In the media

The wrong goals can sabotage agile transformation

By Anneli Ring


02 March 2021

Read the Swedish article here

The view of goals and metrics has been largely the same since the start of industrialisation in the 20th century. Although many organisations have realised the benefits of agile working methods, incorrect goals and metrics can jeopardise the entire agile investment, say PA's experts in agile transformation.

There is much to be gained when it comes to agile thinking and working methods, not least in terms of job satisfaction, innovation and higher participation. But the pitfalls of agile transformation should not be underestimated. In order for more people to succeed with their agile investment, organisations need a paradigm shift in how they set and follow business goals.

The view and working methods around goals and metrics has largely been the same since the start of industrialisation in the 20th century. This period was characterised by strong hierarchies, functional silos and detailed management of employees. What was measured before, many organisations still measure today - whether it gives the right result or focus. Although it has been a long time since we left the last century, many organisations still use these old ways of working while investing in the agile ways of working of the 21st century.

Many of the common and traditional metrics do not work very well in today's organisations, because in agile working methods, employees' ability to think and control for themselves is rewarded. Organisations that implement agile working methods but, at the same time, retain their previous approach to goal management, create tensions for their  employees. Employees are told that they have gained an increased degree of autonomy, but at the same time they are subject to the same level of control. The contradiction means that the cultural change stops and the full potential of agile working methods is never reached.

Customise goals
In an agile way of working, it is also important that the business is adaptable to change. Exact goals and metrics need to be able to be adjusted quickly to ensure that the business focuses on the right things. This is in contrast to traditional goals and metrics, which are usually adjusted according to an annual schedule and which involve lengthy and resource-intensive work.

In traditional goals and metrics, the psychosocial environment is considered less important than hard numbers, such as kronor and working hours. One of the basic principles of agile, however, is that the right behaviours create the right results. In a study on Google called Aristotle, over 100 projects were analysed to investigate what determined whether a project was successful. The study showed that the most successful projects were not based on the group's intellectual composition, but instead on a positive psychosocial environment. In short, this meant that the people in the successful projects felt satisfied, secure, and that they were listened to and trusted each other.

Becoming aware of the damage and tensions that traditional goals and metrics can bring in the agile context is a necessary starting point towards setting the goals and metrics of the future. However, there is a lack of guidelines and methods regarding goals and metrics within the most common agile frameworks, such as SAFe. This makes it difficult for many agile organisations to know what and how to measure.

How should organisations work with goals and metrics that promote an agile approach?
They need to add goals and metrics that reflect the organisation's psychosocial environment, which show how employees feel and how motivated they are. This can be measured using various tools. These trust the connection between employee behaviour and the organisation's results. A good habit is to always link goals and metrics with behaviours. If goals or metrics lead to behaviours other than the desired ones, they should be adjusted or removed. Evaluate goals and metrics on an ongoing basis and dare to change them when needed. Make this possible by simplifying the process of goals and metrics with reduced bureaucracy and frequent evaluation cycles.

Successful agile investment requires the adoption of new ways of thinking and working about goals and metrics. Those who continue to work with traditional goals and metrics in an agile context risk wasting their investment in agile.

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