7 agile transformation tips for executives, middle managers and teams

For most companies in today’s era of uncertain and fast-paced technological progress, traditional organizational structures and processes are no longer able to respond to the demands of clients and employees alike.

Clients demand an accelerated time to market, and the ability for suppliers to quickly respond to changing requirements. Meanwhile, employees in a modern-day workforce express an increased demand for responsibility and autonomy. They prefer not to work under strong hierarchical leadership and have developed a more defined preference in terms of leadership style. This, in turn, leads to new ways of working becoming a key argument to change employer for employees open to new opportunities on the job market.

To help with these challenges, organizations worldwide are now turning to agile working. In this article, we’ll provide 7 tips for executives, middle managers and teams embarking on their agile transformation. But first, we’ll briefly revisit the background of agile working. To skip directly to the tips, feel free to scroll down!


Origins of the agile way of working


Agile embodies a philosophy that provides answers to this new situation and was originally created based on experiences of software developers that saw the need to collaborate in different ways. Several principles were defined, based on their experiences, which now form the foundation of this new style of working.

In practice, however, organizations looking to adopt this style of working are not grounded in software development. Agile transformation frameworks provide a more well-rounded answer to agile-aspirational companies across sectors. These come in various flavours but are often grounded in the same fundamentals:

No alt text provided for this image

Fundamentals of an agile transformation


Central to the agile approach is a focus on delivering added value and increased customer-centricity. These are realized through four key areas: reducing the time to market, increasing employee ownership, continuous improvement and adopting a flexible organizational structure.

  • Reducing the time to market involves a shift from big, long-term projects led by large, complex departments towards short, cyclical product launches delivered by cross-functional teams. Information that was previously kept fragmented in the organization, with bits and pieces scattered across organizational silos, is now openly available and transparent. Data is, whenever possible, provided in real-time to its users.
  • Creating ownership among employees is done by engaging the organization, stimulating them to contribute creatively to the company and working towards improved results. Instead of relying on top-down management and control, focusing on comprises formed due to conflicts of interest, we shift our views towards the appreciation of bottom-up initiatives, consensus-based decision making and explicit goals followed by the entire organization.
  • Continuous improvement includes applying lean and agile methods that help shift perspective from micro-management, organizational silos and cyclical performance management towards autonomous teams, purpose-driven organizations and continuous performance feedback delivered ad-hoc.
  • Installing a flexible organization aims to put responsibilities with the right persons at the right time, so ideas can come to fruition when they need to. Departing from a meeting culture grounded in different opinions, data-driven decision making and managing based on output will now become the norm.


Approaching agile transformations as an organization


Realizing the large, organizational shift towards an agile way of working requires a large, conscious effort to be made by different layers within the organization. Both upper management, mid-level management and the teams themselves need to contribute to the change on multiple levels. It’s important that the change occurs explicitly across all layers to ensure the organizations moves as one and its different components remain in sync. The speed at which you move is not the essence here, comprehensiveness, on the other hand, is.


7 agile transformation tips for upper management executives


  • Define the sense of urgency: as an executive, your workforce will depend on you to convincingly deliver a vision for agile change. Your workforce likely exists out of a variety of teams working under differing circumstances, looking at change with differing perspectives. Unite your workforce by creating the burning platform, the need for change and a common ground for everyone.
  • Realize commitment and buy-in of executive members: in order to achieve upper management commitment, the necessary stakeholders will need to be given the mandate to implement the change within their divisions and departments. Budgeting will play a large part in this, as the available assets will directly dictate what can and cannot be done in terms of resources. You will want to define the impact of the agile transformation in terms of budgets, and how you will shift finances from the current to the future situation to ensure all executives are given the means to implement the change.
  • Create a transformational team: the initiative of the agile transformation itself will need a guiding team, often a virtual team spread across various areas of the organization, to implement the change and act as a soundboard during the implementation.
  • Organize an agile maturity scan within the organization: to be able to measure progress and improvement throughout the transformation we need a baseline measurement of agile practices and maturity throughout the organization. Try to do this at least on the level of the individual teams – we’ll need this information to select pilot teams.
  • Start with pilot teams: even the most comprehensive, full-blown agile transformation starts by taking baby steps. For most organizations, this will mean treading new ground, and you’ll want to be careful about how to approach the transformation. Using the results from the agile maturity scan, try to select one or two teams as pilots within the organization. These will move first, and you’ll be able to take lessons from their feedback that you can re-use when onboarding the rest of the organization. It usually pays if you can combine both a team higher in agile maturity and a less experienced team.
  • Define how you will scale and expand: growing beyond pilot teams, decide how you will expand the agile transformation within your organization, and set up a matching governance structure to support this discussion.
  • Focus on added value: as an organization, a great way to add value across the board is by implementing transparent marketplaces with re-usable materials for the teams to use. To incentivize improvement, define clear KPIs for everyone to follow and make sure the teams are working towards well-understood epics.


7 agile transformation tips for middle-management professionals

  • Create and practice your vision for change: just like upper management instilled its enthusiasm on performing the agile change to you, you’ll have to carry on the spark to your teams. Invest effort and time into defining a well-rounded vision for change, carrying over the essentials.
  • Define boundaries in scope and time: the change will be implemented broadly but moving towards that future state will have to happen in a structured and organized way. Create clear guidelines as to how the change will be deployed and what teams can expect.
  • Define how agile themes will be realized: review the agile principles and key themes and translate this to a practical impact on daily operations within your teams. This will allow you to identify the key risks and capture feedback from teams on the approach.
  •  Translate results of the agile maturity scan towards areas to develop and decide on an interval for performing the agile maturity scan, and use the baseline results to define focus areas for the various teams.
  • Facilitate autonomous teams: delegate what you can, lead from afar and shift your efforts as a middle manager towards connecting the various teams and accelerating delivery.
  • Offer support: facilitate your team by providing coaching on the job, enabling teams to follow courses and training sessions and deploying agile coaches as ambassadors throughout the organization.
  •  Empower teams to realize change: change will happen at varying paces throughout the organization and with varying levels of success, as no one team is alike. Its important to offer encouragement both within as well as across teams by celebrating successes, and having teams share experiences and best practices with each other.


7 agile transformation tips for embedding teams within the agile transformation

  • Create a common ground for the team: revisiting the team’s purpose is a great start to get members thinking about the bigger picture and their place within it. The common ground created by this exercise is a great compass for navigating future decisions regarding the team‘s transformation.
  •  Do a walkthrough of agile themes, roles and tools: to become agile, or increase your level of agility, you first must understand its basics. Spend plenty of time in the team to get acquainted with the guiding philosophy behind agile and try to embody the principles in the choices made along the journey.
  •  Sign off on a team covenant: increased team autonomy comes with the requirement of full team transparency and increased responsibility. For most teams, this involves a shift in mindset and behaviour – once again using agile principles, try to formally define a set of desired, as well as undesired behaviours to be expressed by the team in the future. Address how the team will contribute to its own development and continuous improvement activities and agree on what tooling you’ll use to support the agile transformation in the team.
  • Evaluate with the team: take a good look at your agile maturity, define improvement actions and formally place those on your team backlog for execution. Rinse and repeat.
  • Develop the ability to work autonomously: actively work on developing trust in the team, to warrant the team’s mandate for increased autonomy along the journey to come.
  • Grow towards a high-performing team: besides the team-defined improvement actions defined earlier, compare the team’s agile maturity to the agile maturity tracker of the organization and define focus areas from that perspective as well. Equally, add these to the backlog and prioritize them for execution.
  • Prepare for next steps and celebrate success: review progress often, and take some time to acknowledge personal achievements, even if things are not going perfect from the start, every small step taken as a team is worth celebrating.