Agile Transformation – How to convince the top brass?

‘It requires sacrifices and a willingness to give up fundamental parts of your current way of working — starting with the leaders. We gave up the traditional hierarchy, formal meetings, over-engineering, detailed planning, and excessive “input steering” in exchange for empowered teams, informal networks, and “output steering.” You need to look beyond your own industry and allow yourself to make mistakes and learn. The prize will be an organization ready to face any challenge.’

A great example of real Agile transformation.

Agile has zealous supporters at big companies worldwide since it has helped firms such as ING Bank, Amazon, online music powerhouse Spotify, and TV content producer Netflix to flourish. By 2017, 80% of US federal government software projects were agile or iterative. Research firm Gartner predicts 80% of large enterprises will adopt agile by 2021. More importantly, some companies are using agile to transform their businesses—changes that have made them faster to respond to customers and competitors, leaner, and more innovative. However, some senior executives do not deeply understand agile, which is limiting agile adoption in their firms.

An example of why leadership buy-in is required for a successful Agile transformation:

When the CTO suddenly stepped down the senior product manager was promoted to ‘Director of Product & Technology.’ Her prior experience was entirely in waterfall environments, so it shouldn’t have surprised me as it did that, she insisted on release notes rather than sprint reviews and repeatedly said she wanted to track individual developer velocity. My error was in not realizing that at only two options remained for me at that point: adopt waterfall or find a job elsewhere.

Why do top brass, C-suite resist Agile transformation?

  • Some managers are going to find Agile threatening. Implementing Agile most likely means change and no one likes having change done to them. They feel adopting Agile will make their position redundant.
  • Management teams suffer from the dilemma of deciding how much leeway their teams should have in becoming “self-organized.”  They simply don’t trust the teams.
  • The traditional way to working is deep-rooted in the system, management sometimes looks for detailed upfront planning which is opposite to Agile way of working hence management sometimes doesn’t understand and support Agile transformations.
  • Many middle managers seem to have a difficult time letting go of the controls. They still feel the need to intervene. They’ve been micromanaging for years, possibly decades, so breaking these practices is tough. 
Top 3 barriers indicate towards lack of the leadership support

How to persuade senior management to go for an Agile Transformation?

Know what is motivating the buyer. Some refer to this as ‘pain points,” which is a level of difficulty sufficient to motivate someone to seek a solution or an alternative. In other words, knowing enough about agile to position it against various pain points of the organization will surely help the sell.

It can be very challenging trying to convince senior colleagues to adopt a new approach to delivering projects. This is particularly the case for Agile Project Management that challenges the traditional waterfall methods adopted by many organizations. Asking them to change to an agile approach is sometimes perceived as a criticism. Once may face counter questions like:

  • Agile Doesn’t Allow for Long-Term Planning – How are we supposed to do our budgets?
  • It’s Worked So Far, Why Do We Need to Change?
  • Our Situation Is Just Too Complicated for Agile transformation
  • Our People Can’t Be Trusted to Self-Organize
  • How Can We Make Strategic Decisions Without Gantt Charts?

Sound familiar?

Here are some key recommendations for helping to persuade senior managers to move towards an Agile way of working.

Coaching: If we want to persuade senior managers about the benefits of Agile, we first have to explain what Agile is. These include:

  • We deliver versions of the final deliverable as early as possible to ensure we’re on the right track by virtue of customer feedback.
  • Work is a collaborative effort between the experts who design & build and the customers who will be using the solution.
  • Although the detail of what is going to be delivered will evolve, we agree with the scope of the work and a deadline against which it will be delivered.

Focus on the benefits, not the approaches: Going into depth about what Agile is and how Agile works can be counter-productive. It creates the impression that an Agile approach is complex and specialist and therefore will not be easy to adopt. Don’t go into the details like which flavour of Agile will be adopted etc. Storytelling about successful agile implementations that have demonstrated transformational impact is one of the best ways to tackle skepticism.

If your leadership team is more data-driven then feed them with data around the successful adoption of Agile way of working. For example, you may quote, practitioners of Scrum, the most popular agile methodology, estimate the approach is successful 62% of the time. Other research has shown that the agile methods can speed time to market by 90%, increase sales-staff productivity by 30%, and increase time spent on value-adding activities such as innovation, customer interaction, and problem-solving by 130%.

Keep it In Alignment with the Organizational strategy: Ensure that you align Agile to corporate objectives and management concerns, and explain how an Agile approach increases the capability of the organizations and can help in the future innovation. Your proposal should include how its going to benefit the organization by-

  • Increasing revenue – Return on investment begins early in the life cycle and continues throughout the initiative as more features and functions are made available to customers.
  • Cut costs – We are no longer paying for the planning paradox, Agile approaches involve the incremental development of the final deliverable, stakeholders are engaged every Sprint so early feedback helps in the course correction. So, the risk of developing the ‘wrong’ solution is reduced, saving costs overall.
  • Add value to the customer – The biggest benefit of moving to an Agile approach is the emphasis on business value. The role of the Product owner is seen as a value maximiser.

It helps in overall Organizational capability building: Agile teams are cross-functional and self-organized. Effective Agile teams rely on members having a breadth of skills and being willing to pitch in and help colleagues on tasks that are not their areas of expertise, to make sure that deadlines are met and early and regular delivery to customers can take place. Members of multi-disciplinary teams cross-train each other, increasing the capability of their organization over time.

Explain Agile adoption is not a threat to traditional management:  Adopting Agile won’t make traditional roles like functional, portfolio managers redundant. They still have a lot to do in an Agile organization.

For example:

  1. Functional managers create teams:
  • Managers define boundaries within which a team is permitted to self-organize. For example, a team can only work on an accounting software and not an HR portal.
  • Managers provide a clear elevated goal for the feature teams to achieve.
  • Managers also compose teams and have a say in the initial team formation.

2. Nurture resources:

  • Managers take care of the training needs of the team members whether it is technical, behavioural, or domain specific.
  • They provide functional area leadership. As some of the managers can be an expert in a particular domain/area.
  • Managers remove Organization level impediments for the smooth functioning of the Scrum teams.

3. Manage value creation flow, manage economics:

  • Program managers in Agile organizations still manage economics for their areas. This frequently occurs through their involvement in portfolio management and corporate governance.
  • They keep track of the progress of the projects through Sprint reports and metrics.
Other management roles still supporting the Scrum team

ING Bank, A success story:

Spotify, successful Agile Transformation:


For many senior managers, Agile is an answer to a problem that they don’t know they have. Traditional management approaches are known to them, provide them with regular updates about progress, and have an established governance model and set of controls.

When promoting a switch to an Agile way of working, do not expect overwhelming enthusiasm for this change immediately. Be prepared to regularly explain and demonstrate the advantages of Agile, whilst remaining open to the advantages of other approaches.

You’re In It For the Long Haul..!

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