When part of the team falls back, then the rest of it would probably do the same. It works identically in any other group of people, especially in a company. As a result, even if one person (especially one with a strong personality) opposes the transformation for whatever reason, others might follow, even if they are in favor of the change. Herd behavior doesn’t allow them to do something else than the rest of the group. In such situations another person to follow is needed (change angel/agent – a trustworthy leader like another strong and courageous person from the team or e.g. a Scrum Master) or something must be done with the opposing one. And here we get back to the paragraph about fear of change – identify the fear of the opposing person and work on it. By taking care of this issue you might fix the reluctance of the whole team/department.

Merciless Transparency

Failing tests? Missing features? Dozens of bugs? None of those problems can be hidden in an organization dedicated to agility. The lack of knowledge of issues is very dangerous as their negative impact might show up when it is already too late. The sooner they are addressed, the lower the cost. This is not the case when working in a “success driven” company where any problem is seen as a failure. Agility perceives them as valuable lessons and provides tools to evade them in the future. Without understanding that, no transformation can be successful.

Transformation is a Huge Change

Changing the organization is not an easy task nor a quick one. The bigger and more “stale” an organization is, the more difficult it gets. So, it is a clever idea to start small with a pilot program in a totally separated, self-organizing part of the company. Problems might arise when they are finished – what should be next? Without a plan of how to make use of all the learnings and momentum from the pilot participants it can be for nothing. Therefore, Agility requires some planning.

All those risks or challenges can be reduced by professional help. There is many coaches, Scrum Masters and change managers who experienced at least some of those cases or specialize in change. Employing them is an added value and can increase the chances of a positive transition. No one can guarantee the success however, as working with people is one of the most difficult jobs and a variety of factors can impact the success or failure in an organization.

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Karol Kłaczyński

Karol Kłaczyński

Scrum Master

Professional Scrum Master I & II, Software Development

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