Transitioning teams to Agile – a journey, not a destination


Often we come across teams who take a big leap in to the world of Agile, only to realize later that they have lots more on the plate than they can digest.  I have been lucky enough to be a part of teams that have made a fairly successful transition (while they are still learning), and even luckier to learn from those experiences in the last three years. While I acknowledge success, it is easy to ignore the risks and pitfalls we experienced in this journey. In this blog, I would like to cover some of the key areas and questions teams would need to keep in mind as they undertake the humungous effort to make changes.

Focus #1 – Do we really need to transition to an Agile setup?

Please ask yourself this question before undertaking any initiative to transition your teams to follow Agile practices. You need to justify if it is worth making the jump, and if the answer is a NO then proceed no further. You may need to ask hard questions such as “is my team ready to make the jump?” or “can I continue doing what I am doing for an extended period?” Once you have clarity that Agile is the way to go forward, then brace yourself for a roller coaster ride.

Focus #2 – Set expectations, Agile does not translate to miracles

For teams to make a successful transition to Agile, it is critical that you set expectations across the organizations that miracles will not be part of the arrangement. Begin with the executive management team, because a top management buy-in is absolutely necessary to make the transition. There is a need for patience and that is not possible unless you have a top down approach. Agile cannot be limited to a single team alone (maybe in the short term), but for sustained excellence the organization as a whole must embrace it. For this, all departments such as Sales, HR, and Development etc. have to be on the same page and ensure that everybody has a clear understanding of the path forward, and more importantly provide clarity for short term, medium term and long term goals. Drill down the fact that teams will initially fail before succeeding – patience is the key here!

HR is a key department, because during Agile transition many a times the roles and responsibilities of employees are changed. For example: the work of a Project Manager may change from a micro manager to more of a mentor and team enabler.  Performance review and appraisal parameters may change. For ex: previously a Quality Analyst may be appraised on the number of bugs they identified, but in an Agile scenario it may change to how many did they help the development team fix even before it was released to testing.

Focus #3 – Decide where to begin

To set in motion the process, there will be multiple other factors you need to consider – do I follow a phased approach or a big bang roll out, which Agile process to implement – Scrum vs Kanban vs XP vs “Something Else”, should we consider the Agile process based on the nature of the teams – Scrum for product development and Kanban for IT services, and do I need professional help, or do we have sufficient in house expertise to begin the transition?

All of these questions have to be answered and it is very important you have collaboration and communication (an Agile principle) across the organization to get answers to these questions.

Focus #4 – The implementation and training

In my opinion, for a seasoned Agile practitioner, this bit is the easiest compared to all other factors. This is where all of the training, education, and imparting knowledge happens. I always recommend starting small and then moving up, simply because it is easier to fix mistakes with smaller teams rather than struggling to handle large numbers across the organization. Some of the key things to do here are –

  1. Identify people who are interested in Agile and use them as messengers as the transition progresses. This works best, especially well when you have senior and trusted peers who can influence team members faster than a training room session. Transitioning to Agile requires lots of energy, hence always better to leverage as many people as possible to spread the message.
  2. Keep in mind people are resistant to change – especially when they have been used to handling things in a particular manner for years together. Teaching a Business Analyst to write User Stories rather than long drawn function spec documents is a challenge. A bigger challenge is to get the development team to build software from user stories rather than elaborate system spec documents.
  3. Unlearning is as important as learning – a follow up from the previous point – while individuals can learn a new technique or habit it is lot harder to make them let go of old habits. Produce an environment where they are eventually forced to open up their minds to accept change in a positive manner. Teams may need to learn automation testing as they go along, learn continuous integration etc. and also unlearn old habits such as Quality Analysts work independent of Developers.
  4. Patience is vital – many a times teams abandon this transition process at the first sight of trouble or failure. Loads of effort would be required to keep the individuals’ trust and belief that failure is okay and it is important to learn and succeed.

Focus #5 – Sustainability, the journey does not end here

After doing all the hard work, when your teams are finally getting the hang of how to be an Agile team with success, a big question arises – what next? Many teams (and companies) are of the belief that Agile is a destination. In such scenarios, teams practice Agile well for few months, or may be even couple of years before it derails. Continuous improvement is one of the key principles of Agile and for that there has to be sustainability – Agile should become the philosophy of the organization. To maintain sustainability, there would be some areas to address –

  1. Develop a philosophy of evangelism – continually identify employees or “brand ambassadors”, as I call them, to keep the philosophy of Agile alive in the company. These employees should be able to breathe, eat and live Agile.
  2. Work with teams to have progressions set up – for both skills and positions. Very important to ensure that teams believe that they have something new to learn every now and then. Stagnation is a killer, whereas challenges infuse oxygen. Periodic trainings and certifications also ensure employee engagement.
  3. Make every team member feel important – rotate roles within the team, such as making sure that no team member is the SCRUM Master for more than two continuous sprints.

While I have shared some of my key experiences, I do believe that there may be many of you who would have more valuable learnings to share. I would welcome any critique, comments or insights on how to make better Agile teams. To conclude, the journey of transition to an Agile practice is not easy and requires loads of patience. It is important to realize that there will be failures, but the important aspect is to learn and address failures. Agile is a journey, not a destination.

About the Author:

Praveen Praveen Prakash

Praveen is a Technical Product Manager, who is passionate about Agile, especially SCRUM and Kanban. He loves coaching teams on Agile principles with the sole intention of proving the management wrong. Praveen has over 7 years of industry experience with a focus on learning something new every day.

Author : Praveen Prakash Date : 22 Sep 2015