Agile insights from LitheSpeed

The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff

As we work with leaders on enterprise agile, there is always an inordinate focus on process definitions, estimation, requirements artifacts, design artifacts, velocity, measuring team performance, normalizing point estimation, etc, etc.  And while these things are of some importance, they are not the key drivers of successful agile transformation.  In my experience, the number one driver and predictor of a successful enterprise agile transformation has been the ability of leadership to drive organizational change.

Many of us come from an engineering background and we often view software development as an engineering problem to be solved.   And sometimes that is the case, but the engineering piece is not usually the hardest part of the problem.  I have been involved in agile transformations for about 13 or 14 years now and I can confidently say that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”. 

Just changing the behavior of an individual person, even yourself, can be extraordinarily difficult.  How many of us have struggled with losing weight, quitting smoking, etc?  Now, multiply that effort times a few thousand as you try to change the behaviors of large groups of people within a large organization.  It is not for the faint of heart. Such change requires a strategy, a plan, a multi-year sustained effort, and a lot of passion.  Unfortunately, this most critical effort gets vastly short-changed in most agile transformations.  I’d also say that change-leadership is, unfortunately, a rare skill, especially in engineering circles.


We talk a lot in agile circles about “systems thinking”. We talk about breaking down vertical silos and getting the parts of the system to work in more interdependent and cross-functional ways to accelerate delivery and improve quality.   Well, change management needs a system too!  Here are some examples of how large organizations, who have been successful with agile at scale, have developed an interconnected change-management system that supports and reinforces the overall change effort.

Communications:  John Kotter of Harvard Business School says that most leaders under communicate the change by a factor of 10.   Most of the successful agile transformations that I have experienced have had strong and sustained internal communications and marketing campaigns.  The reasons for the change are reiterated frequently, wins and successes are celebrated, challenges are openly acknowledged, plans and next steps are shared broadly, etc.   Every week or two, new communications are coming out though a variety of channels such as email, posters, town-hall meetings, internal web sites, meetings, etc.    The importance of strong communications plan cannot be over emphasized.   You can’t just tell someone to lose weight one time and expect that to work.   It takes years of sustained reinforcement.

Metrics – If we expect people to adopt agile methods but still measure and evaluate using more traditional methods, then we are not reinforcing the behavior that we would like to see.  I remember Gregor Bailar at Capital One, a real master at change management by the way, using simple high-level metrics to drive the organization towards agile.  He would say “I want to see 40%-50% improvements in time-to-market”.  Mark Schwarz, CIO at USCIS and another master of change management, would not accept project plans that didn’t deliver something of value at least every quarter.  What I like about these kinds of metrics is that they measure UP … they measure across the entire value stream and they focus more on delivery to production and less on teams, points, or development velocity.  And these kinds of metrics force security, production support, infrastructure, and others to get more involved.

HR – To support agile, we need to get HR on board too.  We need to start screening and hiring people based upon their ability to work well in teams, on their ability to communicate well with others, and on their willingness to be flexible with their roles and duties. We also need to change how performance reviews are done so that they take more of these team and communications factors into account. And we may need career paths for internal coaches, scrum masters, and product owners so that we can attract the right talent to these critical roles.

classroom-1699745_1920Sustained Education – Most successful agile transformations that I have seen have had a long-term agile education component.  Training isn’t a “one and done” endeavor by any means.  Many of our clients have installed multi-year internal training programs that constantly reinforce agile learning. And there is always more to learn … Kanban, test automation, continuous integration, devops, etc.   Some organizations, such as USCIS and Capital One, would hold internal private agile conferences where teams would present their learnings and recommendations to each other. Learning needs to be sustained over the long term and delivered through a variety of channels.

Real Estate – Corporate real estate can assist by reconfiguring work-spaces to be more open and collaborative.  And by installing more white boards to facilitate team working sessions.   They can also help by allocating space to cross-functional teams and not to silos or functions.   One of the biggest things you can do to improve quality and speed is to have developers, testers, and analysts sitting side by side.

Policy – And then there is policy … making it capitol-281123_1920all official.  One of the greatest change leadership achievements that I’ve seen was at the hands of Mark Schwartz when he made agile the official software development policy at USCIS.   Teams could still do waterfall if they felt a strong need to, but that was by exception.  Most organizations do it the other way around and make agile the exception.  The result is usually an organization that is 80% waterfall with a few oddball teams trying to do agile and usually running into a lot of organizational friction as a result. Making agile the official policy forced everyone to get onboard … architecture, infrastructure, operations, the business, everyone.

Hopefully by now you are starting to see how a successful agile change management plan should incorporate a wide variety of your organizational functions into an integrated system. In my experience, there is too much focus on estimates, velocities, and artifacts.  While that stuff will usually result in some improvements, it won’t change how your organization fundamentally works.   And let’s be honest here, when we look at team performance, or lack thereof, the root causes are very often outside of the team’s control.  The challenges that they face often come from other parts of the organization that are not yet on board or who may even be actively resisting the change.  This is where leadership needs to focus … across the white space of the org chart to create a holistic system whose pieces are all working together to support and reinforce the change.   And that’s the hard stuff.

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