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Author: Salah Elleithy

Agile Transformation: The 3 Key Ingredients

“If you want to make significant improvements, work on paradigms. If you want to make small improvements, work on behaviors and attitudes”. – Stephen Covey, Living the seven habits

I always resisted wearing glasses thinking it will make my vision worse. When I started wearing glasses, I could see clearly now (Literally). It took an experience of wearing the glasses to shift my paradigm and change my mindset. 

Last year, I had the opportunity to attend an agile conference and the keynote speech was given by Jim Highsmith. He talked about adaptive leadership and he said: “agility is a strategic issue”.
As I listened to his phenomenal speech, I could visualize three overlapping flying wheels working in tandem.Salah May29 IMG01

Change initiatives usually start with the why. The purpose of undertaking such initiative. There must be a vision on why we are doing what we are doing. 

Once the vision is clear to some extent, the what and the how will follow. The “what” addresses what needs to be done to live the change we are envisioning and the “how” addresses the steps to be taken, the practices to be tried, the frameworks to be used and the processes to be implemented to make the change sustainable. 
This is not a linear process and we will most likely revisit the what and how and make sure they align with the why. At some instances, we may even have to revisit the why!

1. Why Agile?

Organizations are looking for better ways to become more efficient and more productive. Learning Organizations seek to continuously improve their product delivery process.

When successful individuals and/or organizations come to the realization that the way they are working is not working, they look for better ways of doing things. This is what happened when a group of developers came together and found the agile manifesto in 2001. The manifesto emphasized four different values which will be covered later in this article. 

Agile is not new however. In 1986, an article was published in HBR called “The New New Product development Game” by Takeuchi and Nonaka. The article highlights that in today’s competitive environment (in 1986 at the time), a holistic or ‘rugby’ approach- where a team tries to go a distance as a unit passing the ball back and forth will serve organizations better than the relay approach to product development which may conflict with the goals of maximum speed and flexibility. 

2. Being Agile?

Covey’s quote in the beginning of the article gives a hint on the most challenging aspect of any change initiative: Mindset. Ahmed Sidky (Dr. Agile) explains all about the mindset in one of his talks on agile mindset.

The purpose of this article however is to provide a few examples of what I believe can help organizations start reaping some benefits of living the Agile mindset:

Understand the Agile Manifesto

To be agile, companies must go back to the source and understand the values of the agile manifesto. 

Individuals and interactions over process and tools
Working Software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Address the “Unaddressables”

Peter Bregman, the author of 18 minutes: Find your focus, master distraction and get the right things done calls the things that everyone is aware of but has not been addressed “The Unaddressables”. 

He reports that getting everyone together to address the “unaddressables” has proved to be very productive. This could be the first step towards building a culture of openness and honest feedback which is key critical for nurturing agile transformation initiatives.

Slow down to speed up

Reaching the point where people see the value of the change is very exciting. However, taking a step back every once in a while to take corrective actions and staying focused is important. Going full speed without taking time for reflection can be a recipe for disaster. In some agile practices, looking back at what is working well and what needs improvement is part of the process called “retrospective”. 

Bring ‘Silos’ together

Yes, the team may have been excited about the change but old habits die hard. Sometimes teams may revert back to their old habits when faced with a challenge. Specialized team members need to be committed to the transformation initiative. Continuous encouragement for collaboration and teamwork from the leadership team is a major aspect of the culture transformation agile needs to grow and blossom.

Maintain balance

Remember the agile manifesto values we covered earlier. This is where every organization has to find their balance. Review the agile values often to ensure that you are not going on one extreme or the other. As you noticed, there is some value to the items on the right but the items on the left create more value.


What is measured improves, says Peter Drucker. This can be challenging however it needs to be thought through to understand how to measure success so that results can be improved.

Learn to Unlearn (Inspect and Adapt)

Starting with a clean slate is ideal however it is rarely feasible. The idea is to promote a growth mindset culture. The idea is to strengthen the muscles for new habits which will eventually replace old habits.

3. Doing Agile

Putting it all in practice needs continuous nourishment. The ‘Doing’ part is another important ingredient that should not be left out.

Lead by Example

Strive to build a team to model the new behavior “the doing part” using existing processes/tools or acquiring new ones. This should address the frameworks/practices, relationships/structure and teaching/coaching (continuously raising awareness) and showing people how the process works.

Adopt a practice then evolve

Organizations who are new to agile usually adopt a practice and follow it (usually Scrum). It is critical to follow the framework/practice as is in the beginning without adding or deleting anything. (Refer to Shu Ha Ri)

At the end, there is no single prescription to change initiatives and every organization has to assess where they stand and what is working well for them. Sometimes, building on strengths is a more sustainable approach than trying to perform radical changes. 

It is one step at a time!

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