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10 Ways the C-Suite Can Support Agility

Published: December 08, 2017

Put this quick list together for a COO friend whose company is embarking on a “Lean/Agile Transformation”. She asked:

What should I expect? How can I support this? I’ve seen tons of PowerPoint, but the discussion has largely been about what the engineering department will do.I replied with this list. I think it is important that senior leaders fully understand what is involved in making this work. All too often we direct our focus (and change) on “the teams”. Yes, someone needs to do the work. But they need support.

1 fEBEHEN9I9rRxxaQmNktMA 2x 1. Be prepared to focus and do less at once. Adding work in progress/process constraints can feel counterintuitive. We often optimize around looking busy, and also fetishize stretch goals and multi-tasking. The benefits — improved flow, time to market, improved outcomes — will materialize, but the first steps will feel very uncomfortable. Resist the resistance.

  1. Be prepared to learn faster. If you don’t have the culture/structures in place to turn rapid learning into customer/business value….you’ll end up building the wrong stuff faster (which is actually worse than what you’re doing now). We wrongly assume that Lean/Agile is about building faster. Rather, it is about doing better work. We may end up throwing things away that don’t work and/or pivoting midway through an initiative.
  2. Be prepared to increase psychological safety everywhere. Working together requires safety. It’s messy and intense. You likely have many processes in place that serve to buffer touchy situations and proxy trust/safety. Be prepared to eliminate handoffs, reporting chains, approval gates, etc. and support an environment that is safer for creative conflict and “calling things as they are”.
  3. Be prepared to restructure. You may be currently matrixing certain duties across multiple teams (e.g. Operations, UX, Visual Design, QA). While this may be advantageous in certain contexts, you will likely find positive economic benefits to “embedding” these functions on individual teams (or small groups of teams). Similarly, you may have a leadership structure that mirrors various handoffs (e.g. Director of QA, Director of Product, Director of Operations). With a focus on the full value stream, you’ll find that the nature of these roles change, and the reporting structure may require change as well. No longer can one silo say “Oh! We did our part, it is their fault! But give us budget!”
  4. Be prepared to remove impediments and focus on bottlenecks. Lean/Agile exposes problems quickly and concretely. You will need to sort out a myriad of systemic issues before seeing the upside. Expect to have a major bottleneck emerge. If you minimize this, and ask teams to pragmatically adapt and “just ship”, you’ll loose momentum and trust. Plan to spend money and time here.
  5. Be prepared to change how you fund initiatives. Instead of big upfront funding schemes for big batches of work, you’ll need to adjust to a world of emerging opportunities and frequent learning. This is captured aptly in the saying “Agile lets you turn on a dime to make a dime.” Lean/Agile hastens benefits realization which opens up new avenues for funding (e.g. incrementally funding a team based on actual outcomes). Locking teams into budget/timeline constraints becomes less advantageous.
  6. Be prepared to radically change your management layer. Incentives must be adjusted. The focus shifts from “managing people” and “single wring-able neck” to “supporting emergent systems”. Teams will require less control/direction and more facilitation, mentoring, coaching, genuine leadership, and support. Increased transparency makes “kingdom building” less possible. Be prepared to retrain existing managers and/or eliminate whole layers of management.
  7. Be prepared to invest in tooling, infrastructure, refactoring, etc. “Two pizza teams” require the work of many other “two pizza teams”. Teams require independence and autonomy, but that autonomy cannot be in spirit/mandate only.
  8. Be prepared to give teams a direct path to customers. To solve customer problems, teams must have direct access to customers. Channeling information through proxies in sales, marketing, and support is insufficient. On some level, you are flipping the org-chart…putting customers at the top, front-line teams next, and supporting functions (finance, facilitation, support, career growth) below that. This will also require restructuring and changing org policies.
  9. Be prepared to do play less Tetris. You likely have many processes in place designed to maximize utilization, set expectations, and “deliver on expectations”. This triggers all sorts of pre-planning around “resource” (human and money) allocation, project start/stop, team assignments, etc. The folks handling these responsibilities take pride in making sure the “trains run on time”. Be prepared to redefine these roles and eliminate these processes.