Turning Agile Around (Part One)

It’s a season of Agile anniversaries. Scrum is turning 25, and Agile isn’t too far behind, celebrating its 20th birthday. Since their founding, these ways of working have become mainstays in the world’s leading organisations (and for a good reason!). Yet, we continue to hear cautionary tales of large-scale technology transformation programmes gone wrong. Our clients typically report some of the same challenges: “Agile isn’t working,” “Our programme is struggling,” or “We’re just not seeing the benefits we thought we would.”

If Agile has matured and secured such a prevalent spot in the business and IT world, why are there still such extremes of success and failure? How can we use Agile to create success in our companies and turn failing programmes around?

In this blog series, we’ll explore an approach to driving Agile programme success by drawing on six key catalysts:

  1. Culture
  2. Leadership
  3. Planning
  4. Product thinking
  5. Measurement and transparency
  6. Truly Agile ways of working

Today, we will explore the first three: culture, leadership, and planning.

Catalyst one: Culture

Your culture reflects the behaviours, beliefs, and mindsets within your organisation that tangibly and intangibly affect how it works and what it holds true. Simon Powers summarises the Agile Mindset as comprising:

  • The complexity belief: We understand the true nature of the problem.
  • The people belief: We treat everyone with unconditional positive regard and engage each member of the team.
  • The proactive belief: We pursue relentless improvement proactively.

By merely adopting these beliefs and putting them into action, a more Agile culture will emerge. However, if you impose practices alone without changing mindsets, your Agile initiatives will fail. 

One company we know was using Scrum-based teams to develop the software for an extensive, multi-featured system. Although the teams were organised in Scrums with the right roles, the organisation was not thinking or behaving in an Agile way. Decision-making was hierarchical. Activities reverted to a stage-gated, Waterfall process following the delivery of a software build. The programme was falling behind and failing to deliver.

That’s when we were asked to help.

You cannot teach culture; you must model it. So, we took several practical steps to change cultural mindsets across the programme. How? By embedding people with the right behaviours into existing teams.

  • We deployed experienced Agile coaches to help instil Agile culture and challenge detrimental behaviours.
  • We embedded a Scaled Product Owner to run the existing supplier teams and set best practices.
  • We empowered the Product Owner to make decisions related to priorities and planning – giving them autonomy within the proper guardrails.

Culture change is a long-term process, yet we have seen the programme’s leaders increasingly trust Agile. Further, more efficient ways of working have emerged and accelerated value delivery. Over time, we’ve been able to reduce our input as teams have adopted the right behaviours for themselves.

Catalyst two: Leadership

John Maxwell says that "everything rises and falls on leadership." All too often, a traditional, hierarchical mindset leads to blame and mistrust when programmes go off the rails. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to micro-management, which paradoxically increases risk, delays value-delivery, and lowers quality. At the same time, stress and working hours skyrocket.

Our client's programme exhibited these challenges. The company’s leadership team designed targets around finishing tasks, even if the job didn't deliver value until several months later. For instance, code was written and left untouched for six months. When we got involved, quality levels were inadequate, resulting in many defects and extensive remediation work. Most importantly, nothing had yet been delivered to customers, despite many months of development work.

We took on programme leadership with a small team of leaders and coaches. To help get things back on track we:

  • Ensured that each team knew its purpose, understood the value it was delivering, and felt empowered to pursue its goals.
  • Reviewed decision-making timelines and forums to streamline processes, empower individuals, and remove unnecessary reporting.
  • Re-focused programme metrics on end-user value, rather than velocity or quantity of hours effort expended.

In leading by example and then training others, leaders embodied a higher level of Agile maturity. Now, they can role-model the right behaviours and empower their teams to focus on value. Our success was in the numbers: we empowered the client to deliver two major releases in six months and onboard 30,000 users to the system. At the same time, code defects dropped by 58 percent.

Catalyst three: Planning

Former U.S. president and American general Dwight Eisenhower famously said that "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." Many people believe that Agile means no planning. Our experience proves the opposite. In Agile, we plan more carefully, more thoroughly, and more realistically than many traditional Waterfall approaches. Along the way, we’ve also learnt that the ability to pivot, continually adapting as our knowledge increases, is critical to a successful programme.

One of our recent experiences illuminates the importance of planning. Our client had many high-level, long-term plans with apparently immovable end dates. When digging below the surface, none of those dates were realistically achievable. As a result, teams constantly failed to deliver. To bring about change we:

  • Instituted a process of detailed planning based on the ideas of Programme Increment Planning drawn from the SAFe Framework.
  • Coached Scrum Masters on how to plan well and to the level of detail that is necessary.
  • Challenged every Scrum team's plan against an agreed definition of "What good looks like" to get all work up to the same level of quality.

We saw continuous improvement with each subsequent iteration of our planning cycles. Programme accuracy and software quality improved as teams learnt Agile behaviours and knew where to focus their energy.

Imagine a future where high-value ways of working are business as usual. Where teams continuously learn, grow, and adapt. Embedding a successful and genuinely Agile approach within your programme is challenging, yet it’s not out of reach. Combining the right catalysts with the right coaching skills will equip you to turn your Agile programme around and build sustainable, positive momentum.

In part two of our series, we’ll unpack the other essential catalysts for Agile programme recovery.