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How to Lead a Transformation Using Agile Principles

January 22, 2018

Leading transformation

The role of leadership is essential to any organizational change, such as incorporating Agile ways of working into an organization. However, leaders can find it challenging to create a deep-rooted change in their company. If support for Agile principles is limited, the organization will have a difficult time gaining traction, yielding better results, and penetrating the established culture.

So how do you garner much-needed support for more Agile design thinking?

Agile principles can improve the efficiency, quality, and success of an organization’s ways of working, but you need a champion—an alignment leader—working with a change partner to help the company undertake the heavy lifting of implementing new patterns and creating a culture that embraces Agile principles. Change partners are practitioners (internal or external) that bring know-how, tools, and proven approaches to help alignment leaders set up, guide, and successfully implement a transformation.

The alignment leader: champion for change

How do you identify an alignment leader? Or, perhaps more important, become one yourself? Here are some tenets of a good alignment leader:

Use questions. Rather than make statements about what should be done, alignment leaders are masters at asking the right questions. These questions should help the entire team achieve mutual understanding, discover alternatives, and refine the problems at hand.

Improve flow. Much like a product leader and a Scrum master, an alignment leader and his or her change partner help the design team execute the project without getting distracted. Rather than stop the flow of work to fix a potential problem or concern, an alignment leader helps improve the team’s speed by keeping them focused and addressing impediments before they stop the work.

Trust the team. The role of leadership in change management cannot be underestimated. A good alignment leader empowers his or her team by supporting their recommendations, decisions, and work processes. This vital support and trust can pay big dividends in production speed, burnout prevention, and employee satisfaction.

Be involved. Leaders who stay involved throughout the life of a project validate the work with their interest and presence. An alignment leader validates Agile and helps it succeed by showing up, participating when possible, asking questions, and being clear about project non-negotiables and direction.

The change partner: clearing the way for change

Alignment leaders, in partnership with a strong change partner, can drastically improve how fast an organization adopts Agile principles and begins to see benefits. However, the reality is that alignment leadership doesn’t happen overnight. Leaders must also adjust to cultural changes before they can help their organization adopt them. Even if they are willing, the transition process can be difficult and time intensive.

A critical role on an Agile team is that of Scrum master, whose primary responsibility is to facilitate meetings and clear impediments to productivity. In many ways, change partners are the ultimate Scrum masters, providing overall project oversight, facilitation, training, and support. However, for change partners to be successful, you must:

Resource them. Change partners need access to your organization to be effective in mobilizing and creating lasting change. Make sure they have access to team members, project management support, and communication assistance.

Give them time. In Agile, it can be hard to know how long something will take until you’ve run a few sprints and made adjustments. Agile methods have proven to be much faster than traditional waterfall methods. However, they are iterative in their implementation and usually don’t provide a neat Gantt chart to make you feel in control. Don’t rush your change partner (especially in the beginning), but do expect results and regular reports on progress.

Trust their suggestions. Change partners can help coach leaders on their path to alignment leadership. This isn’t their first rodeo. Trust their coaching and their guidance on tools, processes, and methodology.

Engage external partners. Sometimes you don’t have the internal capabilities or bandwidth for a change. Trust your change partner to help fill capability gaps during a transformation or while you ramp up internal capabilities and resources.

The role of leadership in delivering the benefits of change

To create support for Agile, organizations need to develop alignment leaders and involve a trusted change partner. By doing these two things, you can implement Agile principles faster and start seeing the benefits almost immediately. While it may not be easy to implement Agile into your culture, the right leadership and tools can facilitate the journey. The faster you deliver benefits, the easier it will be to secure greater support for the change.

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About The Author

Principal of AlignOrg Solutions, Reed Deshler specializes in developing strategic organization designs and helping companies bring them to fruition. As an organization consultant, he works with executive teams and human resource teams to define winning strategies, align their organization and business models for success, and mobilize employees and stakeholders in the desired direction. He’s guided Fortune 500 companies—including 3M, Abbott, Hertz, Chevron, Cisco, and General Mills—as well as middle-market businesses and nonprofits through change successfully and helped them solve complex organizational challenges. Deshler is coauthor of Mastering the Cube: Overcoming Stumbling Blocks and Building an Organization that Works, a guidebook that outlines AlignOrg Solutions’ organization alignment process. He regularly writes and speaks on issues related to organization transformation and ways to implement—and create buy-in—among stakeholders for new business designs.

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