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Agile transformation: 3 obstacles and how to overcome them

Blog: The Enterprise Project - Digital Transformation

Agile transformation: 3 obstacles and how to overcome them
Lenka Pincot
April 19, 2023 – 3:00am

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Large-scope transformations have become a new norm. Organizations are looking at how to strengthen their ability to adapt and respond to enterprise-wide challenges, global-scale disruptions, and socioeconomic tensions.

As much as 87% of respondents to a recent IDG survey commissioned by Insight Enterprises said their organizations are pursuing some type of digital transformation, with 46% saying they are undertaking enterprise-wide initiatives.

Organizations expect their transformation efforts will help them become more flexible, respond more easily to increased customer expectations, and better align strategic priorities with teams’ and departments’ actions. In other words, to become agile on an enterprise level.

But leaders who are intent on enhancing organizational agility often face ingrained or cultural challenges that threaten to derail their efforts. Here are three of the leading obstacles that can undermine an agile transformation and suggestions for how to overcome them.

1. Resistance to changing priorities

Being agile is associated with iterative, incremental advances and often runs headlong into a cultural tendency to “stick to the plan.” This often manifests itself with:

  • Cross-departmental disagreements over the most important thing to do at the moment
  • Resistance to relocating resources to important but under-resourced areas
  • An inability to shift to a value-based roadmap from a functional-scope mindset

The first two issues typically require senior management involvement, which is when problems can arise. While significant resources are often devoted to team building within the cross-functional agile team, few, if any, are earmarked for team building among the larger team or among senior managers. Yet disagreements among this senior team can directly affect cooperation levels among the cross-functional teams below them.

The solution often lies in reorienting team-building efforts to encompass senior leaders as well as cross-functional team members.

[ Also read Digital transformation: How to teach the language of change. ]

As with any team, the senior management team needs to align on a common purpose and objectives that directly support the organization’s purpose. It’s helpful to use the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) method and manage change initiatives as an agile portfolio, frequently reevaluating the value they deliver instead of maintaining a prioritized to-do list.

Tackling the final issue—shifting to a value-based roadmap—requires constant reinforcement of the agile iterative delivery approach with customer value as the primary focus. One way to bring this to life is to share real-world examples of how teams can build value. In these examples, make sure to position technology as the enabler instead of the goal.

2. Lack of project visibility

Operating in a completely open and transparent manner can be challenging for cross-functional teams—particularly in the beginning. But it is essential for the success of any agile transformation.

Transparency needs to encompass all aspects of the project: its purpose and rationale, the kinds of work the teams are doing, and areas where they are investing resources. It also should include open and direct feedback about what’s working and what’s not.

[ Need to explain key Agile and DevOps terms to others? Get our cheat sheet: DevOps glossary. ]

Focusing on these weak spots can be particularly challenging, especially for new teams, but it’s critical for improving the quality of estimates, maintaining work-in-progress limits, and remaining focused on delivering customer value.

One way to drive project transparency is to first agree on which communications tool to use and then dedicate an individual or team to collecting and sharing this information across teams.

It’s also important to create a safe environment where teams are given space to learn fast and pivot quickly when needed. The goal is to cultivate a culture of trust between and among teams, an environment where people are comfortable sharing their opinions and where senior company managers adopt a servant leadership approach.

3. Misalignment of business and IT

Business and IT alignment is critical in establishing effective cross-functional teams, but it can be difficult to achieve due to organizational issues and resistance to change. Even when organizational change is possible, achieving full alignment may not be enough. People may need time to adjust to new structures, new organizational roles and responsibilities, and more agile ways of working.

To address the issue of business and IT alignment, focus on an aspect of team collaboration that yields benefits regardless of how teams are structured: the language you speak together.

Think about it: Language is often the root of issues between business units and IT teams.

To bridge this gap, user stories are an indispensable tool because user stories focus on customer value. They help clarify the ultimate value that the customer should take from the project—not only the who and the what but also the why.

This is a far cry from talking about functional specifications or potential solutions. By telling user stories, teams can align with a shared understanding of customer value. The stories can help clarify the business team’s thinking about what adds value to the customer. And they can help the IT team stay focused on designing the solution. User stories then become the link, rallying teams around a common purpose and allowing them to do what they do best.

Establishing such a common language helps create a culture of alignment that brings business and IT teams closer together. Organizational redesign can then be deployed to support this culture and drive even greater levels of collaboration and cooperation.

Business transformations are no longer one-off events with a clear beginning and end. As organizations undergo continuous transformation, it’s more important than ever to recognize and overcome obstacles to agile transformation. To do so, consider investing in upskilling and credentialing team members now. It’s very likely the quest for organizational agility will stay around.

[ Download the 10 resources to make you a better communicator eBook. ]

Don’t let these common roadblocks disrupt your agile transformation. This expert advice will help your strategy succeed.
Employees hanging notes on wall to represent agile methodologies

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