The importance of non-negotiables in ensuring you achieve your agile ambitions

By Mike Haynes

Nov 01, 2021

Businesses around the world realise organisational agility is the route to being more in tune with their customers and more competitive. They also know agility at scale is hard to achieve. One of the reasons is that, faced with an enormous change to established ways of working, their instinct is to compromise. Consequently, agile efforts often fizzle out because they don’t reach beyond individual teams and across the whole business. They die by dilution.

To avoid ending up with an ‘agile but’ approach, where leaders pander to constraints and old habits, leaders need to be resolute. Contrary to the traditional views of agile evangelists, giving teams full autonomy to decide how to work and embrace agility will not only fail to bring the expected benefits, but can derail success. Autonomy risks teams adopting different ways of working, or autonomously deciding not to change an aspect of their ways of working (such as how to do funding).  

Our new report on organisational agility shows that, as well as empowering teams, leaders must be dogmatic when necessary, with clear non-negotiables on the core principles, processes and standards that everyone has to adopt to drive agility. This steadfastness should be highly visible when setting up the first agility examples, when standing up core agile teams, or when implementing large-scale organisational design changes. Here’s how to do it:

How can the leaders of the pack make agility stick?

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Pilots: only accept the best

Pilots, as your first agile exemplars, are crucial elements in your journey to organisational agility. Not only do they deliver value early, they show what’s possible and underline that new ways of working can bring huge rewards, even if they seem alien at first. They produce the success stories you’ll point to when teams are under strain and most need reassurance, as well as boosting the number of agile practitioners and advocates. So the choice of pilot and how you implement it is the first test of unwavering leadership. Make sure you remove the risk of people claiming any benefits were down to bending the rules. They must see that the pilot succeeded precisely because it stuck to agreed agile principles, designs and ways of working.

Pick an area that’s neither too easy nor too challenging. A quick win is easily dismissed, while too tough a task could risk failure, which would be near impossible to recover from. Then, make sure the pilot mirrors or exemplifies the operating model you’re aiming for and lets you show off best practice in different ways. For instance, you could demonstrate an exciting new customer benefit, like making mortgage applications simpler, while also getting into the weeds of regulatory compliance. Try to build in every part of the change you’ll be expecting in the rest of the business, whether it’s quarterly business reviews and planning cycles, or training and coaching to help new ways of working stick.

Working with a major bank on 10 pilots, we were clear that success measures had to be consistent. We provided a defined list of criteria each pilot had to cover throughout their scope, with guidance on how to meet each experiment and templates to document adherence. For instance, it was crucial to fill all value streams’ leadership with the right people, define OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and design sub-value streams using the same tools and techniques. Within this framework, teams still had wriggle room: they could vary in size and not all engineers had to be full stack.

Permanent change needs permanent expertise

A second area where no ground should be given is the make-up of the Central Agile Team. This is more than a team in name only. It’s the intellectual and emotional centre of your organisational agility journey. Whether it runs independently of the rest of the organisation or with members embedded in other teams, the temptation can be to fill it with temporary expert staff rather than your own people who are still learning the ropes. But this will leave you with a vacuum at the precise moment you’re looking to embed change. Permanent staff are a much better bet. If you struggle to find the right people, don’t be too quick to give up. Opt for people with the right growth mindset, and those able to inspire, even if they have little understanding of agility. Make them part of the Central Agility Team and provide them with outside mentoring to bolster their technical skills.

You’ll see clear benefits from having home-grown people in these roles. They’ll be known and respected by those in the business who need to adjust to agile ways of working. Working with a Nordic pharmaceutical organisation, we trialled an approach where the central agility hub was built out through a satellite structure. This core team, supported by a greater number of internal experts scattered around the business, took responsibility to embed the change throughout different teams. This satellite structure meant they knew their areas inside out and were trusted by the people receiving the change. It created a natural link to the ongoing rhythm of the business to help drive the transformation at all levels. 

Be clear on your non-negotiables

A big choice along the road to organisational agility is which agile framework to use – or whether to follow one at all. Some businesses feel they’re better off giving teams freedom over which processes and methods to use. But our experience tells us this is a recipe for failure in the long run. When the time comes for teams to work together, they could be speaking different languages, with different definitions and approaches to fundamentals like budgeting and measurement.

We believe frameworks are toolkits rather than straitjackets. Businesses should pick the elements that are most relevant to their situation and objectives. Cherry picking is okay, but once you’ve chosen your key principles, patterns or organisational design, you need to make them core non-negotiables. These must be a short and simple list to support scaling and speed while also allowing for some flexibility. Examples can include a fixed duration of three month planning cycles, or a common estimation framework for workloads (e.g story points).

Moreover, you’ll need to communicate your rationale and explain your non-negotiables rather than expect blind obedience, especially in organisations of knowledge workers.

Working with a financial services business that was finding it tough to scale agility, we saw clear benefits from this approach. Instead of announcing a framework out of the blue, they agreed the core techniques and principles from different frameworks they wanted to respect and clearly communicated them down. These included having one scrum master per team, and all agile release trains being in the same size range. This saved time and created an efficient acceleration towards organisational agility.

Our experiences working on the world’s largest agile transformations tell us that autonomy and empowerment is an outcome of agility, not the route to achieve it. To get there, leaders must be prepared to be more dogmatic than often imagined. Find out more in our new report and look out for the rest of our series on the four fundamentals of agility.

About the authors

Mike Haynes PA agile expert Mike specializes in shaping and implementing large scale Agile transformations as well as ensuring their long-term sustainability.

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