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Agile
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Agile Transformations: Why Leaders Resist and How to Bring Them on Board

Agile transformations require significant organizational change, which can be unsettling for the C-suite. These tips can help Agile coaches address leaders’ uncertainty and create sustainable agility.

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Despite being the initiators of Agile transformations, executives and managers can sometimes represent the biggest obstacles to successful implementation. This leaves Agile coaches and team leads in a frustrating professional paradox: facing the most resistance from the very people who hired them.

As an Agile coach, I have come up against this challenge on several occasions, and I’m not alone. McKinsey & Company notes that 70% of change efforts in the workplace fail to achieve their goals, with one of the main causes being a lack of management support. In fact, according to Agile coaches surveyed by the Business Agility Institute and Scrum Alliance, leadership resistance is the foremost barrier to agility. Though the reasons for this resistance may vary, the results are often the same: failed transformations, fragmented teams, and wasted time and resources. To combat this, Agile experts must arm themselves with an Agile transformation strategy that brings leaders firmly on board. Here are some of the ways I, and other project management experts in the Toptal talent network, do just that.

Get Leaders Involved

Sometimes leadership resistance is not so much resistance as it is disengagement. Leaders may welcome a transformation in theory, but they see it as something that’s happening to their staff, not to them.

“In my experience,” says Michael Williams, a Toptal network Agilist who has seen several transformations fail as a result of leadership challenges, “it’s not that leadership wants to block the transformation, it’s that they simply don’t want to be involved in it.”

For organizational agility to take hold, however, the tone must be set at the top, and Agile transformation leadership requires active involvement. Leadership teams acting in an agile manner will see this replicated at lower levels. Conversely, when leadership doesn’t participate, there’s a trickle-down effect to the teams, even those that have adopted Agile successfully.

“Management has to be part of the new workflows,’’ says Williams. “They need to keep a pace with the cadence and rhythms of the processes. If they want to continue to approve things once a week, for example, the productivity gained from the new approach is lost.”

To avoid situations in which leaders think “they can bring Agile in and their workers will be more productive but they don’t have to do anything,” Williams recommends setting expectations about leadership’s role early, and formalizing this in the contract: “Name the people who are going to be involved, and state that they will need to be a part of the process.”

Leaders must also commit to continually investing in and supporting transformation efforts, even those that don’t call for their direct participation. “If upper management doesn’t prioritize agility,” says Williams, “their attitude to the change is going to take resources away from it and reduce its effectiveness.”

Demystify Agile Values and Terminology

It’s worth remembering that, outside of development teams, Agile is still largely misunderstood. Not all business leaders and managers are familiar with it, and when they are, they may not fully understand its benefits or values. Agile principles, such as responding to change rather than following a plan and prioritizing working software over comprehensive documentation, can seem foreign when first introduced.

Guilherme Motta, a Toptal project manager, Certified Scrum Master, and DevOps engineer who has worked with startups and Fortune 500 companies, believes that resistance is predominantly driven by this lack of understanding. Leaders “may not know what it means to be agile or they may be expecting different outcomes from an Agile transformation,” he says.

“They need to fully understand Agile values, and that these can’t be compromised. You can’t be selective and only take the most convenient parts of Agile into your organization. Most likely, your biggest pain points are actually the areas you don’t want to adopt.” Education around Agile itself—and its core tenets—therefore, is key.

In order to begin demystifying the concept, Toptal product manager Francois LeGuillou explains to his clients that they are likely already operating in “agile” ways in many areas of their work—and home—life.

“I ask them to think about walking into a house the day after a big party,” he says. “If they had eight hours to clean, what would they clean? Then, if they had only two hours to clean, what would they clean? Inevitably, the difference between the two answers is a demonstration of agility. You choose your deliverables by considering the effort you are able to allocate and then ordering the most impactful results.”

To the uninitiated, Agile lingo can be confusing and intimidating. I’ve seen this often in my own experience, so I try to make the idea of an Agile transformation more palatable by changing the terminology. There have been times when I’ve dropped the word “Agile” completely and dressed it up as something else to make them feel more comfortable. For example, I might call daily standups a daily planning session or refer to sprints as iterations. Instead of labeling the process a “transformation,” I encourage leaders to look at it as just getting more effective at what they do.

Demonstrate Value Through Experimentation

If the problem is that leaders are failing to grasp the benefits of Agile, demonstrating them in practice can be an effective method. There are two ways of approaching this, at the team level and at the leadership level, but the key to both is to pose any changes as an experiment.

At the leadership level, I usually do this using a written proposal. The proposal is usually no more than one page and details the suggested change, the reason for the change, and the anticipated impact. Then, I give leaders the opportunity to ask questions and offer their opinions.

The key to getting their buy-in is to set a low bar to consent and make it clear that this is a fixed-term experiment. People are more comfortable with “trying” something than committing to something; it makes them feel safer. I typically request consent by asking the leadership group, “Does anyone see any risks here that we shouldn’t take?” People rarely raise their hand. Using a form of sociocracy, which relies on consent as opposed to a majority voting system, is a crucial part of why they are willing to proceed—people may not agree entirely with the proposal but are happy to go along with it for a test.

Once I have consent, the group nails down the final parameters of the experiment and the date on which they will review the progress and decide whether to abandon, continue, or modify the changes.

Alternatively, if you are able to, attack experimentation at the team level. Enable the team to really thrive with a trial period of Agile processes, and then let those results convince leaders. Sometimes I’ll ask teams to use Scrum for several sprints, which allows them to gather tangible evidence about what they are trying out that they can then present to management. Leaders are far more likely to be convinced by data than by opinions.

Address Emotional Needs As Well As Practical Ones

It’s important to be mindful not just of the day-to-day business needs of an organization going through an Agile transformation, but also of the fears and emotional discomfort leaders could be experiencing as a result of the process, says Toptal Agile project manager Bryan Bates.

Some leaders may feel especially fearful and vulnerable because Agile transformations ask them to fundamentally alter both the way they view their roles and the power and control traditionally associated with those roles. In other words, Agile asks them to change their workplace identity.

One way to reassure leaders is simply to acknowledge the discomfort and get it out in the open. It’s important, Bates says, to set expectations for what is to come. “On the front end of every project, I like to have a series of deep discussions about what an Agile approach can do and what it can’t, and how it will feel different,” he says. “This definitely helps prepare people, and lets them know that it’s OK for it to feel weird. They are going to feel like they don’t have control, but I want to show them there are ways to get past that.”

The first step, Motta says, should be to understand why the transformation is happening. The next should be to consider each person’s connection to this purpose: Is this going to change their role? Will it change their influence?

“Suddenly,” he says, “there’s a new group of people coming in who you don’t necessarily trust, talking about this Agile thing and you aren’t really sure what it means, and these people are setting the rules.”

Sometimes the problem doesn’t stem so much from a resistance to Agile specifically but to change in general. Resistance is a common response to all types of change, particularly in the workplace. Leaders can be especially sensitive when the need for that change implies failures on their part, and managers can feel attached to a status quo that they themselves helped create. In this way, organizational transformation efforts can feel like personal criticism.

“You have to try to understand what they are going through,” says Professional Scrum Master and Toptal project manager Preet Saini. Everyone will be coming at the issue from a unique angle, so having empathy for personal circumstances is key. “Everybody is on a different journey—they will move at their own pace, especially those who are close to retirement, as they will have less motivation to change.”

Focusing training around mindset, rather than around Agile, is how Saini brought leaders on board in her most recent transformation. “We started by helping them understand why things needed to change,” she says. “If the current approach is working well, and it’s a successful company, they may not grasp why they should change. And I think people are fearful that the change may bring failure.” Stressing the possibilities for innovation that the change affords can help leaders view it as an exciting opportunity rather than an indictment of their current processes and structure.

Tackle the Root Causes of Resistance

It is important to be mindful of and prioritize the issue of leadership resistance as you enter into your next Agile transformation, as it can delay or even derail the hard work and effort that you put in at other levels of the organization.

Resistance to Agile is often a symptom of something deeper, so it is imperative to take the time at the beginning of a project to try to understand where it may stem from and partner with individuals to tackle root causes, such as a lack of understanding around Agile, an unwillingness to engage with new processes, or unspoken fears. Whatever the cause of resistance, overcoming it will take patience, empathy, and communication—all qualities of a strong Agile coach.

Understanding the basics

Agile transformations are necessary to gradually move organizations away from the old way of working to one that is centered around Agile values of self-organization, collaboration, and adaptability.

Agile coaches should approach a transformation by understanding the organization’s motivation for changing. At the outset, they should set expectations about what is to come, as well as educating those involved on what Agile values mean in practice.

Agile coaches are primarily responsible for ensuring that the journey to operational agility runs smoothly, navigating any issues that arise, making sure that progress stays on track, and providing support to teams and individuals.

There is no set time frame for an Agile transformation to be completed. It can take anywhere from several months to several years.