Grow Roots To Strengthen AGILE

Grow Roots To Strengthen AGILE

Agile Coaches are key transformation agents when organizations look to pivot from traditional ways of working to Agile methods. Such transformations are sponsored by organizations for various reasons — competitive pressure, low employee engagement, as part of digital transformation and in many cases just for its coolness factor. Whatever the reasons, business and organizational leaders bring in Agile Coaches to own the transformation journey.

Agile Coaches are generally configured as senior management or leadership positions due to the influence they need to exert in the change journey. Trained and certified in various Agile frameworks like Scrum, SAFe, LeSS, Kanban etc. Agile Coaches bring their own blend of training, mentoring and coaching and apply them to unique situations every team and organizations presents in the transformation journey.

Oftentimes however, Agile Coaches in all good intentions and in alignment with their charter, use the language of their own Agile Frameworks to teams and leaders who do not understand them well enough. E.g. a coach who is an expert in Scrum will train, mentor and coach teams and managers in Scrum rituals, help pivot project managers and team leads into Scrum Master roles and inject Agile backlog and collaboration tools into the organization’s fabric.

“If we truly want to be Agile, we are going to have to adopt the language of our customers. To that end, we must choose words and concepts that they are comfortable with—not force them to learn a new, arbitrary, and unhelpful vocabulary.”

Daniel Vacanti in Actionable Agile Metrics for Predictability

In ideal conditions, Agile Coaches will succeed in bringing about change both in letter and spirit. In most scenarios however, Coaches hit upon mental blocks and resistance from the very leaders who sponsor these change initiatives. This comes from two broad areas:


  1. Leaders grow up through the ranks with traditional management styles and expect all Agile transformation change to be restricted in the “lower layers” of the organization while still retaining the comfort of their own Command and Control mindset. It is only fair to expect this because the organizational structure, power structures and the domain of influence is founded in hierarchy — with no models to challenge and educate.
  2. Organization leaders typically see Agile as a “software thing”. When organizations take up transformation, they would limit the influence to remain within the software development community. Such a constraint limits the impact of Agility and bring sub-optimal outcomes. Agile Coaches find it hard to challenge the fallacy — and Agile frameworks provide no vocabulary to do the same.

“A Scrum Master who takes teams beyond getting agile practices up and running into their deliberate and joyful pursuit of high performance is an agile coach.”

Lyssa Adkins in Coaching Agile Teams

Under such conditions, using the language of Agile frameworks is NOT sufficient to break through such resistance. Agile coaches need a new vocabulary and framework that encapsulates Agile to communicate what it needs to build self managed organizations and self-organised teams – the essence of Agile. Something more broad in scope is needed.

Such broad frameworks by necessity have to talk about transformation, but in generic terms (not limited by software) and the role of business leadership in the transformation. Assessment tools, process flows/practices and governance rituals that such frameworks emphasise must also talk in terms that transcend the boundaries of software and technology.

The Semco Style framework is one such framework that practicing Agile Coaches can find very handy to break out of the shackles that they may find themselves in. The broadening of their horizons with insights from the Semco Style framework will help them learn how to challenge leadership mindsets in people who may be above their pay grade or are the same people who are their sponsors. The framework equips Coaches with assessment tools that expose the dysfunctions in organizations brought out of traditional mindsets. These findings will help navigate the resistance from senior/exec leadership.

The Semco Style framework also provides a roadmap that Agile Coaches can use to devise a path that is unique to the organizations’ state in adopting Agile mindsets, starting with senior leadership. It also prepares Coaches to recognise areas of resistance and build empathy on why they exist. Such awareness equips Agile Coaches with the patience and also the wisdom to navigate the choppy waters that will come in the form of leadership resistance.

In summary, using Agile tools to drive Agile transformations in organisations beyond the execution teams and software/technology is often limiting. Agile Coaches need frameworks that transcend these boundaries and equip them with knowledge, tools and practices that expand their areas of influence and drive true Business Agility — something that can bring growth to them and their organizations.

Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 2)

Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 2)

In the first part of this article, we defined what Agile transformation is and what Organizational Culture and Organizational Climate are in that context. We also saw how Agile Transformation is a 3-dimensional change that affects the Execution Culture across (X-Axis) and deep (Y-Axis) and also the Climate/Mood (Z-Axis) of your organization.

We elaborated how the leadership in ALL execution teams that partner in this transformation has the responsibility to carry themselves and their teams through this cultural shift. At the same time, its the HR leadership’s responsibility to sense the Organizational Climate as the cultural shift occurs and support the teams with appropriate interventions to maintain a healthy environment of learning and growth.

Having an appreciation of how Agile impacts people, their roles and their responsibilities is key to designing how Organizational Climate is assessed and how as an organization you respond to it. The remainder of this article focuses on how Agile Transformation impacts the focus areas of assessment and also the intervention areas from the assessment.

What to assess in Organizational Climate for Agile Transformation?

Typical assessments of Organizational Climate focus on how well people understand their roles, their growth trajectories, skill requirements, confidence in the leadership and the effectiveness of the feedback process that leads to professional growth. It would also look at feedback on compensation and benefits, rewards programs and other softer aspects like diversity, values and alignment.

It will now be evident, that with Agile transformation inverting the ownership model in your teams, the traditional notions of growth, skills requirements and definitions of leadership will change. Assessing the team’s confidence of the leadership has to shift from their ability to direct, to their ability to coach. This also needs to be paired with finding out if teams are sensing an increase in their ownership domain as well as their comfort with it. It will be important to understand how collaboration between people of different skill sets are affecting team morale and power distances. Quite paradoxically, if you sense your organization doing very well and comfort on all these change dimensions, you could well assume that Agile transformation is NOT going right; it could also be a indication of fear to communicate the reality in your organization — a fundamental flaw that will kill your Agile Transformation journey.

How to engage the organization with Organizational Assessment?

A redesigned Assessment framework that accommodates Agile mindsets will help the HR organization support the leadership to influence the Climate. The lazy approach to use the Climate assessment is to ask leadership to go easy on those areas that are causing discomfort to the teams even if they are “growing pains” of the journey. E.g. if the teams complain that managers are not engaged in the day to day tasks of the team and resent the “aloofness”, a direction to managers to revert to be more “engaged” will be the exact opposite of what should be done to drive Agility. Conversely, if managers are complaining that there is lack of clarity in their “vertical growth”, it may a good sign and call out the need to refine the roles and responsibilities of the management layer towards and incentivizing servant-leadership.

To re-iterate from the last article, the Climate is the effect and NOT the cause – so, it derives that each team now has to have its own understanding of the climate and work on what behavioural aspects to change. The teams themselves or the managers on their own may not be able to chart the next steps — Agile coaches must be engaged to help understand which pains are Agile friendly, and help the teams navigate them. Unfortunately, Agile Coaches are not considered part of the people leadership and kept away from understanding these aspects. HR leadership has the opportunity to influence this unfortunate status quo.

Another key aspect of the Organizational Climate is rewards and recognition. As organizations move to Agility, the move towards team goals, and collective ownership takes precedence over individual glory. Its important to appreciate this shift and use the Organizational Climate to gradually shift the organization to become more accommodating to losing “individual glory” and promoting “team success”.

In conclusion, the transformational journey to Self-Management using Agile as a framework is a long and arduous one. It requires enlightened leadership to guide the teams to the new Organizational Culture and partner with the HR organization that’s keeping a close watch on the Organizational Climate.

There are NO shortcuts, but with team work from ALL the leadership, the complexity can be handled step-by-step, iteration by iteration, quarter by quarter. Its a like grand orchestra and when there is alignment between the players and the conductor, you will hear the initial cacophony transform into a symphony that your organization will wonder how you ever lived without.


Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 2)

Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 1)

As organizations take on the Agile transformation journey, there are significant impacts on two key dimensions — the Organizational Culture and the Organizational Climate. This two-part article is an attempt to provide clarity on these aspects. It establishes who in the organization owns the Culture and Climate respectively and are accountable to the success of the transformation.

In the first part, we will focus on the definitions of these terms and how they are related. With a firm foundation on the definitions, we will then elaborate on the ownership aspects in next part.

Let’s start with the key question. What is Agile transformation and what changes does it bring?

Agile transformation is the process of an organization changing its discovery and execution approach from a Command-&-Control, Top down, Upfront Planning driven model to a Team Oriented, Collaborative, Just In Time and Iterative model. As you can see, its a complete inversion of the principles and – and hence the usage of the word Transformation. A change as dramatic as this runs broad (X-Axis) and deep (Y-Axis) into the organization’s fabric, and challenges the fundamental mindsets with which people do their daily jobs.

Let’s start with the X-Axis (breadth).

 On the breadth side of the equation, the transformation brings people from different parts of the organization (erstwhile reporting structures) into single teams. These team members now work by directly communicating with each other instead of through their “reporting structures”. This is only the beginning — as the journey matures, teams realize the need to bring in wider variety of people into the Agile team to effective. Such pressure coming from the “bottom of the hierarchy” will challenge the organizational design. If the transformation has to succeed, existing organizational silos will need to be broken to make the teams more effective. At this stage the same leadership that was “excited” with Agile, starts resisting the change given its discomfort with the comforting barriers now giving way.

Now for the Y-Axis (depth).

 The depth side of the equation is all about management styles, transparency and delegation. With the inversion of the execution model, the decision-making power on day-day execution shifts from erstwhile managers to the execution teams themselves. Teams will require greater autonomy in decision-making and transparent flow of information to facilitate the decision-making.

Information and decision-making that used to be the prerogative of the managers in the Command-&-Control world, and gave them a sense of power is now diluted. Managers now are required to focus more on aligning the teams’ direction to the organization’s goals and help remove impediments from the team’s pursuit of these goals set. Such a shift demands managers to communicate more outwards to the stakeholders and negotiate on alignment rather than on controlling inwards. On their part, teams are also now accountable to goals than to execute assigned tasks. As a consequence, the measures of performance also shifts from one of following plans and orders to meeting goals — a significant shift.

This shift in the operating model that demands a change in the mindset deeply influences employees’ daily work experience. This is the new Organizational Culture. Both managers and team members will experience discomfort and exhilaration in equal measure adopting to this model. While teams will fear responsibility and enjoy autonomy, managers will resent lack of control but enjoy liberation from the mundane. The organization is shifting to a new culture of self-managed teams and light (agile) management structures.

The leadership (managers at ALL levels up-to-the C-Suite) are responsible for owning up to this discomfort and taking the leap of faith that the shift to self-management is for the greater good of the organization. They are the OWNERS of the Organizational culture.

Is that all to the story? No. Your Organizational climate, the Z-Axis completes the picture.

 The Z-Axis (depth).

 As you can see from the above, the transformation WILL lead to major changes and challenge people at various levels — their hard skills, their soft skills, their definition of success and growth drivers – both up-and-down the organizational hierarchy (Y-Axis) and across the “department” verticals (X-Axis). Given the impact across so many dimensions, people across the organization will perceive this change with different lenses. The prevailing mood in the people will be directly impacted positively as well as negatively by this change. This constant “flux” in the mood from time to time as the organization transforms is your Organizational Climate. So, even as the Organizational Culture is changing, the Climate will also change. What’s important is to realize that the Climate is the “effect” and the Culture is the “cause”.

Who is responsible to sense the Organizational Climate? This is where HR has a pivotal role. The execution teams will be too busy with the culture to also focus on Climate. Its the responsibility of the HR leadership to provide a real picture of the mood swings and help the executive. In the next part of this article, we will explore the specifics of the HR Leadership in designing the Organizational Climate Assessment, and how they can be an active participant in the organization’s strategic journey.