Agile change in practice

“Be the change you want to see in the world”
Mahatma Ghandi

How to ‘be the change’ and talk about becoming agile in an agile way? Try an Unconference.

I recently worked with Cognizant to host an open-space dialogue between 18 people working at the vanguard of bringing Agile to their companies. With law firms, retailers, broadcasters and consultants joining in, we were a mixed bunch.

With some lightweight facilitation, nine self-organised break-out sessions explored multiple topics, with three interesting themes emerging:

  • Use of language
  • Contracting third parties
  • How and what to measure

Use of language

Because Agile comes out of software development, it comes with a lot of technical terms. These terms can come with baggage and there’s a risk that, as a result, the value of the approaches can get lost with a non-technical audience.

To get alignment for adopting Agile within an organisation, as a Change Agent, you’ll need to sell this to an audience who don’t need to have an understanding of the technical terms or the detail of how specific Agile approaches might differ from each other.

There may be some terms that it may useful to bring into a stakeholder group’s common vocabulary, but as a rule it’s best to use familiar language even if it may feel uncomfortable to Agile die-hards. Senior stakeholders don’t care about the finer points of the Agile approaches and don’t need to – they simply need to know how things will be different for them, and what they need to do – in their language.

Finally – ‘show’ is usually more powerful than ‘tell’. If you’re getting lost in language trying to educate people about the approach, you’re probably on the wrong track in any case. Far better to use Agile approaches to deliver more effectively, then show stakeholders these tangible outcomes. Let your ‘buyers’ join the dots on how you managed to pull it off.

Contracting third parties

Change programmes are complex. The difference between more traditional approaches and Agile is that Agile accepts and embraces that complexity, as opposed to indulging a potential illusion that change programmes can be reduced to something intimately knowable upfront.

This is difficult for many stakeholders outside a core change team and especially for third parties. You’re often asking people to accept working arrangement without much clarity. How does the third party partner know what it’s getting into and whether it’s got a good deal?

What’s key is that both parties accept that what they deliver may be very different to that they initially conceive. A good example of where companies have to work in this way is the creative industries, for example advertising agencies. In this case they have a high-level brief, a budget and the detail emerges along the way. For contracting to work well with third parties, both sides need to be collaborative, not hung up on contractual terms and focus on shared objectives in a spirit of high trust. When drafting contracts for support in managing and leading complex change, look to the creative industries.

How and what to measure

Agile transformation by its nature doesn’t have a start and end point and defined ‘best practices’ to know whether you’re doing the right thing are an anathema to the Agile philosophy. In this context, what do we measure? Perhaps the three most common areas of focus are:

  • Time to market for new products and services
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Employee satisfaction

Here, the idea of a ‘human sensor’ is valuable. If we envision our company as a complex system of individual human beings into which we are attempting spread change, then our most important data points are the human beings themselves, right across the ecosystem. Techniques such as micro-surveying, low-tech paper-based feedback mechanisms, or data that we might have access to through existing processes can all help.

The idea is to build a picture that shows you the ‘climate’ and ‘microclimates’ of your ecosystem. From an internal perspective, this could be in terms of the level of internal buy-in to specific change objectives, the extent to which people feel empowered in their teams, or how quickly they feel they can get new ideas out to customers. Externally, this could mean asking customers themselves how valuable your products/services are to them and how responsive they see you as an organisation. Underlying this is a mindset that views the organisation as a living organism in constant flux and not a mechanical system that be predictably manipulated through well planned interventions. Our job is to commit to collecting data from a variety of stations across the ecosystem and to find ways to make sense of that data.