Some months in the past I authored an initial article about IT transformation, defining it and describing its core concepts and challenges. During the time between article’s publishing and present-day, I had the opportunity to be a part of two transformation implementation projects lead by NTT DATA. Additionally, I reviewed an existing customer’s concept which covers an IT transformation initiative as well. Based on these experiences I was capable to collect some practical information about the, in my opinion, proper implementation way of the IT transformation, which I want to share with you in this blog post.
Nowadays there is no modern engineering project without agility. Roots of the agile movement can be found in the fifties, thanks to the work of such statisticians like Deming  and Shwehart , known as PDCA (plan-do-check-act) management method . Their concept of continuous improvement can equally be applied on the IT transformation changing it to an agile IT transformation or just agile transformation.
One of the best projections of PDCA on the agile transformation that I used in my most recent projects is undoubtedly the model proposed by Jason Little in 2009 named Four Steps to an Agile Transformation . These four specific steps are: understand, educate, execute and reflect and every agile transformation should follow these steps successively as depicted below:
However, based on my observations in various transformation projects, it is quite often that they focus just on the execute and reflect steps, ignoring importance of other two, means understand and educate steps. Therefore let’s take a closer look at what all these necessary steps are for.
Step 1: Understand
What do you need to understand about your organization to move forward?
During this step, you focus on the understanding about the sense of urgency for the agile transformation and what is the mindset and culture of the organization you would like to transform.
Establishing urgency is one of the key concepts of the Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model  and yes, implementing agile transformation means you actually execute a change process:
Therefore, it is vital to the project to have a clear definition of the changes that are urgent. Following the Little’s advise, you should ground the urgency in a business purpose. Objectives like “faster time-to-market” or “lower IT costs” show the right direction, they are however too generic and have to be specified in greater detail. Hence, phrasing of such objectivities should involve SMART criteria  (SMART states for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) allowing the transformation process monitoring and final judgment if the agile transformation was successful or not.
Determining the mindset and culture of the organization represents a vital element for the successful transformation. Often overseen, it causes some surprising problems during the execution of the process. Different cultures clash due to the conflicts of the values between them.
You can use various technics to determine the dominant culture of your organization and the departments or groups inside. To run this task Little suggests usage of the Schneider’s Culture Model :
It is quite obvious that e.g. in the case of financial institutes the dominant culture is the control one. Therefore, it comes relatively often to a fierce clash with the existing cultivation sub-culture, which is typical for the protagonists of the agility adoption. Based on my experience, this happens during almost every agile transformation initiative, so the awareness of the existence of the various cultures within the organization has an enormous importance for the mitigation of the potential transformation project risks.
Finally, all parties involved in an agile transformation project have to understand that agility is more about organizational change and less about agile.
The point is not to be agile. The point is to make progress in your organization.
Step 2: Educate
What do you need to learn about to move forward?
Education of the people constitutes the second step of the Little’s model, and you might be surprised how important it is. Commonly, before the start of an agile transformation, stakeholders pay many attention to learn about agility, but surprisingly, nothing more. They learn e.g. about Scrum or Kanban. They accomplish certifications for different roles, like Scrum Master or Product Owner. However, to successfully conduct an agile transformation, you need more than just a knowledge about frameworks and tools. You will have to understand that an agile transformation means organizational change and perceive the consequences of that process.
In my (not only) transformation projects at NTT DATA I have seen various reactions of the participants on the upcoming change. It was a vast spectrum from protagonists up to total antagonists, from euphoria up to resignation. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how individuals experience change. Virginia Satir, a pioneer of family therapy, developed a model that represents this topic :
If you look at her change model, it is quite clear that many individuals after start of the transformation process enter the chaos phase. It happens because they lose their identity. I frequently heard such sentences like “oh, we have now no roles in development team, so what will I do?” or “I was a project manager for over 20 years in this organization, should I be just a scrum master now?” or “We were planning the projects for one year onwards, and now we do it just for one sprint, so how can we apply for whole project budget?”.
Thanks to the education you should be capable to shorten the chaos phase and promptly reach the integration phase where the participants recognize the first benefits of the transformation, thus get intrinsic motivation to support it.
What happens if you don’t educate members about the change and its consequences? In one of my early projects for a big insurance company, we were at the beginning quite successful with the transformation. However, after some months of enthusiasm, I have recognized some symptoms of disintegration. We, as project-leaders, were not able to sustain the change. It has happened on what I call the negative reaction of the organizational immune system. Due to the lack of proper education, the transformation was still recognized by the most of participants as a foreign cell. The agile transformation initiative has been stopped and the organization turned back to the old-school management. The agile transformation has failed.
Change is the end result of all true learning.
Step 3: Execute
What approach is mostly like to work?
Execution of an agile transformation requires proper preparation which concludes making decisions which are crucial for the whole transformation project.
First decision you have to make is figuring out the approach. According to Little’s model you can choose between big bang, pilot project and evolutionary change. Due to the size of organizations I made projects for, neither big bang nor evolutionary change were an option. All of the transformations started with a pilot project and this approach I would recommend for most of the organizations.
How do you select a proper candidate for a pilot project? I agree with Little’s argumentation that it has to manifest strong likelihood of success and high tolerance for failure. The former means it has to have strong management support for the agile initiative, have clear defined scope and technology with less uncertainty. You don’t have to be a hero and take the most problematic project as a pilot. This proof can be done later, when the change is already well anchored in corporate culture. High tolerance for failure means there will be no significant damage if the project fails, so do not choose a high-critical and vital project for your business.
A pilot project can be seen as a sales event of the whole transformation initiative, so it must be successful to get further management support and new funds.
Another important decision you have to make is the selection of the team which will develop the selected pilot project. Dependent on your organization culture the team can be selected using push or pull principle.
In case of a control oriented culture the people should be simply assigned, pushed to the team based on their skills and experience. This keeps managers feeling safe.
Should your organization have cultivation oriented culture you can try to use pull principle, means try to get volunteers into the team.
Regardless of the method you choose, a the end you need a team of motivated experts to run the change.
The goal of a pilot project is not just only delivering value according to the planned scope. During its execution you have to invest additional efforts in the project visibility. “Visualize all you work!”, that’s the motto. This will give you more publicity, thus more supporters in the time after the pilot project is finished.
Good project management and documentation tools can be very handy and helpful to make the state and the progress of the project transparent. Current state of the art products are e.g. Atlassian’s Jira and Confluence tools.
Additionally to the project boards showing current development status, you can visualize other project parameters e.g. number of impediments, planned releases, running builds, open merge requests and health metrics. Effective and efficient communication is one of the keys for a successful execution of a transformation.
A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it.
Step 4: Reflect
How will you know you’re making progress?
Reflecting means, thinking deeply and carefully about something. Analyzing and reflecting the execution process of a pilot project is a must and core element of the continuous improvement mantra. You should run retrospectives very often for example weekly on all organization hierarchy levels which are involved in the pilot project.
A retrospective meeting should give you information about what do you want to keep, what should be rumped up or down or even started or stoped. Here, I prefer the usage of the retrospective starfish as a great idea for the data gathering activity :
Running retrospectives however is not enough to guarantee information propagation within your organization. You need a mean to get data flow between hierarchy levels. Little suggests here the usage of the dynamic governance or sociocracy . It is based on three basic concepts:
- Decisions are made by consent.
- Decision-making is delegated to a structure of circles that reflects the operational structure.
- Circles that handle more concrete work e.g. development, overlap with circles that handle more abstract work e.g. long-term planning, thus creating double-linking.
Finally, in terms of reflection we have to talk about metrics. What can you measure to judge the business outcome of the project and transformation progress properly? Typically you will look at the lead and cycle times, number of defects and its resolution times, cost of overtime and code health metrics and so on. Remember, however, that metrics can be very sinister and tricky. They can be manipulated and tampered. They can be gamed before they reach higher hierarchy levels. They can quickly demotivate people. Use them with caution.
Use metrics to make visible what is going on and try find to underline root-cause.
Running an agile transformation requires well-defined methodology allowing proper preparation, execution and evaluation of the entire initiative. Jeson Little’s Four Steps to an Agile Transformation  is an excellent guidance, which I use in my transformation and transformation review projects. Keep in mind the circle of continuous improvement based on understand, educate, execute and reflect steps. They define a roadmap allowing successful delivery as well as building on and anchoring the change caused by the agile transformation.
Adam loves combining software engineering with the business world, especially using practices from his agile architecture toolbox, which contains proven technics treating architecture as a process, structure or even a behavior of a system.
In his private life Adam collects historical typewriters and vintage personal computers.