How to rapidly scale enterprise agility – key activities for Executives

At scale, helping enterprise agility to evolve empowers the whole enterprise to rapidly respond to disruptive change. It’s an operating model that moves agile beyond the team. 

Scaled agile, though, introduces a new set of challenges for executives who crave the benefits of these new ways of working. Lack of consistency of agile practice, visible executive and management support, and access to experienced agile practitioners, are the primary reasons why these initiatives fail (State of Agile, 2019). Successful large scale, enterprise level transformation requires action in a number of areas all related to managing change.

Commit to changing the way you work

There’s a temptation to try and adapt and change agile frameworks and practices to the current work context. I hear a lot of “we take what works” or “oh, we already do that”. These are just short hand for “we don’t really want to change”. Fake agile is what emerges – practices that seem agile, but are really tweaks and minor adaptations on what people were already doing. Adding post-it notes and task boards, doing stand-ups, and having demos all give the appearance of agility, but unless people are truly changing the way they work there will not be any real benefits.

A true change to using Scrum, Jeff Sutherland the co-creator of Scrum argues, can result in creating twice as much value for customers in half the time. To do this requires a commitment to change:

  • Change your roles – Your old roles promote old ways of working. You need new roles with new responsibilities that are aligned to agile to get its benefits.
  • Change your work practices – If your old work practices are not enabling you to do twice as much in half the time, why just “tweak” them? Why change an agile practice to conform to your old ways of working? 

Management play an important role here, promoting and supporting managers to change work practices giving themself and their staff time to learn how to adapt to the new practices they’ve chosen – e.g. Scrum, Kanban, Lean. 

Mentor leadership

Providing coaching and mentoring support to leadership provides them with the expertise they need to change their mindset about work. Adapting a whole career built around traditional management practices takes time and a peer who understands what it really takes to transition large scale programs and its teams. Mentoring provides leadership with a sounding board and tried and true practices to shift to understanding the system of work they’re changing and to actively manage it. This is a big challenge for some traditional managers – the move away from delegating tasks and seeking reports on activity and progress to promoting self-organisation (not self-management).

Where team level agile focuses on Daily Scrum and iterative planning and delivery on a fortnightly basis, a leader’s role shifts to looking at the value stream – the steps involved in delivering value to customers, stakeholders and clients – and understanding where the bottlenecks are and working to reduce waiting time, remove bottlenecks, and improve throughput. 

Prioritise strategic initiatives and align people to its goals

Portfolio Backlogs are key enablers of agility. They help executives prioritise their strategic initiatives in the same way a team backlog prioritises delivery. While this practice seems overly simple, it’s a key part of prioritising the whole enterprise on value, waste, throughput and metrics on outcome. Ultimately, it creates alignment. Importantly, it can also re-align the entire enterprise every 3-months – a critical enabler of adaptation to disruptive change.

Prioritising initiatives by cost of delay was popularised by Don Reinertsen in 2009. He suggests that the only true way to prioritise by economic factors is to consider the impact to the business, to stakeholders, to customers and to the market, relative to its time criticality. 

When used consistently, this technique provides an objective way to account for the impact of not working on an initiative, or delaying work, relative to all of the other initiatives. 

Limiting WIP – Work In Progress

The key to delivering initiatives faster is to focus on only a few initiatives at once. All activities – business as usual (BAU), service support and delivery, product management, etc – can and should align solely to the work of delivering to current value and unrealised value. If there’s strategic value in continuing to support a current or an older product, then rather than just classifying it as “keeping the lights on”, be explicit about the strategic intent and what’s expected as an outcome from that work. If the work has no value, then it’s waste. It’s effort that could have created value elsewhere.

Importantly, rather than asking people to work on all initiatives, the lack of focus and huge burden of context switching will mean while there’s lots of activity, no one initiative will progress very fast at all.

Focus on no more than three initiatives at a time. When one is done, “pull” the next highest initiative from the Portfolio Backlog and commence work on it. While this practice seems simple, it’s a key part of prioritising the whole enterprise on value, waste, throughput and metrics on outcome.

Bubble-up problems – the Executive impediments backlog

When delivery against a strategic initiative impediments will no doubt arise. Some impediments teams can, and should, solve for themselves. Others, outside their control, must be handled by management. When these problems are escalated, they are made transparent on the impediments board of the leadership who own the system of work. Their Daily Scrum involves assessment of problems and working together to actively address them. This isn’t an exercise in delegation – only the manager has the power to change the system itself. It’s a process of methodically and surgically understanding the cause of the problem and changing the rules, policies and processes of the system itself to remote those impediments. If agile expedites the delivery of value, a leaders role is to understand when value is impeded and take action to address it. Their backlog and boards are a transparent demonstration of their commitment to address the problems of the system of work.

Promote structured, enterprise-wide sharing of learning

Items are prioritised. Problems occur and are dealt with. Leadership champions and promotes change. There’s a lot to learn from as teams. leaders and executives change their whole operating model. If becoming agile is of strategic importance, understanding why successes occur and why we fail are important to share to others to enable them and the wider organisation to learn faster. 

The Scrum Masters’ Retrospective is a useful pattern to provide a formal forum to share learnings. Timed after teams’ Retrospectives, it’s a formal opportunity for Scrum Masters all the way up to senior Kaizen Leaders to talk openly about what improvements have been made, experiments that have been run, and how they’ve turned out. More likely than not, the problem facing one team has already been solved by another. Larger programs then leverage the same pattern for its inspect and adapt workshops held every quarter. These then align with the quarterly planning cycles for the whole enterprise and provide an opportunity for learnings to influence and change strategic priorities.

Conclusions

Learning is a critical part of understanding how to change the whole enterprise to become more agile. With access to experienced practitioners who can share their knowledge and embed their learnings in teams, programs and senior leadership, the 3-5 year journey it often takes for the whole enterprise to begin to become agile can be as little as 2-3 years. This equates to millions of dollars in savings earlier than could otherwise be realised.

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