By Chad Greenslade
I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the sixth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.
Lesson 6: Gain Executive Buy-In
Executives have motivations and you must work to understand their nuanced agendas and how they are measured while getting them to agree on a specific course of action. You’re going to need a coalition of aligned executives if you wish to get your agile transformation effort off the ground. Discuss the problems that you are attempting to solve, help them understand why a change is required, and educate them on how you came to explore agile as a solution.
The first step of executive alignment is gaining consensus on the problem statement. If executives have differing opinions on what the problem is, they will naturally have differing opinions on the solution. Conversely, executive consensus on a problem statement makes it much easier to gain concurrence on the problem’s solution. You should be able to articulate the problem using actual results from previously completed projects. Empirical evidence such as budget, schedule, and quality data can be examined and used to justify the problem statement. If existing project intake and / or request management processes cannot keep up with demand, this can be further used as justification for change. Many of today’s software products are subscription based with regular updates included as part of the service. A traditional waterfall approach may not support the quick release cadence demanded by your customers. Whatever your justification may be, it’s important to not only cite the problem statement, but to also provide concrete, salient examples of the problem; incidents that everyone can point to and agree that they are actual examples of the problem statement.
Once you have executive alignment on the problem statement, next you must help executives understand how agile solves the problem. Reiterate the benefits of agile from lesson #3 as you map them to the problem statement. Solving the problem statement also involves addressing the, “what’s in it for me?” question. When having this discussion with executives, frame it in terms of cost, risk, and rewards.
The agile transformation can expect hard costs for training of the pilot team, and an agile coach, if you choose to use one. You can expect to encounter soft costs for staff transitioning to a new methodology and tools as their productivity temporarily slows until the new processes are institutionalized. You must do your homework to ensure these costs are accurate, complete, understood, and accepted.
In my opinion, there is more perceived risk than actual risk in an agile transformation. Fundamentally, we’re not changing the way software is written, we’re simply changing the way we organize the work of software development. Sure, if you don’t have a plan for how to get from point A to point B, you’re going to get lost, but if a plan (like the one outlined in these lessons) is followed, risks only materialize in a few areas. Risks should be logged and managed with a mitigation plan for each that is regularly reviewed with the executive team. Doing this builds trust that risks are being managed and confidence that the effort will succeed. The most common risk is insufficient buy-in from executives or team members. This can clearly be managed before an agile transformation initiative is undertaken by additional training and education. Healthy skepticism of a new process is welcome, but active sabotage will be detrimental to the effort so it’s important that the right people are on-board and all pulling in the same direction. Risk of business impact can be mitigated by executing a pilot agile project first, and then using the results of the pilot to further refine the rollout.
Everyone likes to look good to their boss and executives are no different. You’ll want to figure out each executive’s performance drivers, but like everyone else, executives want to be valuable and promotable. Like all leaders, they want to demonstrate their leadership skills, achieve faster product delivery, lower operating costs, and in increase profits. You’ll want to again re-emphasize the speed of product delivery reward expected from an agile transformation and highlight how their sponsorship and / or support of a major organizational shift, such as this one, will demonstrate their leadership abilities and increase the bottom line.