In Thought Leadership


We often hear of organisations adopting Agile, and transforming their world of work. It sounds so exciting. Yet we also hear about such adoptions failing. Failures aren’t bad, as we know, not learning from failure is much worse. At best, some of these transformations seem successful on the surface. Yet a short time later… well….old habits die hard. Rather than fixing issues that surface during the transformation, it’s easier to say, “See, told you so, Agile just doesn’t work”.

So what should we do to avoid this? Is it possible to have the right ingredients in place ahead of embarking on the long road of the enterprise agility? From experience, there are a few things that should be assessed within an organisation before starting to disrupt the status quo.

Gaining Senior Leadership Backing of your Agile Transformation

For me, one of the most important things is to ensure backing is established at board level. During a recent transformation I was very fortunate to have the CIO as my sponsor. As soon as we met, I was keen to make sure he understood what it meant to embark on such a journey. It was him that ensured Agile was infused in the board level mindset. His peers understood that agility meant changing the organisational mindset. As well as adopting new principles and practices that maximised value and quality.

The board understood that this in turn meant the very fabric of their organisation would be altered. Their involvement in this process was vital. He also challenged the cultural stance of the organisation, and understood what was needed to start winning hearts and minds across the enterprise to ensure people learned through failure and continuously improved. Having backing at this level is key to the success of the transformation effort. The executive mindset evolving, from command and control, to self-organisation is key to the success of any enterprise transformation.

Does the business understand value?

We need the ability to deliver real value. While Agile transformations consider the need of the organisation as a whole to evolve, many transformations focus too heavily on teams and team development – ignoring the vision to value process.

Supporting teams in the transition to Agile thinking

Teams are great; they do need guidance but, once educated and coached are capable of amazing things. No matter how great the team is, if you fill them with uncertainty, confusion and lack of direction, they will fail to learn from deep lessons. In addition, their attempts to self rectify will, more likely, be fruitless. Interestingly the easiest thing we can do is blame the team.

During one transformation this is exactly what happened.

In one of the streams, the development team were more often than not failing to deliver their commitment. What happened? Well as far as the ‘business’ was concerned they were poor performers. The Agile coach needed to do more to help the teams, the team members weren’t up to the job…. the list went on.

On reflecting with the team, stakeholders and coaches we performed some healthy root cause assessments. These showed that the business had little understanding of value. The business was confused. With constantly changing priorities they were unclear about their direction and what they needed. In such situations, it’s vital to get business owners and stakeholders together and work with them to define what value means and how the team can work with them to maximise value delivered. In addition, we must ensure the team has clear leadership direction, organisational strategy and clarity of vision.

Get experimental

Starting with small experiments with the business that evolve and reflect regularly. Once the value stream is understood, the business can then be guided on how they might evolve and grow. And, through all this we must also support the teams to ensure they are in the best possible position to deliver. Such experiments often lead to bigger changes but also deliver the evidence to back up why change is needed. For example, we may need to re-evaluate the value of the entire business portfolio. This is a great place to start making some real enterprise changes at the top which allow the teams to deliver value unhindered.

Look at your organisational Culture

Agile is a mindset, and this means re-wiring the organisational brain to think differently, challenge and learn from failure. From my experience organisations are stuck in a hierarchical game that compartmentalises people into resource groups only capable of thinking and acting within their silos at best and giving them little understanding of how their actions will affect others. Some organisations evolve to develop links within these structures. Allowing Agile principles to start taking shape, but soon hit issues they are unable to solve based on their current culture and the limitations of their organisational structure.

I often hear statements like, “but that’s not how we do things around here”. For Agile to really take hold in an organisation the culture must be challenged, disrupted and evolved. Real cultural change can take years – before starting an enterprise wide transformation, educating people at all levels, inspiring and giving people new experiences is vital.

Agile transformation – when it worked well

During one notable transformation the approach to change in the culture of the organisation was adopted at the highest level. The board understood that if they were to make real changes and adopt agile principles in the truest sense, they’d also need to start looking at how they could create a culture that would benefit the transformation effort, and give it real purpose. I worked closely with the board to start looking at ways we could instill a self organisation mindset within people and teams.

Giving people autonomy, trusting them, allowing space to learn from failure. As well as, looking at flattening the organisational structure in order to improve communication and information flow, were some things we experimented on. We found that while challenging from an enterprise context, people in the organisation were on the whole enjoying work. They were given a sense of purpose and felt trusted to get on with the job. This resulted in flourishing teams, and happy customers. The change was slow, but it was worth it.

We saw the organisation evolve into a flatter, self organised and more principled one than the hierarchical structures of old. Thus we created a platform for stable sustained change. While a great start, this was the beginning of a long road of self discovery and learning. What’s important is the organisation had taken the first steps to real enterprise change. It’s also important to note, this process is not for everyone and re-wiring the brain takes times and practice. As enterprise coaches we often have to work closely with people to allow them the time and space to explore their potential. This is a huge area and cultural change in context of an agile transformation requires experience and experimentation and a lot of faith.

To conclude

I’ve have worked with many organisations over the years on enterprise agile transformations and have found that focusing on some of the key areas discussed in this blog go a long way to support a successful enterprise wide transformation and make changes stick within the organisation.

It’s important to note this list is not exhaustive. You may have also experienced many other factors that are key ingredients for success.  There’s no easy win or quick fix here. What is needed is education at all levels, starting with leadership. Agile is not something that the ‘teams are doing’. It is a shift in an organisational mindset that everyone must experience. Focusing on a deeper values and principles, level rather than soley on practices. The key factor here is the mindset. Being able to evolve your collective organisational thinking takes time. But, through guidance and support, some of the most difficult and process hardened organisations start to move towards self organisation and principles based learning.

Work with your organisation to evolve the mindset, set a solid foundation and start experimenting, continuously improve and learn from your mistakes. Build in Agile values and principles into your organisational brain and amazing things will happen.


Author: Zia Malik

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