Andrea is CEO and co-founder of Agile Sherpasthe leader in Agile transformations for marketers and other non-technical teams.
Despite their prominence in strategic planning decks around the world, data from the past few decades suggests that more than 70% of transformation efforts fail. A 2021 meta-analysis published in Harvard Business Review set the number as high as 78%.
Fully implementing agile transformation principles and practices across multiple teams and/or departments is one of the most challenging and most important components. As the uncertainty of the pandemic continues and economic disruption continues, agility may well make the difference between organizations that survive and organizations that fail.
So if agile transformation is so important, why are such a small number of companies doing well? Over the years, I’ve seen leaders repeat two types of mistakes as they strive to make an organization agile:
1. They delegate responsibility for the transformation output without clarifying the desired results.
2. They rely too much on known quantities and fixate on the highest levels of the organization, ignoring the tactical changes in the trenches needed to support transformation.
In this article, I’m going to focus on the first mistake; a follow-up section elaborates on the second.
Where do you place the responsibility for agile transformation?
When leaders who are new to transformation look at their organization, they are often drawn to pre-existing agile expertise. In many cases, this institutional knowledge lives with scrum masters. This role is designed to support agile teams in their day-to-day work and is often critical in ensuring the long-term adoption of agile methods.
So it’s true that scrum masters know about agile project management, but often their experience extends to just a part of it. They are not necessarily well versed in scaling agile transformation outside of a single team, and they may not even be familiar with agile implementations without the scrum framework. With a few exceptions, I don’t think they are equipped to oversee change management.
In addition, scrum masters do not have the organizational or political authority to make changes to team composition, reporting, tool selection, etc. All of these choices, and the cascading shifts that follow, must be part of a successful agile transformation.
Leaders therefore cannot delegate transformational responsibility to this group; they must take ultimate responsibility for it. This doesn’t mean they should be the ones creating new org charts or evaluating agile tools, but they should be involved in the transformation from start to finish. Scrum masters can be key for ground support, but I don’t think it’s usually beneficial to push them to the front line.
Results of agile transformation exceed its output
One of the best ways for senior leaders to take responsibility for the success of a transformation without getting bogged down in the details is to clearly articulate the results they expect after the transformation.
After all, Agile is there to solve organizational problems. Sometimes agile is implemented to increase speed to market. Other times, it’s a way to empower employees to increase innovation and improve retention. In other cases, it is a way to reduce the rework and waste that comes from a siled organizational structure.
Whatever the reason, agile transformation itself is not the goal; solving a bigger problem is the goal. Effective transformation leaders can succinctly articulate this outcome and have identified metrics associated with its presence.
By focusing their attention on this outcome rather than the output of agile, leaders can ensure they are engaged in transformation without becoming overwhelmed. The output of agile includes functioning agile teams, visible backlogs, consistent sprints and more. Scrum masters are well positioned to help you achieve them, but running sprints and building backlogs doesn’t mean the bigger result has been achieved.
To ensure the output is aligned with your desired outcomes, you need strategic guidance, either from internal champions with transformation experience or external consultants. Once this is combined with a long-term leadership commitment to achieve the desired transformation outcomes, not just output, there is an opportunity to join the 22% who achieve successful transformation.
A mixed approach to make the entire organization stronger
Even once results are identified and articulated, teams and their leaders, including scrum masters, need support. Maintaining this focus on transformation over several quarters or years can be challenging, but it can be simplified by using the right tools.
Instead of running away and leaving agile practitioners to their own devices, leaders can deploy powerful tools that make transformation self-sufficient. I call this model transformation as a service (TaaS) because it is modeled after the software as a service (SaaS) movement. These tools include online learning and coaching.
Whichever approach you choose, be careful not to delegate the responsibility for your transformation to those who, while they may have agile expertise, don’t have the capabilities to oversee a complex implementation of business agility. Instead, give a clear goal that you pursue by applying agile principles and practices, then work with your agile subject matter experts to help you achieve it.