Article

4 Things Leaders Must Do for a Successful Agile Transformation, According to an Expert

June 05, 2024

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Emily May

Why do many organizations seek agile transformation? In my conversation about the topic with Shannon Ewan, CEO at ICAgile, she provided an example illuminating the urgency of building resilience in the face of change.

She highlights the differences among simple, complicated, and complex systems. For example, building construction requires specific processes that produce a generally predictable result. In contrast, she says, “Dealing with human change is much more of an organic system.” She describes the rainforest and how changes in this ecosystem ripple effect on all life within this habitat.

After experiencing unexpected change, inspection and improvement are the next natural steps to achieve the mission at hand–whether animals need to find more resource-rich land due to deforestation or organizations need to build the most customer-centric product possible in rapidly evolving markets. 

Agile transformation equips organizations to learn from unpredictable challenges in business ecosystems and adapt quickly. However, agile transformation isn’t easy and requires much more than implementing agile frameworks. 

This article draws directly from Shannon Ewan’s experience as an agile leader and practitioner as we explore the four most critical steps leaders must take to spearhead a successful agile transformation within their teams and organizations.

What is Agile Transformation?

To kick off our interview, I asked how we should define agile transformation. Without missing a beat, Ewan said, “Agile transformation is about giving yourself the freedom, flexibility, and resilience to achieve your organizational purpose in future-ready ways that delight your customers,” citing the Business Agility Institute as an inspiration. 

She further explained that an agile transformation supports a team in achieving its purpose sustainably through collectively building an internal adaptive muscle that strives for improvement. “It’s not just about a big change effort, and then you move on, it’s building that adaptivity into your organizational DNA.” 

At ICAgile, we’re very familiar with this reference. Leadership frequently reinforces the idea that change is in our team's DNA and that we’re fully equipped to deal with challenges that come our way. After all, while the context is always different, how we respond to change improves with time. 

Benefits of Agile Transformation

Organizations seek agile transformation for its myriad of benefits. These include improved: 

  • Adaptability
  • Alignment
  • Collaboration & communication
  • Internal and external satisfaction & engagement
  • Product development times
  • Feedback mechanisms
  • Risk mitigation
  • Results
  • In discussing reasons for seeking this journey, Ewan provided an example, showcasing that when businesses are essentially task or assembly-line driven, there are particular ways of managing those processes; however, “when you’re looking at creative and innovative knowledge work that is more discovery-oriented, you need to create situations where people can collaborate effectively to develop new solutions.” In these complex spaces powered by agility, cross-functional teams work together to understand the nature of the work and innovate accordingly. 

    4 Things Leaders Must Do for a Successful Agile Transformation

    According to our marketing research and word-of-mouth conversations in the agile community, many ask, “What must management do for a successful agile transformation?” Ewan summarizes the answer into four primary steps that leaders must take: engage with the change, commit to continuous improvement, track the right metrics, and, most notably, adopt an agile mindset. 

    1. Buy-in & Support the Change

    Leaders need to engage with change to drive agile transformation forward. Ewan clarified that beyond buying in and supporting the initiative, leaders will need to adapt their leadership style, as well. “When you’re working in a space of complexity, rapid change, and uncertainty, the top-down approach doesn’t always allow for quick adaptation.” By shifting from the traditional management model to an organizational culture that opens space for collaborative decision-making, the team members closest to the work can offer their insights for improvement.

    “The transformations that are most successful are those where leaders truly embrace the new ways of working themselves,” she said. For example, some managers may be accustomed to delivering the news of internal strategy shifts with little impact on their own day-to-day activities. However, an agile transformation requires leaders to navigate the uncertainty alongside their team–embracing new mindset shifts, frameworks, processes, and collaborative efforts. Organizational leaders are the catalyst to widespread adoption.

    When leaders don’t participate in the change, the lack of support will cause the agile transformation to stall. After all, “organizations can only go as far as their leaders take them.” 

    2. Commit to Continuous Improvement

    There is no end-state to agile transformation; "It's a journey,” as Ewan describes it. To reap the benefits of agile transformation, we need to discard the concept of moving from point A to point B and adopt a growth mindset that strives for continuous improvement.

    Creating ongoing feedback mechanisms for internal and external stakeholders to share their perspectives is a significant step in the right direction for teams seeking innovation and solutions. “The growth mindset views feedback as fuel for learning,” she confidently stated. Expanding on this topic, Ewan explained that feedback is often associated with negativity, and it really comes down to changing a team’s perception of feedback. Equip your team members with practical skills and supportive language to confidently deliver and receive feedback. 

    Adopting new work methods can be difficult, but with practice and improved results, teams will see the value in leveraging feedback for improvement. 

    3. Track the Right Metrics

    Everyone in the business world can agree that metrics are critical to understanding the effectiveness of a particular strategy or tactic; however, to gain an accurate, holistic view of results, you need to be tracking the correct metrics

    Agile transformation can get a bad rap because some teams are tracking the wrong numbers, otherwise known as “anti-patterns.” Ewan provided an example: "One of the things you should not be looking at is the number of teams running scrum or how many teams have product owners or agile coaches.” While these data points may allude to some correlations, these metrics don’t showcase how an agile transformation brings you closer to your mission and vision. 

    Some positive indicators worth tracking during an agile transformation include customer centricity, customer satisfaction, employee engagement and satisfaction, productivity, and time to market. “Especially in the tech space, instead of releasing a new product every quarter, they could release a new product every week, and the actual product demonstrates value.” 

    Furthermore, when struggling to get buy-in from stakeholders regarding agile adoption, tracking and reporting these results can significantly impact internal decision-making. 

    4. Adopt an Agile Mindset

    An agile mindset is necessary for agile transformation, and a lack of this crucial shift can be a common cause of unsuccessful efforts. “Change needs to become second nature,” and every team member needs to be on board with this perspective change to support the mission. 

    Additionally, agile teams and leaders can’t lose sight of the why behind their collective agile transformation, serving as the foundation when challenges arise. “It’s never about agile for agile’s sake. It’s about leveraging agile to drive business outcomes towards your mission and vision,” said Ewan.

    How do you adopt an agile mindset? Agile transformation is not fueled by a specific set of frameworks, methodologies, or filled roles but rather a paradigm shift inspired by a growth mindset and the values reflected in the Agile Manifesto

    The four values that support an agile mindset are:

    1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
    3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    4. Responding to change over following a plan

    The consequences of not adhering to these values translate to poor results in comparison–agile success will “inevitably get stalled” without a strong value base.

    Conclusion

    Agile transformation is a continuous voyage that enables teams to work more effectively together, increase customer value, and achieve their purpose. With the right leadership strategy and a collective commitment, organizations can begin adopting an agile mindset to upgrade their results. 

    If you’re ready to kick your team’s agile transformation into high gear, consider exploring our Enterprise Coaching certification track, with available courses covering enterprise coaching fundamentals, agile transformation coaching, and expert-level coaching. 

    We hope to meet you in one of these classes soon!

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    TAGGED AS:
    Leading Change, Enterprise Agile Coaching, Agility in Leadership, Leading with Agility

    About the author

    Emily May | ICAgile, Marketing Specialist
    Emily May is a Marketing Specialist at ICAgile, where she helps educate learners on their agile journey through content. With an eclectic background in communications supporting small business marketing efforts, she hopes to inspire readers to initiate more empathy, productivity, and creativity in the workplace for improved internal and external outcomes.