Leadership and inspiration momentum: The gap in Agile transformations

Over the last 16 years in the software industry, I have been involved in a number of Agile cultural transformations.  It was at lunch the other day during a conversation that I articulated an aspect of those transformations that is as true today as it was at the first transformation I was involved in.

During any cultural change, and here I am specifically talking about Agile cultural transformation although this may apply to other types of organisational change, there must be Leadership and Inspiration.  These go hand in hand and must come down from senior executives.  This is nothing new.  However, once the presentation has been given, once the direction has been set, how do we maintain momentum among the many teams that are involved in making the transformation a success?  The importance of this is directly proportional to the size of the organisation.  The more teams, the more people involved, the harder it is to maintain momentum.

So how exactly do we maintain momentum?  There are many options out there so let me present you with the two that I believe are most important.

Senior executive leadership, vision and drive

I want to mention this here for completeness.  There are many external sources that address this, so I will not here.  Let’s just note that this is the starting point for any successful transformation.  It is not a set and forget, rather a continued re-visit of the original strategy laid out, noting any modifications along the way, impact on the business and, most of all, impact on the people involved.

On the ground daily leadership

Here is where I think there is a gap in the industry’s thinking.  Twelve years ago when I took my first technical lead position during an Agile transformation, it was quite clear that there was a gap in the market.  That person that could take the Agile transformation directive and translate it to on the ground, practical application.  This is still true today. Organisational transformation literature calls these people Champions of Change.  In an Agile transformation, these Champions of Change need both the soft people skills and the hard technical skills required to both translate the transformation vision from strategy to practice and to earn the respect of their peers.  These key people are Technical Agile Mentors (TAMs).  Here are some examples of where I see these TAMs having great leverage during the day to day execution of the transformation:

  • Help the teams and their team members understand the vision at a practical level.  Continually assist in clarifying for those that need it and demonstrate by example through execution style or technical implementation. Deliver the features as a member of the team.
  • Take the opportunity wherever possible to show how a team can be better and align with the business goals:
    • During planning meetings: Explain how that team’s strategic objectives fit into the overall picture.
    • During daily execution: Take the opportunity to push the teams further using, for example, more proficient tools, techniques and, most importantly, execution behaviours.
    • During retrospectives: An ideal time to review the team’s current ways of working, suggesting improvements that fit into the overall strategy.  Take time to explain how the modification of the style of execution, introduction of a framework/tool or technique can bring benefits to the team and into the overall business goals.  Take the opportunity here to continually adapt an introduced change to fit the team’s dynamic.
  • Actively take part in training and changing the behaviours of team members, both senior and junior.  Their success is the TAM’s success.  As the software industry progresses, taking an active interest in the capabilities and development of each software engineer benefits both the organisation (through better quality software, more rapid feature delivery etc.) and the engineer (execution capability, technical skills etc.).

Filling the gap

So it is clear that for a successful Agile transformation to have the best possible chance of success not only do we need strong leadership at the executive level, but strong leadership at the team level.  This is the gap that is filled by the TAM.  This team level leadership in the context of an Agile transformation that a TAM brings requires a unique blend of people and technical skills.  Further, they must be current in both aspects of those skillsets as well as being visionaries for that team and across teams.  Given the nature of engineers and the rapid advancements in technologies, these people are difficult to find.  But take the time to choose them wisely because their impact can be profound.

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