Sustainable Change

For an Agile coach, one of the most important things to think about is, “What will happen when I’m no longer here?” From day one, from day one, you should have your exit plan in mind. You might be done when the contract is over. But let’s assume for a moment that the contract does not determine when you disengage, you do. We do not believe that an external Agile coach should find a permanent home with an organization. We prefer external Agile coaches focus on getting the client up and running and developing sustainable ways to continue improving without rolling back when the external coach leaves. Sustaining Agile means continually responding to change, continuously learning, and continuously improving without dependency on the coach to keep the effort moving.

Agile is Never the Goal

You may be thinking, “What do you mean, Agile is not the goal? Of course, it is the goal! That is why the client hired an Agile coach.” This might be hard to hear, but it is the most important lesson you need to learn if you are doing Agile coaching. Agile is not the goal – business results are the goal.

Too often, when questioning an organization about why they are adopting Agile methods, frameworks, and practices, the answer is some version of, “I don’t know.” If the client does not know why they are adopting Agile, they should not be doing it. It is not that Agile will not work; it can certainly help them improve. But Agile for the sake of Agile obscures the value they are trying to attain by doing so. The driving question behind any Agile effort should be: What outcomes are they looking for with the improvements? What return on investment do they want to get if they successfully implement Agile in their organization? 

Without understanding the business results the client wants to get; you will not know what to focus your efforts on when partnering with them to get an Agile effort started. You might be thinking a version of, “Everyone knows how to get Agile started: teach them scrum, put them in cross-functional teams, and make sure they know how to manage a backlog and perform scrum events.”

Okay. That’s a fine. But how do you know that is what they really need? If they are doing all the scrum events, what business results will that impact? What outcomes will the company see because of the great team meetings? Agile is not plug-and-play. It is not something you install the same way every time. In fact, it could be argued that “Agile” isn’t something you install at all.

Let’s assume that the client has identified the number one business problem they are trying to solve: revenue reduction. Customers are abandoning their product, a web and mobile application, because the quality is horrible. They have already identified that developers introducing new features and functionality that have defects is not the problem. The core problem is that they cannot move as fast as their customers need them to. Since integration and regression tests take weeks to run, instead of doing full testing developers perform spot check and push code to production. When the new code is introduced, it works fine but it breaks several other things. The company’s profits have dropped 35% over the past 6 months and there is a continuing downward trend. If they do not get this fixed, they’re going to be out of business in 12-15 months. Someone recommended Agile so they figured they would give it a try.

How does the plug-and-play installation model of “teach them scrum, put them in cross-functional teams, and make sure they know how to manage a backlog and perform scrum events” address the number one business problem the company needs to solve?

It doesn’t.

Creating sustainable change in the company is not about getting them to adopt new processes. It is about getting them to identify the business problems they need to solve and introducing and sustaining the changes that solve those problems. Not every company will need the same cookie-cutter installation plan. If they do, there is a problem. If they do, the coach is likely leading the engagement and installing the equivalent of vanity metrics such as, “How many Agile teams can we stand up in three months?” It doesn’t matter how many teams you stand up. If the business problems are not being solved, you are wasting your time and your client’s money.

The goal is never Agile. The goal is always business results. Agile is a tool to help you arrive at the desired business results.

The Client Can Solve It

Stepping in to take over solving the client’s problems for them is not sustainable. At best, such an approach gets compliance and not true change. At worst, it creates new dependencies and fails completely. It fails because the solution is not coming from the people who must implement it.

As previously mentioned, the client is the expert on their company, not the coach – especially if that coach is external. Allowing the client to devise their own solutions is vital for the success and sustainability of the change for several reasons. You may have seen their problem before, but not in their environment. Only the client knows their internal systems well enough to decide what will work and what will not work. If we as coaches simply dictate what will work for them, we’re just pushing the solution on them. Not only could our proposed solution totally fail in their environment but pushing a solution does not lead to a lasting and sustainable change.

“Just do this” is pushing the solution. It is also an incredibly simplistic point of view. For companies with thousands of employees and myriads moving parts, a “just do this” approach could involve hundreds and thousands of changes. Some of those changes are business choices and companies may not be able to make them easily, if at all.

The client is the one who will live with the implemented solutions to their problems. Coaches will not. Client solutions must work for the client and be sustainable. It is not our company. Coaches do not have to live with the consequences of installing one or another solution for years to come. That’s an incredibly important point to keep in mind.

Change Based on the Company’s Context; Not Copying the Success of Others

Successful change must come from within the company. It needs to be developed based on the needs and strengths of an individual company. To simply copy the success of others ignores the fact that no two companies are alike. A giraffe’s neck will not work on an elephant. Likewise, one company’s operating model or culture may not work for another company. To be sustainable, a company must be able to innovate and create in ways that are designed for its own individual strengths and success.

The End of Coaching May Never Come

Finally, it is important to understand that many organizations will never achieve a sustainable Agile transformation. Some engagements will end with sustainability. Some engagements will be a maintainable one-time improvement. Others will revert to the old ways of operating. This is not necessarily a failure of the coach, it’s a symptom of the client system. Therefore, it’s imperative the coach takes the stance up front they aren’t permanent. This way the client understand they must own the change for it to last.

To learn more about how Agile Coaches can help organizations adopt and integrate Agile successfully, watch for the release of our new book at the end of 2021, entitled “Enterprise Coaching: Sustaining Organizational Change Through Invitational Agile Coaching.”

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