How Leaders Can Unblock and Accelerate Organizational Improvements
In every State of Agile survey, questions are included that explore blockers to agile adoption and transformation. The challenges that appear on the list are startlingly consistent, while the order may change the top 5 remain largely the same. (See the most recent State of Agile report here.)
The top 5: a general organization resistance to change, not enough participation, inconstant practices and tools, organizational culture, and inadequate support are largely things that leaders in a company are uniquely positioned to address.
Let's explore a few ways that leaders can take action and keep these challenges from continually bubbling up and blocking progress.
What can a leader do?
While I readily admit that there are no quick fixes for those top 5 issues, there are things you as a leader can do to build positive momentum and bring significant benefit to the organization.
Be an active participant
A common challenge I see when consulting with organizations is a leadership mindset that believes change can be delegated. Some leaders mistakenly assume they can say “We’re going to be more agile” and even fund the effort. but not have to participate directly. This rarely brings about the desired result. Business agility is here to stay, and it’s time for the entire business to organize around agile principles and practices.
I strongly encourage senior leaders to attend training sessions shoulder to shoulder with their team members. It’s critical that leadership understands how deep the transformation needs to go and what organizational constructs need to change to get to the desired outcomes. I’ve been in sessions where the C-suite is attending with middle managers as well as individual contributors and the effect is incredible. As questions emerge, the group as a whole can have meaningful discussions to address key cultural challenges.
In addition, the best way to understand agile ways of working is to practice them first hand. It’s helpful for teams in any part of the company to experiment with scrum or Kanban, even leadership teams. In doing this, they will gain experience with key challenges that the entire organization faces (for example, making difficult prioritization tradeoffs or delivering small slices of value.) They’ll also gain valuable experience with the agile tool itself learning to leverage it for real time insights.
Listen and observe
People that are close to the work will have great insights into what is blocking their progress. Pay attention, listen, and don’t be quick to dismiss what they perceive as impediments. As these issues are voiced, you may consider asking questions to get at real root causes. I find employing tools like “the 5 why’s” extremely helpful to not only clarify the issue itself but to help both the employee and leader gain insight into actionable steps that can be taken to address the issue. As a leader, you will naturally have purview into a broader range of issues. Take time to assimilate these together and discover what themes emerge, then ensure corrective actions are documented and executed, ideally in your agile tool in the appropriate team’s backlog.
Allocate space for change and innovation
Many organizations I work with are at 100% utilization and often are struggling to survive their day to day workload. They’re in the classic “we don’t have time to stop cutting wood to sharpen our saw” cycle. In these organizations, there is a tremendous resistance to change of any kind, even positive change because they are already overwhelmed. It’s important to remember that innovation and improvement are core to gaining better company outcomes. Running at 100% utilization is an antipattern that results in delivery delays, burnout, and poor quality. Statistically, running at 80% capacity increases predictability, improves quality, and provides significantly more opportunity to improve and innovate as a result these organizations often outperform organizations that run at higher utilizations. To achieve that, you may consider allocating one day out of five, or one sprint out of five, for innovative work or systematic improvements.
Burn the bridges
Almost every company I’m talking to right now is experiencing increasing uncertainty due to the COVID pandemic. When pressured, people often revert to older familiar patterns and fall back into failed ruts. More than ever this is the time to press forward on your digital transformation and leverage these liminal circumstances to create a case for positive change. Companies that are embracing that reality are rapidly extending their agility and setting themselves up to be even more competitive in the future.
There are many other ways you can consider addressing these core challenges in your specific context. In summary, I would encourage you to evaluate your own organization, honestly reflect on which of these apply in your context, and build a coalition to address challenges in your unique situation.
If you have questions about how to take your next steps in maturing your agile practices and digital transformation, our solution experts would be happy to set up some time to define a custom approach that addresses your unique challenges.