Organizational Agile first steps: Creating a vision

March 27, 2013 The Architech Team

Somehow, somewhere, somebody decided Agile was the right thing for your organization. This could have come from the “top” as a goal to improve the performance of your organization. Maybe it was driven by a business need to “speed up” or to give your customers more of what they actually want. Perhaps you feel Agile could help with time to market and would like to give it a try. At this point, the motivations are not necessarily clear and the decision to become an Agile organization is not conveyed consistently, if at all.

In the following discussion, we’ll introduce essential elements for getting on the right track with Agile, and explore alternatives and decisions for consideration along the way. There isn’t a roadmap as such because company cultures are unique.  An approach to Agile would be something each organization needs to customize for itself.


Step 1: Tuning In to Your Culture

Think about the last major culture shift or process change your company recently experienced. Did it involve a top-level strategy to accommodate bottom-up changes? Few companies are successful at launching these initiatives according to their original intent. Why? Often, compromises are made to accommodate for governance and departmental challenges. These customizations are important for making any kind of change possible.

Running bottom-up strategies may succeed at demonstrating better ways of doing things but the change is restricted to existing processes and governance. You can squeeze a bit more out of the system, but it may result in poorer performance when the system breaks. Using Agile methods from the bottom-up will bring improvements, but these gains can be eroded by misled top-down initiatives.

An approach taken by many ‘wanna-be’ Agile development teams is to isolate or insulate themselves from other parts of the organization. They typically pick a project or application enhancement that’s small and less significant to the business groups. A limited trial can produce a working model that demonstrates what you are trying to achieve – which may work for a while until you want to scale up these initiatives to other parts of the organization. Insulating your initiatives will lack transparency and it will miss the opportunity to evolve governance changes needed to maintain the gains achieved.

To set up the right environment for change, we recommend employing both a bottom-up and top-down strategy. Create feedback loops of learning at all levels of the company. This way, teams are learning how changes affect them and stakeholders discover what impediments are in the teams’ way. More importantly, transparency and accountability work in both directions to create trust in the overall change management process.


Step 2: Clarity of Purpose

To motivate an organization there has to be clarity of purpose. Without it the wheels of change will quickly fall off. There has to be consensus that change is vital to the organization’s business model. How does your organization decide it’s time for a change? There are usually different reasons and motivations, but they should be known and transparent within the organization.

Create a vision that drives purpose. All too often the vision is not formulated and articulated. Typically, it is over simplified such as “we want to go Agile”. But, why? Usually, little is known about Agile in the early stages. Articles and books are read, testimonials are considered, or perhaps someone is taking a course. Agile knowledge is fragile at this point and people begin to formulate their own interpretations. Knowledge is scattered and there is no focal point. Agile is mistaken as a transformation model, which it is not. “If we can understand Agile, then we can change” is a common misconception.

An approach to Agile is to first articulate issues an organization wants to address, create a vision for change, organize a model for change management, and then use Agile to help find a way forward.


Step 3: Organize a Vision Workshop

At this point, formulating a vision with purpose can be accomplished through an off-site workshop, bringing leaders together to run through a series of exercises. The workshop should be facilitated by someone who has experience with Agile transformations and can develop a workshop curriculum that suits the culture of the organization.

The vision for change should include a purpose and a business need. The participants should all be in agreement with the vision and have the ability to articulate it. The vision works best in the language of the organization. It breathes a new way of thinking and is transparent to everyone.

Who should attend the workshop? First and foremost, there should be an organizational sponsor who understands the need for change and can articulate it to the organization as a whole. This is not a solo act. The sponsor should form a team that engages the organization as a whole and acts as a lightning rod. This team has various names – Agile Transformation Team, Enterprise Transformation Committee, Agile Steering Committee – and is formed by leaders with a desire to act and see Agile succeed.


A Manifesto

An important part of the Vision Workshop involves developing a manifesto for success. Ask yourselves what team experiences have led to success in the past? Interestingly, these experiences are rarely about sticking to a plan or keeping costs down. They go much deeper to include collaboration within the teams and getting rid of unnecessary decision checkpoints.

The manifesto gives the team a set of values and principles that encompass existing organizational values, and likely contains elements or parts of the Agile manifesto. More importantly, it’s written in language that the organization understands.


A Vision for Change

How do you identify what needs to be changed? The Innovation Game, ‘Remember the Future’, suits this exercise well. It takes the perspective of considering yourselves sometime in the future, to gain an understanding of what changes are needed to successfully meet business goals to get to that future state.

The exercise results in a preliminary roadmap of items that need to “happen”. Typical examples of outcomes include cross-functional teams, organizational alignments and process changes. The exercise creates a lively discussion on what elements are important and where to start. Since items are spread across a timeline, a story is told about the journey that needs to take place. Participants recognize that change is not a singular event, but a series of checks and balances along the way.


Identifying the Barriers

With clarity of purpose and a vision roadmap in hand, the final step in the Vision Workshop is to identify the barriers to achieving your overall success. In large organizations, there are well-known barriers that everyone simply considers a part of doing business. Exposing these impediments and getting a new view of their impact is important to understanding the scope of your change efforts.

The Innovation Game, ‘Speed Boat’, suits this exercise well. It’s a dynamic exercise that identifies impediments to achieving your vision roadmap. Participants write down known impediments on sticky notes and place them on a wall or chart. The speedboat graphic at the top of the chart depicts a boat held back by anchors. The deeper the anchors, the more effect it has on the boat’s speed.

The exercise identifies impediments that are getting in the way of success, and the team gets a clear understanding of the impediments they need to address first. They typically encompass a large range of issues that include technology as well as organizational processes.



So, where does Agile fit into this? It already has, indirectly. The approach outlined creates a starting point – not an end point. It gets the leadership team on the same page and looking in the same direction. It creates a baseline of understanding and collaboration that establishes clear first steps on a journey that will encounter many bumps along the way.

Without a vision, organizations will likely encounter symptoms such as:

-       A build-up of resistance to Agile

-       Agile ‘skunk works’ all over the place and no transparency

-       Stakeholders not on-board and making counter-intuitive decisions

-       Fear of failure predominates the teams and business units

-       Communication about Agile takes on negative sentiments

A Vision workshop can help repair Agile transformations that are in progress. It’s a useful tool to re-align everyone to a common baseline of understanding. Vision workshops create energy and focus for everyone. And they can provide a starting point for future transformational activities, such as conducting a Value Stream Mapping exercise.



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