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Agile Transformation Part 1 - Setting the Foundations

The yellow Minder icon against a black background on the homepage of the website for software engineering company Mindera.

Mindera - Global Software Engineering Company

2024 Jan 11 - 1min. Read


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Agile Transformation Journeys

Welcome Back to AgileBeyondTech

As promised, here is the second article in our AgileBeyondTech series. Back in part one, we explored our stance as an agile organisation by drawing parallels between our TEAL organisational model and key pillars that underpin the Agile philosophy. We explored topics of self-management, autonomy, collaboration and evolutionary purpose that embody these notions.

We’d now like to delve into the world of agile transformation. A Google search on this phrase will yield extensive results, which underscores the relevance of the challenge. Having trodden this path many times, we’re going to share our perspective, taking you through various stages of assessment, sponsorship, how to enable change and more. But first, a clarification of agile transformation vs agile transition.

Agile Transformation or Transition - What's the Difference?

As we touched on in our first edition, once upon a time, ‘agile’ was the new game in town. Championed by software engineering teams as a better way to organise themselves, it started to gain traction and become more widely adopted. Of course, it’s not hard to see why; teams felt more empowered and in control to plan and deliver their work, providing room for requirements to firm up, for complexity to emerge, and quality not to be forsaken - all things that more traditional left-to-right ‘waterfall’ based techniques have consistently failed to adequately cater for.

Nowadays, agile development is widely adopted, but, despite its relative simplicity and intuitiveness, it remains challenging for many organisations to properly grasp, especially large organisations with bureaucracy and politics all getting in the way. Enter “agile transformation” as the buzzword to cut through it all. You need a concerted effort, a step-change to completely rethink the system of work from top to bottom to get real results, right? Well, sort of.

We prefer to talk about agile ways of working rather than agile development per se, and it’s true that organisations need to look much wider than just the software engineering teams. It calls for a more holistic approach to rethink portfolio planning & funding, adjust mindsets from certainty to hypotheses, different leadership behaviours and so on. Transformation is an apt description, although we see things a bit differently.

Transition: the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

The difference between transition and transformation could be summarised as "become better" as opposed to "become different". It’s about taking steps to greater agility and fostering a culture of continuous improvement. It’s a subtly in language that helps avoid the disillusionment that so often accompanies a grand transformation that promises so much but often comes up short. It’s hardly surprising when your typical transformation programme has a set budget and timeframe. It’s high stakes, yet sponsors and senior stakeholders are prone to sitting back expecting it to be ‘done to them’, not appreciating that they are often part of the problem (this point is expanded in detail in the article Twenty Top Fails in Executive Agile Leadership and is well worth a read). Transitioning to agile ways of working is a softer approach, less top-down and showy.

Where to Begin

Any journey begins with knowing where you’re starting from, and it’s no different with agile adoption. Mindera has developed an agile maturity assessment framework, honed from years of experience in the field. The framework operates holistically at the Enterprise level and is built on five pillars: Strategy, Culture, Process, Structure, and Technology. Each pillar comprises multiple attributes or characteristics that form the basis of assessment and allow maturity ratings to be derived. Aggregated together across the five pillars, you obtain an overall maturity score.

Our maturity assessments are conducted from a blend of stakeholder interviews, background reading, and live observation, and really help diagnose problems and prioritise areas for driving systemic improvements in agile, helping to inform an optimal pathway for transition steps. It offers evidence and visibility on why certain areas need more help, others need less attention, and is very useful as a tool for periodic analysis, tracking ways of working improvements are being made.

A small table with the headings "structure, culture, process, strategy, and technology" which are the five pillars of our agile maturity framework

Conducting an agile maturity assessment is an ideal starting point for aligning stakeholders and building consensus on the need for change.

Securing Sponsorship

Fundamentally, the Exec must face up to and embrace the question of “why change?” to sponsor agile adoption across an organisation and truly effect change. We always spend a lot of time coming back to the ‘why’ when we help our clients with agile, very much like Simon Sinek’s seminal TED talk echoes.

Sponsorship for agile transformation, or agile transition, must come from the top as, most often, the things that need addressing are fundamental to the organisation itself. There is a degree of organisation rewiring required, for example, in organisation structure and reporting lines, funding mechanisms, reporting, governance, people capability - core values even. The job of an exec sponsor is to help appreciate these things and unblock them.

"It’s not easy, and the key to success is choosing your battles and knowing where the boundaries lie, and how far it’s possible to go. Again, this is why we avoid the word ‘transformation’ and prefer to think about transitioning to more agile ways of working, thinking of the organisation as a Product and incremental improvements or new versions of the product..." - Richard Hilsley, Mindera UK

Enabling Change

A key ingredient to successful agile adoption at scale is having experienced change agents to guide, coach and facilitate. An effective catalyst comes from forming a centre of enablement (CoE) - a small team of experienced agile practitioners who can understand the big picture and orchestrate activities in a way that is coherent and brings people along on the journey. A big part of this is handling resistance and organisational entropy, gradual regression back to old but familiar ways of working that can feel strangely comforting when people are faced with changes in processes and behaviours that are often deeply ingrained.

Change is hard. It’s easy to talk about wanting it but difficult to accept that as an individual, you’re part of making it happen, especially when it means giving up aspects of oneself that have been traditionally associated with power and control, and rewarded as such. It’s deeply psychological and talks to the culture of an organisation. It’s common for the CoE to spend considerable time coaching the Exec team.

We caught up with Simon Wilson, Delivery Lead from Mindera UK; he weighs in with the following:

“The promotion and embedment of Agile philosophies within our clients at Mindera is a key service provided. A lot of organisations claim to work in an agile way, but with further exposure to day-to-day working practises, it is often not implemented or followed correctly, leading to increased re-work and delays in delivery. This is where our agile leaders can help suggest improved ways of working to improve agility within our clients and promote doing things in the most efficient way possible to maximise delivery of successful customer outcomes.”

Executing Change

So, with a clear diagnosis of the current state and areas to address, senior sponsorship secured, and a small but experienced enabling function (CoE) in place, how is agile transformation practically executed? The answer lies at the grass-root level, which we’ll explain in our next article…

Speak to us about agile transformation

Our advisors and consultants have years of experience helping organisations take successful agile transformation journeys. If you want to change your ways of working, then please get in touch; we’d love to work together with you.


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The yellow Minder icon against a black background on the homepage of the website for software engineering company Mindera.

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