Agile transformation has been a hot topic for a while, and it’s easy to see why – when properly carried out, it is considered to grant numerous benefits for companies and employees alike. However, the long and complex process of a digital, agile or business transformation is too often hampered by four typical pitfalls…
In order to carry out your transformation successfully, we have highlighted 4 pitfalls to be avoided at all costs. Becoming agile indeed, but do you truly know for what purpose?
- A lack of strategic focus and vision
- Inadequate or inconsistent targeting
- A strategy based on tools, methodologies and frameworks rather than on culture
- Delegating your transformation without involving the top management
1. A lack of strategic focus and vision
The first question you should ask yourself is: why initiate an agile transformation?
“Very often, customers set their expectations too high, assuming that agile transformation is a magic wand that solves all the problems encountered by the company: skills, policy, deadlines, etc.” reports Eric Ducasse, Head of Transformation Office at Wemanity France.
You don’t want to initiate an agile transformation because the latest LinkedIn post from Google or Spotify told you so. You need to know why you are initiating an agile transformation and have a clear vision on the objective you want to reach through the transformation, such as:
- accelerate time-to-market,
- reduce delivery times,
- stimulate cross-functionality between teams,
- develop stronger engagement and alignment towards your business objectives
Depending on the problem to be solved, which should be the starting point of the reflection, a roadmap will be established. Be aware that it’s important not to confuse the end with the means.
The ultimate goal is not to become agile. “Becoming agile doesn’t mean anything. The question is, what do you want to be agile for”, says Greig Bannatyne, Co-country Leader at Wemanity Netherlands. In short, make the right diagnosis before acting and ask yourself the following question: what does my company need? “What is needed is to understand (or learn) that things will always change, and to understand that the principle of agile transformation is to be able to adapt continuously. And this part is often overlooked. It will never be possible to say that the file is closed, that the box is ticked…”, adds Greig.
The latter recalls, with a smile, the meeting where a client informs him that he wanted to “do DevOps”: once asked about the purpose of the initiative, the decision-maker finds themselves unable to formulate a clear answer. “The meeting did not end well,” laughs Greig Bannatyne. “This kind of situation is very common. Some clients feel that because everyone else is doing it, they should too. Sometimes, even the most aware clients who have thought ahead and are motivated by a real business need, struggle to clearly articulate their need.”
2. Inadequate or inconsistent targeting
Targeting means defining the scope of intervention. And the best way to avoid making mistakes is not to start with a preconceived idea in mind! “You shouldn’t try to have all the answers at the beginning of the process, nor should you try to define everything”, explains Greig Bannatyne.
Many transformation managers want to define the scope of intervention quickly and in great detail, which is counterproductive: “It’s a waste of preparation and reflection time, because there is not enough information at this stage. Rather counter-intuitively, important decisions should be made as late as possible, after collecting a huge amount of relevant data”
Eric Ducasse shares this opinion, given the (very) long timeframe of the process. Between the moment where the strategic intention is set, the diagnosis established and the first actions launched, a couple of years can sometimes pass, even more so in a context of increasing complexity of the organisation of companies. “However, between the moment when the transformation starts and the moment when it ends, the context will have evolved. We are in a situation where the market moves fast, where strategy can change and where feedback from the field can influence the way we operate before the transformation is complete.”
In other words, you need to have an idea of what you want to cover, while keeping in mind that this is a learning process on which the scope of intervention depends. It is therefore a question of defining the broadest scope possible, then allowing it to emerge more precisely as the understanding of the issues grows and as the discoveries are made. “I tell my clients from the very first workshop: we will deviate from the initial plan, and that will be a good thing. To be successful, you need the right mindset, which is not obvious to everyone,” Greig Bannatyne points out.
3. A strategy based on tools, methodologies and frameworks rather than on culture
Tools, methodologies and frameworks are mainly here to support a project. The risk for transformation aficionados is to choose a tool arbitrarily, despite the context that should dictate their choice.
Let’s take the case of the SAFe framework, which makes it possible to establish a common and fluid language for all the teams working on the development of a product and which can be deployed at different levels of the organisation. “By lack of discernment or by tropism, decision-makers sometimes tend to opt for the most complex solution proposed by this framework, when in fact it’s better to choose the simplest solution. People have a tendency to overuse tools, but they have to be pragmatic,” says Greig Bannatyne.
Putting emphasis on tools rather than on culture will have other negative consequences, as it will prevent finesse of action, latitude, and finding a balance at a local level with the emergence of best practices.
In the end, focusing too much on the tools obscures the overriding importance of the real lever for change, namely culture. A mature company, i.e. a company with a mature culture, will be able to adapt permanently and will have developed a capacity for resilience in relation to the market, without the need to launch transformation plans.
4. Delegating your transformation without involving the top management
Contrary to what we might think, not everything has to be done by an internal transformation department or an external consultancy firm, which has full responsibility for the process. The role of top management is essential, and their lack of involvement is one of the most common mistakes. To prevent this from happening, top management must actively support the process and be empowered in four ways that will ensure change to sustain. Firstly, it is up to the management to make the decisions and provide necessary resources to implement the transformation. Throughout the process, top management must support the framework and, above all, embody the target culture.
In order to roll out the transformation at scale, top management must guide the journey, without however expressing themselves on the how. “No one can question the target”, underlines Eric Ducasse, “the vision belongs to the leader, not the rest! The teams must not feel that they are being deprived of the levers. The rest depends on the teams and on the collective intelligence generated during reflections with the employees on their daily work. Because they are the ones who have the operational vision, while the management will have to help them activate the levers available. One of the ways of deploying the transformation at scale is to rely on OKRs. The methodology will enable the objectives to be allocated by teams, who will then be able to take ownership on them and define a roadmap. To avoid missteps, the teams must be multidisciplinary. It is not a question of entrusting the transformation to each silo, but of ensuring that the various departments (IT, HR, Marketing, etc.) work together through transversal and coherent teams, all oriented towards a specific goal.
At the same time, the other challenge lies in the composition of the teams responsible for the transformation. Very often, the people selected internally to lead the operation are people with historical vocations far away from transformation, who lack expertise and experience. In the majority of cases, these people have limited consulting experience and have seen few environments other than the company to which they belong.
Moreover, as these people are integrated into the company’s hierarchy, they will only have a very relative autonomy. “If the transformation is led by an internal team, the team’s mandate must be clarified upstream and with all the employees in order to legitimise it: when this is not the case, the team in charge of the transformation may be perceived as lessons givers.” And sometimes even illegitimate, which causes irritation and mistrust! This is illustrated by the situation Eric Ducasse witnessed during the Executive Committee meeting of a French bank subsidiary, where one of the managers integrated into the team in charge of transformation was curtly retorted: “There are those who do, and those who explain how to do to those who do!
While it is important to avoid these pitfalls, a final piece of advice might be to rethink the purpose of agile transformation. Even today, the overwhelming majority of transformations are focused on productivity and its financial aspect, which is more interesting in the short term, and rarely on a longer-term vision, to which the social dimension and the experience of customers and employees contribute. “Most of the time, CSR issues only cover one part of the roadmap. In my opinion, this is due to a lack of understanding of the benefits, between employee loyalty and brand image. Even more when the measurement tools in companies are not adapted to such distant horizons…”, deplores Eric Ducasse, who is convinced of the correlation between ethics and financial benefits. So, should we bet on CSR and more responsible capitalism as the next El dorado of transformation?