Fixing Agile Transformations Set to Fail

November 4, 2019
Posted in General

Fixing Agile Transformations Set to Fail

November 4, 2019 Theorem, LLC

To set Agile transformations to succeed, think carefully about the people involved in the process. Consider that the objective is to please the customer. Reflect that people will be the ones crafting that new solution. Ponder over their need for clear vision. Act in harmony with what you learn. Agility will come more easily and with much greater impact from such well-developed preparation.

by Jonathan Williams

Human-based KPIs are Critical to Successful Agile Transformation Projects 

Agile transformation projects exist to help organizations systemically improve quickly. Far too often, these noble efforts fail for only one reason: they fail to include the human factors of any IT project. 

Businesses must get better at executing Agile transformations. Changing market opportunity, market threats, and market conditions demand organizational responsiveness. 

In any Agile-guided project, managers need to establish the methods and measurements that accommodate their human element. The project team is comprised of people with different work competencies, ethics, and passions. Failure to address those factors is a big failure.

To be truly Agile, organizations must leverage, not limit, human vitality.

Much has been written about change. Change is necessary for survival. The quicker the change, the better the opportunity for growth. It is also well known that humans, as a rule, hate change. Or do they?

Change isn’t the problem 

Engineers and developers make their living changing things. They tinker to improve on, and off, the clock. Change isn’t what limits their performance. They are far more likely to hamper agility by prioritizing the wrong issue or monitoring the wrong KPI.

What kills a developer’s energy and passion is a failure to pursue the appropriate target.

The organizations who can show team members the overall objective of the project, and define progress in terms of that objective, fare much better than those who don’t. 

People will make – or break – Agile projects

The people doing the work, and those who live with the finished product, are at the core of a project’s success. Therefore, establish key performance indicators connected to that core. Rather than measure a percentage of project completion, measure a degree of accomplishment.

The goal of Agility is to establish regular and systemic improvements in ways meaningful to customers that are efficient, effective, competitive. Successful Agile transformations spring from organizations structured to be nimble in the right way and in the right direction, from the door attendant to the middle-manager to the CIO. 

The difference between the companies who truly get that concept and those who don’t is the difference between Netflix and Blockbuster. 

Agility not for speed’s sake

Speed is an attribute, not the goal. Telling the team that Agile methods and procedures are to get development done faster is like a consumer saying that 1 Gbps is better than 100Mbps because it’s faster. Latency often makes a 100Mbps connection a better option, and real professionals know that.

The point is that speed, for speed’s sake, is a distraction.  Speed is not an Agile objective. Agile’s true objective is a better experience, which often includes but is not solely defined, by time to delivery.

Metrics that Work for Agile People

All the organic material described above deserves – demands – overarching attention. Rather than solely defining budget and scheduling metrics, change the KPIs to what we call “Impact Measures.” 

A metric, by definition, must be measured. The best ones are simple to measure. The numbers are quickly surfaced. They appeal to people’s intelligence as important. 

Define goals based on specific customer benefits, for example Customer Satisfaction, Mean Time to Recovery, and/or Defects Released to Production. Such precise measures of impact should be prominent, for at least two very good reasons, in order of importance:

  1. They are directly connected to a customer benefit. 
  2. They are directly measurable.

A metric directly connected to a customer benefit is a KPI any person in the organization can get behind. It’s clear, unambiguous. It’s relatable. It’s defensible. Morally, it’s the right thing to do. Team members who can’t understand or get behind that kind of measurement aren’t a good fit for that particular Agile endeavor.

When both reasons are true then organizational improvement can be managed, even predicted. For example, having discrete rankings allows managers to assess the effectiveness of a group or team, which in turn allows them to define and address gaps, either in resources or knowledge. 

Effective management tools such as a Maturity Model can help determine how best to develop the organization’s internal resources or complement them with outside help. Not only can the decisions be made more quickly and effectively, then can be made responsibly.

Different Metrics for Different Roles

For the purposes of Agile transformation improvement, there are four primary types of people: Customers, Actors/Doers, Middle Managers, and Leadership. Each has their distinct circumstances of need and motivations. The extent to which those needs are served is the extent of successful Agile transformation. It is therefore critical that a transformation project be defined and scoped with those needs in mind. This puts an enormous burden on Leadership to better answer the question of why they want to become more Agile. 

Leadership should understand the objective to customers that it may clearly communicate it in terms most effective to middle management and the “doers,” those who will be using the tools to bring about technology solutions. That clarity should be reflected in the way project performance is measured. Very often they relapse into a language of peers and foreign to the people who work for them.

Actors or Doers are pragmatists at the antipodes of the visionary pole, the people it is hoped will emerge from a quagmire of technology with a solution the competition hasn’t got. Typically, their problem is the roadmap is defined by what only be described as Leadership Quantum Physics. To their frustration, they are tied down by a budget and schedule they did not create and held accountable by measures well outside their control. Middle managers struggling for their engagement are left with creative inspiration less than rather than equal to Agile ambition.

Middle management is typically caught in an untenable position between the visionary eloquence of Leadership and the practical semantics of those who will do the work. Industry insiders often refer to them as Frozen Middle or Forgotten Few because while they work for, and aspire to be visionaries, they are measured by unromantic realities of budget and the implacable tread of time. According to Jennifer Reynolds, they often resist innovation because it jeopardizes their job. They must inspire their teams to a clear path with distinct progress indicators. 

Helping people reach their potential is not just the role of HR in today’s Agile firms. Monitoring such things as happiness and health are significant arbiters of a team’s performance. New tools aimed to see and aid well-being, such as OfficeVibe, can offer massive performance opportunity and managerial insight. 

A fourth group of people, outside the organization yet critical to the process, are Customers. They provide a human-centric reason for the transformation; the improvement is to accrue to them. Organizations seeking transformation seek measurable customer benefit and it’s corollary, a measured reduction of customer pain. If the change doesn’t benefit the customer, why do it? 

Setting Agile Transformations to Succeed

Organizations are collections of people on a mission to continually benefit customers. Truly Agile organizations recognize that people are at the core of the business. They know that systemic, sustainable, significant responsiveness happens only when their people 

  • Can perceive and understand the objective, 
  • Possess needed skills and competencies,
  • Are trusted with tactical resources to achieve milestones, and
  • Measure their performance in ways important to the customer.

Added value comes to those organizations, too. They find that people inside the organization, even Actors/Doers, develop visionary insight aligned to Leadership’s strategy. They become proactive. Agility becomes even better.

Fixing Agile Transformations Set to Fail: Focus on the Organic Tech

Fixing what sets Agile transformation projects to fail should be everyone’s priority. 

Since 2007, we find that solving the big problems requires a strategic mindset in addition to a tactical brilliance. Over the 12 years Theorem (formerly Citrusbyte) has helped the world’s best brands transform, we identified common factors of failure and developed corrective guidance. These factors, while common to all transformation projects, deviate widely in their relative distance from average. Some organizations may struggle with a factor (or factors) more than others. 

At Theorem, our clients have the brilliance to compete and thrive on the world stage. We delight in helping them realize their ambition and adapt to change in the best way imaginable. 

Theorem is an Agile Transformation partner for the world’s best and most innovative organizations. Read more about our work at theorem

This article is the first in a series to help clients (and competitors who study our playbook) avoid transformation pitfalls. Learn what Theorem has found effective to Fixing Agile Transformations Set to Fail. The first factor that can make or break Agile transformations is the most profound and most common: Inhumane (Inorganic) Metrics.

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