architect man sketching new project on chalkboard PHJS8QE

The other day, I heard someone say, “He comes to the relationship with a lot of emotional baggage.” Truer words were never spoken; some people come with handbags and others come with steamer trunks, but all of us bring our past experiences to any new endeavor.

The same lesson holds true when taking on an agile adoption or transformation effort in your organization. All organizations and the people in them have baggage. To succeed in an organizational change effort, we have to accommodate that baggage with a packing strategy.

Identify Your Constraints

Airlines restrict you to a certain number of carry-on and checked items, each of which must not exceed certain weights or dimensions. So the smart traveler adapts his packing strategy and which items he chooses to bring based on these constraints.

Similarly, as an organization goes through change, its members have assumptions and existing rules and standards that need to be identified and considered.

One way to do this is through a game that I like to play with product owners and managers called The Marshmallow Challenge. Traditionally, the game is played to understand the importance of the iterative process but I feel the most important part of the game is the realization players leave with: All projects have marshmallows. When used to demonstrate a typical sprint, the marshmallows are a metaphor for assumptions in the product backlog. When used to talk about agile adoption and transformation effort, the marshmallows become assumptions of a different sort. They become the guesses you make about how this new way of thinking about how you build and deliver products will integrate into your existing culture, processes, financial models, hiring practices, leadership styles, technology ecosystems, reward systems, customer interactions, etc. By identifying these “marshmallows,” you can build what I like to call an opportunity backlog and put together a team that can influence change.

Determine Your Goal

From a change management perspective, the effort to transform an organization so that it can leverage and benefit from lean thinking and the values and principles of agility is not very different than any other organizational change effort. Yet many teams and organizations fail because they do not approach it that way. Instead, they see it as a change that will only affect software teams or the IT department. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Because becoming an agile organization has implications far beyond the IT department, most of the techniques that experienced agile transformation coaches use are the same that you would use if an organization was changing business strategies, adding or removing business capabilities, re-organizing or merging with another company, and so on. As such, experience agile coaches ask questions like these to help determine appropriate strategies:

  • What is your vision?
  • What is the reason for the change?
  • Do the employees know, understand and support the vision?

One of my favorite quotes is from John Kotter’s Leading Change, “Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.” Your vision is probably not about adopting agile; there is probably a more specific reason for the change. Spend the time to truly understand the real reason for the change and focus on that. Lean thinking and agile methods may be a part of that change but they will not be the only items in your opportunity backlog; nor will they likely be the most important.

Remember that the most important part of an organizational change is about people changing at all levels of the organization; as such, it is highly complex. Some people resist change while others embrace it. Make sure you have the right people working with you and a toolkit of organizational change practices to explore and embrace.

Get the Right Equipment & the Best Help

Once you have examined your baggage (assumptions & constraints), and determined your goals, you can outfit your organization with the proper equipment to manage the load. The following is a list of tools & practices I want in my toolkit, or want my agile coach or guide to have:

  • Brainstorming
  • Collaborative and Communication Strategies
  • Corporate Evolution (or as Seth Godin calls it, Zooming)
  • Creating Learning Organizations
  • Cross Boundary Strategic Conversations
  • Enterprise Architecture (the organization’s current and future information architecture)
  • Facilitation
  • Human Psychology
  • Influencing Mapping
  • Iterative and Incremental Change Techniques
  • Kaizen
  • Leadership Agility
  • Open Space
  • Radical Collaboration
  • Relational Leadership
  • Root Cause Analysis
  • Servant Leadership
  • Stages of Organizational Development
  • Strategy Mapping
  • Systems Thinking
  • The use of “games” for innovation, interactive design, product development, and self-realization
  • Theory of Constraints
  • Understanding of multiple change strategies
  • Value Mapping
  • Visioning
  • World Cafes

When choosing a coach or guide for your team, make sure you are working with people that have experience beyond just helping teams embrace Agile. The best coaches understand the bigger picture of change and have experience with the majority of the techniques listed above and with various organizational change models.

Enjoy the Trip

There are many change models available; all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. Just like agile methods, no one organizational change method alone is sufficient. Just like packing your luggage, when you’re ready to become more agile, think about your needs (vision) and constraints (the current organizational reality that may have to change) and come up with a strategy that will help you make it past check-in!