January 30, 2019
The Scrum Alliance recently partnered with Forbes Insights to conduct a study of Agile Leaders and Agile Transformation success. The study was published as “The Elusive Agile Enterprise” in November, 2018. Though there were few major surprises in the results, there were some interesting tidbits.
The study was conducted in 2018 and included surveys of over 1,000 executives and agile leaders from small and large global corporations (all were over $100M in revenue). You can download your copy of the report with free registration at Elusive Agile Enterprise.
I was a little surprised to see the statistics on transformation success. Two out of three respondents felt that their agile transformations had been very or extremely successful. This is much higher than the anecdotal results that I cited in my related article, Most Agile Transformations Will Fail.
One of the things that you will not find surprising is that a key finding is the importance of C-suite-level buy-in for any transformation to be successful. It seems that to have an agile enterprise, your executives need to be agile leaders. Duh!
Lack of Executive Support has been mentioned in all the recent VersionOne Annual State of Agile Reports. The most recent VersionOne report had “Inadequate management support and sponsorship” as the #3 barrier for agile adoption, with 42% of respondents. I also included the lack of executive leadership in my related post, Most Agile Transformations Will Fail.
But the Forbes Study puts a fine point on C-suite buy-in and adoption. A full 83% of the respondents stated that the Agile Mindset/Flexibility is the most important characteristic for executives. They rated this higher than the ability to manage and attract talent, and being a great communicator. Stated differently, agile thinking is more important than who you hire or how you communicate. Wow.
83% of the respondents cited the Agile Mindset/Flexibility was the most important characteristic for executives
Survey respondents felt it important the CEO lead the way with Agility, with 87% responding that the CEOs as the biggest champions of organizational agility. And a full 70% of leaders who responded blamed the lack of engagement by senior executives and employees as the reason for an unsuccessful transformation. (Additional obstacles to agility included: competing priorities (67%), a lack of Agile champions (57%) and not knowing how to become Agile (56%).)
So, the most important thing is for the executive suite to have an agile mindset. Easily done right? Well, unfortunately it is not that easy. People tend to write it off as a process change, or fail to appreciate that they don’t know what they don’t know about agile. I’ve written previously about the fact that people tend to overestimate their understanding of agile (See: Yes You Really Do Need Agile Training).
In addition to the importance of the executive team being on board with agile and having an Agile mindset, the report included lays out these additional steps to achieving Agility:
• Step 2: Hire and develop the right mix of talent
• Step 3: Foster an Agile-friendly culture and organizational structure
Let’s look at each of these in detail.
The second recommended step was to get the right mix of talent in the organization. One thing that I disagreed with in the study results was putting the responsibility for the lack of agility on the workforce. As an old guy myself, I felt a little defensive that they singled out the more senior employees as the ones resistant to change.
“According to our survey findings, the biggest detractors of organizational agility are longtime employees (29%)—workers who are comfortable in their current roles and staunchly resistant to change.”
It seems that the people being blamed for not being agile are the ones who have for a long time been told what to do, within a system that rewarded compliance and punished those who took risks. Now, those long serving employees are being scapegoated as the reason the organization is not agile. That feels off to me. See my related article on overcoming learned helplessness.
The report doesn’t entirely absolve leaders and managers though.
“Even executives, frightened by the rising need for rapid decision making and greater risk-taking, can cling to traditional management approaches against an overwhelming track record of poor results.”
This third step to agility is one that I completely agree with. In fact, establishing the culture and organization structure may be the MOST IMPORTANT step. You may recall Craig Larman’s 5th law of organizational behavior, “Culture Follows Structure”.
Most agile leaders will take steps to flatten the organization to create fewer levels. This can increase autonomy and speed decision making by putting decisions in the hands of those who are closest to the problem.
I think it is also important to organize to reduce silos and align to customer delivery. Frequently the waterfall delivery approach is made necessary by organizations that have functional silos and work has to be handed off from one group to another. This creates knowledge loss, delays, and lack of ownership.
I did take exception to another statement in the report “How do leaders drive organizational agility?”. I am not sure that “driving” agility is a great idea. I would prefer to see agile leaders who are casting vision, inviting people to participate and creating an environment for people to participate, or self-select out.
The study also included the chart below which shows the various steps that organizations and agile leaders have taken to become more agile. Some of these I completely agree with, like training on agility or reorganizing and flattening the organization. Here are a couple that I don’t agree with:
The study also notes that “Employees must learn new behaviors, such as thinking independently, taking risks and collaborating”. Again, think that puts a lot on the employee. Or perhaps it is a chicken and egg thing. Which comes first, employees taking risks, or managers and leaders creating the environment where risk taking is rewarded and not punished?
The study does give some examples of how companies have created that safe to fail environment. Similar to the blameless post-mortem, GE Healthcare host quarterly exercises that focus on failure, and learning. The exercise is intended to legitimize failure, growth, and learning.
We have to look at this through the lens of systems thinking. The actors in the system behave rationally based on the way the system is set up.
If you are planning an Agile Transformation or have one underway, it may be helpful to think about these questions:
If you enjoyed this article, you might also find this interview with Technology Leader David Sohmer helpful – How Technology Managers Can Succeed as Agile Leaders.