Skill Needed by Every Agile Transformation Leader
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Introducing Agile methods to a team is frequently approached as a sequence of training events for the team, perhaps a tool purchase, and a period of coaching. Organizational Agile Transformation is a less developed field of practice, and I think much more complex because it has impacts far beyond the Agile Team, touching product managers, executives, financial planning and much more. The inherent risks of such a complex transformation create a need for a few essential leadership skills - I've identified three skills areas that I see as crucial for any Agile Transformation Leader.


Most Agile coaches have excellent credentials, having taught hundreds of students or helped many teams implement Agile methods - for the most part, these encounters are short term. My experiences in transforming multiple organizations are long term - typically leading a department of several teams through the initial implementation and then, as Director of that department, leading those teams for five or more years. These experiences of initial Agile implementation, effective execution for hundreds of deliveries, and continuing optimization have shaped my views on Agile transformation and creating teams that sustain for the long haul.

Some leaders envision an Agile implementation primarily as a small-scale training activity - teach them some new concepts and practices and then send them back to the office to be more productive with their new knowledge!

However, this limited viewpoint ignores that the software team is surrounded by a larger organization of partners, product managers, business unit customers and executives that don't necessarily know the secret language of Agile (Sprints? Product Owner? WIP? Standard Work?) and the new types of interactions they will have with an Agile team. How will the new Agile team handle a CFO's request for a business case with committed project costs, or a customer's expectation of a committed delivery schedule, or your PMO's insistence that you produce weekly status report covering budget and milestones?  Any implementation of Agile methods has impacts far beyond the Agile teams, and a transformation initiative can only be successful by bringing those other departments, teams and individuals along on the journey.

My point is this: introducing agility to an organization requires leadership that has skills far beyond a knowledge of agility and specific Agile Methods. Here's my take on three essential skills needed in leading an Agile transformation.

  1. Effectiveness in Working with Others. Your most significant endeavor will be influencing others, almost always without any direct authority. You have high Emotional Intelligence and people appreciate that you listen to them - hearing their needs, concerns and ideas.  You connect with others - your daily activities are more than just a sequence of professional transactions with others. They trust you because you've invested in building and growing your professional relationships. You actively partner with others across organizational boundaries, achieving mutually beneficial goals.
  2. Successes in Organizational Change Management (OCM).  Drawing from your deep OCM expertise and knowledge of OCM frameworks, you can tailor an approach for introducing agility to your organization. Because "culture eats strategy for breakfast," you are well aware of your organization's culture and factor this into your OCM approach. You excel at communicating across multiple channels and are well versed in establishing organizational communications forums and pathways.  You have experience creating a structure that establishes a guiding vision, expectations of teams and individuals, provides enablers (e.g., training and coaching) and has a method of ensuring team and individual accountability.
  3. Deep Knowledge of Agility and Agile at Scale.  Agility is all about delivering better value and you've done this before, with successful outcomes.  You've been involved (either as a leader or implementor) in an Agile Transformation, including establishing a strategy and an implementation approach.  You'll need to model Agile behaviors - a waterfall plan for an Agile transformation will penalize your credibility as an Agile leader. You'll need to be a great coach, deciding where to be prescriptive, when to gently nudge, and where to let teams discover and self-organize.  You've chosen (probably in collaboration with others) a particular flavor of Agile to implement, and you are very familiar with this framework; you might even consider yourself an expert.  In particular, you can anticipate pitfalls that the organization might encounter, and your approach addresses most of these obstacles in advance.

In addition to these three areas of expertise, any Agile Transformation Leader also will need to have the fundamentals in hand: familiarity with the company strategy and how Agile supports it, knowledge of the company's customers and products, actively living the company's core values, ability to effectively manage direct reports, budget management, time management, executive presence and more.

I first implemented elements of scaled Agile when it was just a book (2007 - Leffingwell), before it became an industry. It was difficult, and I got bruised along the way. It has become more difficult through the years as expectations have grown ("So with Agile you'll deliver much more, for less funding, and much more quickly, right?"). The three skills I've identified in a transformation leader can help guide the team, engage the many others impacted by these new methods, and improve the delivery of value by IT teams.

If you have aspirations of leading Organizational Agile Transformations (or you are currently in such a leadership role), consider these three areas as a starter set of considerations for your own professional development plan.  If you've identified other essential skill areas, I'd be interested in hearing from you.

I wish you the best in leading and participating in Agile Transformation initiatives.