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Agile transformation - bottom-up or top-down?

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

It’s hard to resist the promise of agile transformations. Which company would not want to get its newest idea to the market as quickly as a startup does? Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment where employees volunteer to complete challenging tasks, then they deliver them by helping each other? Nevertheless, we have to get to this point somehow. Dear consultants, agile coaches, organizational development trainers, where should we start? We have two paths forward: either we build from the bottom, or start at the top.

Let’s start with building from the bottom, as usually one can only read about this path. A mid-level leader in operations typically reads a great book on the topic, gets excited, convinces top-management to support the idea, and then recruits individuals among employees to self-organize into a team. Finally, through iterations, they arrive to a functioning model, which later everyone wants to join. So what are the cons? Too many accidental factors must come together in order to succeed, and even if this happens, it usually takes a few years to show any results.

So rather start the transformation from the top. Top-management’s decision is implemented by consultants, external partners, and there’s also no problem at all with goals and will. We also might not surprise you by saying the goal is to change the mindset, shape the culture. (It was even part of our contract at one of the recent engagements we had, so they really take this seriously). The baseline assumption is: regardless of whether we choose a standard agile methodology, or we put together a customized mix out of multiple methodologies, we will be able to achieve agility by “enforcing” deeper, mindset level organizational changes through introducing the chosen methodology.

The latter approach is not necessarily a bad one. At edUcate, we had countless discussions whether there was any other option available for large enterprises? One side argues that even the idea itself violates the values of agility, while the other side says this is the only way to cope with the inertia of large organizations. Regardless of where the truth lies, it’s a given that such transformations are happening in the world, and the only thing we can do as agile coaches, is to try to make the most out of them.

Then I had a moment of clarity during one early, sleepy morning while travelling on the subway. These discussions were pointless, solely because we were asking the wrong question all along. It is completely indifferent whether we start the transformation from the top or the bottom. The important question is, whether we think about the transformation as it was a superficial answer to a hard problem (like putting the textbook under the pillow for the night and hoping you will be smart by the morning) or we think the transformation will completely turn the organization’s mindset upside-down, therefore painful at the beginning, but a rewarding investment in the long run.

We have written about the values centered approach of agility in an earlier blog post, therefore, I will not address these questions now. As a former financial executive turned-to-be agile coach I rather approach agile transformations like investments. Just like at any other investments, the basics lie in the belief that in an imagined future outcome is more likely, than any other possible outcomes. For example: I believe electric cars will rule the roads, therefore I quickly buy some Tesla shares! As a leader, I believe if I establish an environment where employees can freely create things, then it will benefit for the company. So let’s do agile transformation! Disclaimer: if I were to believe the company will benefit keeping strong control over the teams working under me, then I should not invest my time, money, and energy into agile transformations - just like an oil lobbyist will never buy Tesla shares.

Yes, I really believe in the above (and luckily, research concerning the topic supports my beliefs). Nonetheless, why am I, as a former financial executive, looking at agile transformations as investments? Based on our experience, it’s really easy to sell the agile transformation as: we will apply this well functioning “methodology” (sic!) and we will be more efficient from tomorrow. True, a daily standup or a retrospective will improve efficiency - a bit - at any circumstances. However, in order to achieve meaningful changes, first we need to invest, and the daily rate of agile coaches and trainers is only one line item here. It’s more likely that the temporary degradation in business performance, due to the necessary changes in the IT infrastructure, or the reorganization of some processes, will cost the organization a lot more. We could phrase the question like this: do we believe in electric cars so much that we are willing to buy one Tesla share? Maybe buying even as much as 5% of Tesla? Both options are valid, but keep in mind: our return on investment will also be significantly different when our beliefs are justified by reality.

When these 3 conditions are met:

- belief in self-organizing teams is a given

- the organizations is capable of thinking about the agile transformation as an investment

- and we can communicate the values of agility in a comprehensible way,

then it’s totally irrelevant whether we start the transformation from the bottom or the top, because we are on the right path to create a better organization.

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