Agile transformation: 7 common pitfalls to avoid

Navigate your Agile transformation like a pro. Uncover and dodge seven common pitfalls that could derail your journey to Agile success.
More and more companies are undergoing Agile transformation, hoping to cash in on all the good stuff Agile has to offer: faster time to market, becoming more in tune with what customers want, building better products, and boosting business results. But let's be clear, going full Agile isn't a piece of cake. It takes a lot of time and hard work, especially if your company is a big one or if you're used to doing things the old-school way.
The stakes are pretty high, and believe me, you don't want to mess this up. That's why in this blog post, we're going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong and throw your Agile transformation off track. By knowing what these pitfalls are, you'll be better equipped to steer clear of them and make your Agile journey a successful one.

Pitfall #1: Unrealistic Expectations

Sometimes, company leadership might look at Agile as a magic wand that'll fix everything and make the company an overnight success. While Agile can certainly lead to better results in the long run, don't expect instant miracles. You won't necessarily become the market leader just because you've gone Agile. Imagine your company is like someone who's never hit the gym. Starting to run every morning won't instantly turn them into a fitness guru. But it sure will boost their health in the long run, and who knows, maybe they'll be signing up for an Iron Man race one day!

Another common misbelief is that Agile will make people complete more work at a faster pace. That's not how it works. We're all human, after all, and there are limits to what we can do. What Agile will help you with is getting better at figuring out what's most important, reducing waste, and delivering value quicker, without asking your team to move mountains.

Pitfall #2: Leadership Doesn't Change

It's not uncommon for Agile transformations to focus solely on the teams, while leadership remains rooted in their old ways. This approach misses the mark. Changing the culture is a crucial aspect of Agile transformation, and it needs to start from the top down.

Check out my previous blog post on Agile leadership for a deeper dive. In essence, Agile leaders need to shift from a command-and-control style to one that empowers teams, fosters collaboration, removes roadblocks, and establishes psychological safety. This is a significant departure from traditional management approaches, and it's why leadership coaching should be a major component of any successful Agile transformation.

Pitfall #3: Constant Structural Changes

One of the initial hurdles when kicking off an Agile transformation is creating new teams - in most cases moving from functional to cross-functional teams. This is a challenging phase as it requires significant time and effort.

According to Tuckman's model, every team goes through four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. A team starts delivering significant business value in the performing stage, which only comes after weathering initial conflicts (storming) and establishing norms and rituals (norming). Once a team is set up, it needs quite some time (typically 6-8 weeks from my experience) to settle down and reach this performing stage.

However, during many Agile transformations, there's a tendency to keep shuffling people from team to team, resulting in a constantly evolving org map. It's crucial to understand that adding a new member to a team is akin to hitting the reset button. The team returns to the forming stage, and they need to progress through the storming and norming stages all over again.

Stability is key. Aim to keep teams as constant as possible and minimize structural changes. If moving people around is unavoidable, be mindful of the potential consequences and trade-offs.

Pitfall #4: Misalignment of Priorities

When an Agile team is freshly formed, vision and goal setting is a pivotal step. It's crucial to keep them looped in on the larger organizational goals and priorities. In an ideal scenario, you'd have the company and each department's Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) established and communicated to these new teams to help them set their own goals. If these goals are unclear or constantly changing, it can lead to immense stress and frustration within the team, ultimately derailing their success.

Agile is all about embracing change, but that doesn't mean changing the goals on a whim. We focus on setting goals in terms of desired outcomes (the value we aim to deliver to customers and the business) rather than outputs (specific products or features we want to release). Once set, these goals should remain stable for at least a quarter, allowing each team to chart their path to success and make meaningful progress.

And let's not forget about managers and stakeholders who might inundate teams with ad hoc requests that often aren't aligned with the team's goals. Newly minted Agile teams may not yet have the confidence to push back, making it essential to coach both the leadership and stakeholders to respect the teams' goals.

Pitfall #5: Deadlines and Time Pressure

Deadlines can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they help us stay focused and organized. On the other, they can force teams into the project management triangle: scope, budget, and schedule. When a deadline is set in stone, you usually have to tweak the scope or budget or both. And more often than not, adjusting the scope means you end up sacrificing some of the value you initially aimed to deliver to the customer just to meet a deadline.

Any form of external time pressure shifts a team's focus from maximizing customer and business value to simply getting something - anything - done by a specific date. It unintentionally nudges teams back towards a waterfall approach: working in stages and developing detailed work plans. Suddenly, there's no room for experimentation, innovative solutions, or thorough customer research. Remember, in Agile, flexibility and value-creation should take precedence over rigid timelines.

Pitfall #6: Old Approach to Performance Evaluation

A true Agile transformation involves a shift in how we evaluate performance. Each individual's contributions should be assessed in relation to the team's goals and their impact on these goals. If personal targets don't align with team objectives, it can severely impact the success of the team.

In an Agile organization, there are typically fewer managers, and the ones that are there play a different role than in traditional organizations (we touched on this in Pitfall #2). It's crucial to create a clear "individual contributor" advancement pathway, meaning that a salary raise doesn't necessarily mean you have to become a manager. Also, we need to rethink how we evaluate leadership to ensure they're encouraged to embody the principles of Agile leadership. This would further secure the transformation and reinforce the new norms in the organization.

Pitfall #7: Ignoring Team Health

Team health is a vital metric that often goes unnoticed. It reflects how cohesive, motivated, and productive each team is. It shows whether there's psychological safety in the team, and if they're following best practices. You can measure this in various ways. We offer a free tool called Team Barometer, but you can also come up with your own criteria and tools.

Agile transformations can be stressful. After all, people are naturally resistant to change, and during a transformation, everything changes at once. You could have the best frameworks in place and set perfectly reasonable goals, but if the teams aren't motivated and lack the energy to push forward, the transformation will fall short.

Therefore, it's critical to consistently check in on the team's health and take action if things aren't going well. Ensuring your teams are healthy and motivated is as important as implementing the right practices and methodologies.

In conclusion, an Agile transformation is not a walk in the park. It's a significant shift that requires time, effort, and a deep understanding of not just the principles of Agile, but also your organization and its people. It's not about rushing to change everything overnight, but about thoughtful and gradual improvement. Remember to manage your expectations, align leadership with Agile values, stabilize team structures, ensure goals alignment, minimize time pressure, revisit performance evaluations, and, most importantly, keep an eye on the health of your teams. Agile transformation may be challenging, but with these potential pitfalls in mind, you'll be better equipped to navigate the journey and reap the benefits of becoming a truly Agile organization.
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