Recently, I listened to a presentation by a CTO of a large software company. During the presentation, the CTO talked about a common misconception that the farmer grows food. The fact is, he pointed out, that food grows itself. Plants have the power and ability within themselves to grow on their own. The farmer merely provides the best conditions for the food to grow at an optimum rate to achieve the best tasting crop.
The farmer who does not understand the power and capability of the plants he grows can set up a scenario where overuse of fertilizer or interference with natural growing aspects can destroy the crop. The farmer runs the risk of creating a crop that is overly dependent on the farmer’s intervention resulting in crop failure at the first sign of stress.
If the farmer understands what his plants need for optimum growth and maximum yield in a sustainable manner, the farmer can establish a well-run farm system resulting in a great harvest season after season.
This same pattern exists in terms of transforming an organization. The notion that executives and leaders transform their organizations by sheer will and brute force rarely works. The most successful organizational transformations are the ones in which the leadership understands the strengths and weaknesses of their organization and uses that knowledge to create the right conditions for a transformation to take hold.
Leaders who prescribe a rigid step-by-step path, or try to implement changes without a strong base of principles and values, will de-motivate the organization and prevent it from establishing the deep root system needed for long term, lasting and sustainable transformation.
An organization is made up of people…typically smart people who possess the power, skills and motivation to transform the organization themselves. Like the farmer, leaders must set up the right conditions in the organization to enable the people to build and sustain a continuous transformative culture.
How can we cultivate a continuous transformation culture?
One of the biggest impediments organizations face during a transformation occurs when the organization views failure as…failure. Acceptance of failure and, more importantly, the notion that failure is an important aspect of learning, is a key characteristic of well-run Agile organizations.
Successful organizations understand that having a continuous transformation culture means they need to be in continuous learning mode. If the culture of your organization is such that failure results in firestorms and threats, the motivation to learn diminishes and teams merely work to avoid mistakes.
When failure is not embraced as a learning opportunity, teams will try to hide the warning signs of the impending failure. Once hidden, leaders will not have the information they need to facilitate the learning cycle. As disaster strikes, finger pointing occurs.
Crops in a field, on the other hand, have no fear of failure. Failure shows up immediately and the earlier the farmer sees the signs, the better the chances that the farmer can apply the right remedies so that the crops don’t collapse entirely. The farmer remembers the patterns that led to the failure and next season works to avoid them. Over time, the crops can evolve to avoid them on their own.
Well-run Agile organizations empower teams to abort sprints. They insist teams conduct retrospectives regularly and teams embrace the discipline of evaluating their successes and more importantly, their failures with open, honest discussions. Teams own their improvements and come to see failure as the way to learn.
Agile organizations that adopt strong continuous improvement practices are never static. In other words, what makes sense to adopt in your Agile practices today, may not make sense tomorrow, and you need to be ready and willing to add or remove practices as things evolve.
One of the best ways to begin cultivating the culture is to start with a set of strong guiding principles. A transformation model based on strong principles and values will enable a continuous transformation culture. In addition, the following ideas can ensure the right conditions are established:
- Establish a team of Agile-savvy people (from different levels) who will be able to maintain a steady focus on instilling the values and principles across the organization. This should be a team of “glue” people who have influence across a broad range within your organization.
- Instill a culture of experimentation by insisting teams hold retrospectives religiously and select improvement goals each iteration. Teach teams to experiment with improvements for a sprint or two and measure the results. Often times, a major impediment of change is the fear that a change will be permanent. If you teach them that change can be temporary and that changes will be measured for effectiveness each sprint, the fear usually goes away.
- Create avenues for socializing ideas, failures and successes across the whole organization. This establishes a vibrant and energetic community where there is a high degree successful practice convergence across teams.
- Practice a balance between patience & empowerment vs. accountability & delivery. Establishing clear goals around delivery and preaching the Scrum value of commitment to sprint deliverables (and a strong definition of done) will raise quality. Growing team skills around self-organization (via ownership), continuous improvement (via failure and learning) and collaboration skills will empower and motivate teams.
- Instill a sense of urgency around impediment removal. Give power to individuals to solve problems quickly without having to convene a council meeting to “run things up the flagpole”. Hold managers accountable for helping teams to remove difficult impediments quickly.
- Insist on attention and prioritization around technical excellence. If the organization does not view the team as a stakeholder and hold quality in high regard, the pressure to deliver functionality may lead to shortcuts (technical debt) and poor quality. Eventually this will render your products unmaintainable.
- Teach teams to have a strong sense of curiosity such that they constantly evaluate the data that their teams produce as a by-product of delivering working software increments. You want the teams to be intensely curious as to how they are doing and how they might do better.
These seven ideas are no big surprise. Like Scrum, they are easy to understand because they represent common sense. However, they can be hard to implement because they may run counter to an organization’s culture.
As you embark on cultivating a continuous Agile transformation, you need to keep asking yourselves detailed questions such as:
- Is it easy for a stakeholder to know the state of a product roadmap?
- Can we easily tell if a team is happy and producing at a good rate?
- Are the product owners and product managers happy with the productivity of their teams?
- Are the teams meeting their sprint goals regularly?
- Are the right teams talking to each other as needed to handle dependencies and integrations?
- Are the long-term goals, technical debt, and quality goals being met?
- Are the teams continuously integrating software and regression testing regularly?
- Are stakeholders needs being evaluated constantly?
So remember the lesson: The farmer does not grow food, but rather provides optimum conditions for the food to do what it knows best…grow. The farmer cultivates his fields in order to sustain optimum growth and a maximum yield year after year.
Likewise, good leaders do not transform organizations. They understand that its best to establish a continuous transformation culture by providing the right conditions for the team members to do what they do best…evolve, learn and innovate, own and build, and deliver high quality, world-class software.
David Sallet, October 28, 2014
David Sallet is a Senior Program Manager and Enterprise Agile Coach at Autodesk. He has successfully trained and coached Agile teams as well as management teams in 15 countries around the world over the last 8 years (Scrum, Kanban, Lean, XP, etc). David teaches a principle, technique, and value-based system that allows organizations to realize the full benefits of an agile approach.