Architecture, Business, Technology
The End-to-End Guide to Agile Transformation
Have you ever felt that the terms Agile processes, Agile organization, Agile project management, Agile and DevOps, Agile Transformation, and Agile everything are a part of several conversations or blogs today?
Have you ever had a thought, “Yeah! I get it! Being Agile seems to be very important and obviously, my organization needs to do it too. But where do I start?”
Well, let’s get you started. When the Agile Manifesto first came out in 2001, it seemed to be just a new and effective way of developing applications. But with time, these 12 Agile principles started proving to be a very efficient way of handling non-technical projects as well. Eventually, Agile became a way to approach problems that evolved into the Agile ideology.
The Agile methodology has been transforming the way organizations work and build technology. The terms Agile Adoption and Agile Transformation are often used interchangeably while they have completely different meanings. To know the difference, it is essential to understand the Agile methodology and why it is so crucial today.
The Agile methodology and why it is so important
In software development, Agile means producing working, quality software in short, fast increments, which is also known as continuous delivery (CI/CD or CICD – Continuous Integration, CICD, or Continuous delivery).
In today’s world, software is designed to be event-centric rather than being data-centric. To understand the difference between these terms, let us take an example – consider the food delivery giant Zomato. Initially, when founded in 2008, the platform listed all the restaurants in the surrounding area. The user could either get the restaurant’s contact details and call them to order food or visit the restaurant. This is an example of a data-centric architecture where the user uses the application solely to access the information that she/he is seeking. But, today, Zomato can pinpoint the user’s location, take their order and get someone to deliver the food as and where required. It can also give recommendations and reserve a table for dining. This is an event-centric architecture where the application reacts to the user’s feeling of hunger and offers a resolution.
In the scenario of event-centric applications, data is essential. But how the data is processed and turned into an action to help the user is currently the prominent feature of the application. To build applications that are event-centric, teams have to constantly recognize and implement the fast, changing requirements of users. That makes it essential for teams to build, test, deploy, evaluate results, and make changes and continue this cycle until a particular application feature reaches a level of maturity. The exact process is then repeated for every new feature added to the application.
This complete process of building application features in iterative cycles is the Agile methodology. The Agile methodology, defined in a sentence would be, “the ability to move and think rapidly and easily” and “the ability to work and evolve in a quick, coordinated fashion.”
Now that the essence of Agile and its importance is established, let’s dive into the terms Agile Transformation and Agile Adoption.
Agile Adoption vs. Agile Transformation
Simply put, Agile Adoption is the process of “doing Agile,” while Agile Transformation is the process of “being Agile.”
Agile Adoption is building a process or a bunch of processes that are consistent with the Agile Values and Principles. Agile Adoption is more or less like a change in process — like shifting from a waterfall or SDLC process to the Agile framework. This is more relevant for project management methodologies and involves using the scrum framework or the Lean software development methodology or using kanban boards for project management. So, when an organization runs an Agile pilot, they are doing Agile Adoption. Most organizations discover the wonders of Agile this way. Agile process management would involve a scrum master where the team would organize all their work and prioritize them based on business requirements. Teams would work on it in short timeboxed iterations called sprints and deliver small chunks of fully developed solutions.
Agile Transformation is the process of transforming the entire culture of an organization to one of agility. Agile Transformation is not just about adopting new technology and choosing Agile tools. It is a fundamental change in the way people think and feel. It requires a complete culture shift across the company. In a way, the Agile methodology and Agile frameworks are the mediums through which the organization will transition towards agility. The outcomes of this transition are different for every organization but have one core value ingrained in it — the ability to be flexible, to be responsive to change, and the ability to make changes quickly and cost-effectively. In short, at the end of a successful Agile Transformation initiative, the organization will achieve true business agility. After a successful Agile Transformation initiative, silos become non-existent in the organization, and cross-functional team collaboration becomes highly efficient.
A few differentiating points between the two terms would be:
- Agile Adoption happens within the team while Agile Transformation occurs across the whole organization
- Agile Adoption is a short-term process while Agile Transformation might take years to implement
- The culture shift in Agile Adoption is almost nil while there is a major change in the organization culture in Agile Transformation
- Agile Adoption requires very little time for planning, while Agile Transformation involves extensive and detailed planning before implementation
- Agile Adoption increases the productivity of the team adopting it while Agile Transformation manifolds the productivity of the whole organization
- There are no significant changes in the team structure due to Agile Adoption, while the entire system of the organization will change during Agile Transformation
It is evident that Agile Transformation is a long, tedious process. But what makes it so essential that 77% of the organizations today are geared towards it?
Impacts of Agile Transformation
When an organization starts the journey of Agile Transformation, it undergoes many changes in its organizational structure, teams, way of working, work strategy, and approach towards challenges. Every employee of the organization works towards one common goal and is aware that every action taken drives the organization towards the goal. Silos become non-existent and cross-functional teams are born. The organization will start to see small effects of Agile Transformation right from the beginning of their journey. By the end of it, there will be very notable and measurable benefits like:
- Faster time to market
- Reduction in planning and process building
- Flexibility in product delivery
- The ability to incorporate changes without having to disrupt the deployment process
- A healthy organizational culture
- More involved and collaborative individuals as well as teams
- Independent and self-organizing employees
- A clear vision of the organization’s business goals
- Enhanced creativity and innovation
- Renewed focus on customer experience and satisfaction
One of the most important traits of Agile Transformation is that you build Agile teams. These teams form the building blocks of the whole Agile Transformation journey. So, what does an Agile team look like?
What is an Agile team?
An Agile team’s main idea is to have a group of people with a common goal who are flexible in the way they work and more adaptable to changing customer requirements. One thing that distinguishes them from traditional teams is that they are self-directed and self-organized individuals who practice shared leadership.
Another common trait that a lot of people associate with Agile teams is their cross-functionality. It places a focus on generalizing specialists who can contribute to several domains instead of just their own. The idea is to cross-skill people on a single team with the purpose to eliminate hand-offs and dependencies.
While this has its benefits, it requires a sufficient amount of disruption of existing processes, especially if we are talking about more traditional organizations embarking on an Agile transformation. As a result, companies often experience high rates of chaos and resistance, which could be too hard for them to deal with. Eventually, they go back to their old ways of operating, discarding the idea of building Agile teams.
That’s why a better approach to reduce this risk would be to keep your existing structure (especially if it’s been giving you solid results so far) and look to gradually improve it through continuous experimentation.
Getting started with Agile Transformation
As discussed before, the Agile Transformation process is an extensive process spreading across all aspects of the organization. There are 4 Pillars of the Agile Transformation journey:
Employees are a significant part of the organization and thus, they are going to be a major contributing factor in the Agile Transformation journey. While strategizing the transformation journey, pay extra attention to the company culture. You can start by training your leaders to coach their teams rather than directing them. Focus on team-building exercises to help everyone collaborate effectively. Additional focus has to be given to talent management and upskilling of employees.
A significant chunk of efforts in this section are targeted towards company culture. For all Agile Transformation efforts to succeed, the organization’s complete culture has to be altered to the Agile culture. The culture has to be so designed that every individual is motivated to make the best use of her/his time and skills towards a common goal. Bureaucracy has to be demolished and agile mindsets have to be built.
Being agile does not mean the absence of processes. Instead, it means building processes with flexibility in mind. Even the best-laid plans are prone to failure. So, the processes have to be made while keeping this in mind. Planning and decision-making that enables teams to test their processes rapidly and evolve will become the core of all projects.
The focus shifts more towards outcomes than efforts. Teams constantly test whether their structure is efficient, and if it is not, they have to try and evaluate the bottlenecks and eliminate them. Projects are broken down based on product features, and teams work on each feature in sprints that are usually 2-4 weeks long. The need for teams to work on cross-functional teams becomes crucial as each sprint is about entirely building a product feature or functionality. Thus, cross-functional teams become a necessity. Various linkage mechanisms have to be built to enable cross-functionality among all teams. Also, individual teams should spend some time on value-adding activities.
The first thing to go in the organizational structure would be bureaucracy. The hierarchy of the organization has to be simplified to eliminate unnecessary bottlenecks. The process of decision-making has to be streamlined to ensure that it does not become a roadblock either. Roles and responsibilities have to be built more on the team level instead of assigning individual responsibilities.
The team structure changes completely. Instead of having a team of people of a similar discipline, a team should consist of a group of people with different skills and unique disciplines who can take care of all the tasks within a sprint.
For example, in the case of the waterfall work management system, there are separate teams of developers, IT professionals, designers, QA testers, etc. A feature will go through each team as a car moves through the assembly line. But in the Agile way of working, each team will have at least one developer, designer, IT professional, and so on — a team that can develop, test, and deploy a feature end-to-end. This team will now work and collaborate in sprints. This works for all non-technical teams as well.
This does not mean that two people of the same discipline, who are part of separate sprints, do not have to collaborate at all. In reality, the same discipline professionals get together from time to time for upskilling and knowledge sharing. This way, no employee or team ever ends up working in a silo.
It is evident that if the organization is going a major revamp structurally and culturally, the technology has to be upgraded as well. Right tools for collaboration and employee engagement are crucial to building a better employee culture.
Also, when teams upskill, they should adopt new tech stacks and modern architectures for developing applications. The IT infrastructure and operations have to upgrade to keep up with the latest tech stacks and support rapid changes. Gear up towards building an automated CI/CD pipeline for application delivery to speed up the deployment process.
How we made Ideas2IT an Agile organization from the ground up
There are many different paths to enterprise agility. Some organizations use an agile operating model from their inception while other organizations may follow one of these methods to undergo Agile Transformation. These are:
- All-in: This involves an organization-wide commitment to go agile and a series of waves of agile transformation
- Step-wise: This entails a systematic and more discreet approach
- Emergent: This is basically a bottom-up approach
Successful transformations start with an effort to aspire, design, and pilot the new agile operating model. These elements can occur in any order, and often happen in parallel. Secondly, the impetus to scale and improve involves increasing the number of agile areas within the business. Organizations can iterate among these stages as they roll out agility across more and more of their component parts.
Here is how Ideas2IT embraces agile processes beyond the principles as well as the methodologies that drive the agile ecosystem.
Imagine a Project Manager, coming up in the common room, gathering every member of the team, and then ideating with them on the further processing of the project. It’s more like telling them what to do, and the members follow the instructions without much intervention. This is what we call doing Agile.
On the other hand, imagine the Project Manager talking about the progress of the project, highlighting issues, and when you do this, the members take the initiative to solve the issue, irrespective of the fact whether or not the problem is associated with their work. This is what we regard as being agile. One where you follow the mindset of teamwork and collaboration to benefit as one entity and not individual ones.
Sounds awesome, right?
We at Ideas2IT started with the following features:
- Transparency: Solve Problems in a way that is specific to the context and not by predefined rules.
- Being adaptive: Adapt itself as required with changing times without worrying about the domain of the problem.
- Start Quick: Ideas2IT does not wait for the right ecosystem or the right environment; we start as soon as the need arises and use the minimum information available to do the project.
- Collaboration: Being agile stresses the need to engage effectively across the team. People working in Ideas2IT work as a team and not as an individual.
- Data-based decision modeling: Ideas2IT is moved by decisions taken based on fact and figure, let alone the evidence. The Agile infrastructure is different from the traditional ones as it does not rely on predefined policies for decision making.
- Practicing value-driven development: Ideas2IT shares values in terms of transparency, openness, commitment, courage, and lastly, responsibility.
- Communication: Interaction in the agile teams is far more informal and direct. On the other hand, doing an agile methodology involves formal, written communication.
- Continuous Improvement: Unlike the doing agile methodology, being agile believes in regular improvement and not just the ad hoc form of enhancement. Feedback, both external and internal, promotes improvement in the overall functioning of the system.
Usually, the decision-making process in companies is dependent on the project they are presently working on — this is what we call doing agile. When Ideas2IT made the shift towards being agile, we started to focus more on the effect of the decision on the team and the organization, on the whole.
To be agile, we need to have a team where every member is convinced to do and to do the right thing in a sufficient amount. Another important aspect of being agile is building trust.
In simple terms, you need to get away with the adversarial relationship among all the organization’s members so as to drive maximum benefit with the shift from doing agile to being agile.
Steps to get started with your Agile Transformation journey
The four pillars of Agile Transformation would eventually become the foundation of your Agile organization. Planning is the key to getting the proper head start. All four pillars need to be strengthened right from the start. Most of the Agile Transformation initiatives fail to take off either due to a lack of proper planning or a lack of adequate focus on even one of the four pillars. The journey consists of two iterative parts – Visualize, design, pilot, scale, and improvise.
The Agile Transformation journey follows a top-down approach where the higher management first realizes the need for the Agile shift and then builds a plan based on that aspiration. A successful Agile Transformation initiative needs powerful and aligned leadership. The leadership team needs to have a compelling, commonly understood, and jointly owned aspiration. It is the most critical element for success.
Step 1: Build a united top leadership team with a common goal
A strong leadership team is essential to get started. Get the leaders together. Present the idea of Agile Transformation, explain how it will benefit the organization, and list down the end goals. Get the leadership team to do their research and ensure that all executives are on board.
Step 2: Define a clear end-state vision
It is obviously impossible to accurately predict the end goals of the Agile Transformation journey as it is going to be an iterative process. You can create a basic directional system to keep a check of whether the initiative is headed in the right direction. This plan includes a working hypothesis for the structure and governance of the organization. It would be great to have a list of measurable metrics that the leadership can map progressively throughout the Transformation. You can refer to case studies of Agile Transformation journeys of other organizations and gain a basic understanding of how to form teams at scale and how to orchestrate those teams to do work.
Step 3: Build a detailed roadmap for the journey
The next step is to map the Agile Transformation journey with a clear plan. For each phase, a group of teams or individuals will go first and their immediate outcomes will help further iron out the strategy. These focused groups are called basecamps. Few key questions that need to be answered during this planning phase will be
- What teams will be a part of the basecamps?
- What benefits does the organization expect to see in the short-term and the long-term time?
- How long will it take?
- How much investment will be required at various stages?
- How long will each stage be and what will be the points of focus?
Once the roadmap is ready, you have to explain the aim and the transformation journey to the rest of the organization. Make everyone understand their roles during the transition and how they can gear themselves up for the upcoming challenges.
Step 4: Plan the first phase
Once the roadmap is in place, it is time to start planning the first phase. The planning for the first phase will require more time and brainstorming. Try to keep the phase limited to a 60 to 90-day plan. In this plan, you will have a reasonably specific view of what should be done. The plan will be similar to an Agile team sprint on a large scale basis. You will first enumerate all the target points for the phase, run an Agile pilot for the basecamps, and then based on the observations and learnings from the results of the pilot, scale it.
Step 5: Add checkpoints, evaluate, learn, and adapt
Similar to the Agile sprint cycles, set up checkpoints every 15 or 30 days to evaluate the progress of the Transformation, retrospect, and adjust according to the results. Along with this, keep on re-assessing and editing the end-state vision of the Transformation based on how your understanding has evolved during these checkpoints.
Step 6: Connect activity to outcomes and outcomes to end goals/business objectives
The sole purpose of Agile Transformation is to yield better outcomes from the business point of view. It is at times easy to lose sight of the end goal while focusing on smaller details and activities. So, while planning, you need to hypothesize outcomes based on the activities to be performed. By the end of every phase, you either have to demonstrate the results to prove your initial hypothesis or pivot based on the learnings from the outcomes. All these outcomes should eventually be linked to the end goal you had in mind when you started the Agile Transformation journey.
The Agile Transformation journey is one for the long haul. But the final outcome is worth all the efforts. Have a clear vision, set realistic goals, follow the above-mentioned steps, and execute your plan. You will soon be on the path to building an Agile organization.