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Agile Adoption, Part 2 – How do we start?

You can learn why you should adopt agile in Part 1 of the blog series.

Clients often ask me if they are going about adopting agile the ‘right way’. While I truly believe that there is no one ‘right way’ to start doing agile, it does reassure clients to hear that most organizations usually fall into one of three major groups when it comes to starting agile. I like to refer to them as Top Down, Grassroots, and Meeting in the Middle. Each group comes with advantages, as well as its challenges.

‘Top Down’ is when someone in upper management hears about Agile and decides that the whole company should be agile, often right now. On the positive side, this normally means that there is significant support for agile from the top of the organization, and that there is usually money for training and coaching as well. On the negative side, this approach often doesn’t take into consideration what is currently working in the organization, and can be very disruptive to teams who are already working well together. Additionally, the teams who will be most impacted by this transformation to agile may not have been consulted at all, and their reactions will run the gamut from elated to cautious to downright hostile. Coaches who walk into this type of situation often face an uphill battle, because they end up spending time convincing teams that this is not just some new flavor of the month idea from upper management, rather than being able to focus on how agile will help their teams.

‘Grassroots’ is the opposite scenario. One or more teams have started doing agile, usually under the radar because it was something they heard about, read about, or were exposed to on their own. I also think of this as “Stealth Agile” because the teams are often quite cautious about not telling people what they are doing, in fear of being told to stop. This is an interesting scenario for a coach, because obviously you can’t be brought in to coach a team if no one knows that they are doing agile. However, success breeds interest, and what often happens is the stealth agile teams start showing significant improvements, and people want to know why. Eventually the word gets out that agile is the secret sauce these teams have been using, which leads us to the third group.

The third and final group is ‘Meeting in the Middle’, and in some ways it is the best of both worlds. This scenario happened when there is already a Grassroots effort to use Agile, and it has been successful enough to catch the attention of upper management who hopefully learn more and decide that this agile thing is something that the whole company should try. This can work very well because there already exists evidence within the company that agile is working, and with the recognition from upper management can come additional resources and support. This can be a great scenario for a coach to walk into, because the first teams have already laid the groundwork and can be your evangelists.

However, since they have been through the trenches and had to bear some of the biggest adoption challenges, often on their own, it is critical to acknowledge their contributions. In addition, it is also critical to consult them in order to learn what has worked well so far within their organization and use that as a template to build on for other teams. Coming in and deciding to ‘do agile right’ now that there is a coach involved is a great way to burn bridges, lose champions and fail badly, and agile will be blamed for it in the end.

So while the Meeting in the Middle scenario can be challenging, I still think it is the best scenario to walk into as a coach, because you have people who have been living agile who have demonstrated that it can work for the company, and you also have the support of management to help agile spread throughout the organization.

So now that you have an idea about how most companies start their agile journey, the next question is “What do we do?” (Hint – telling everyone to read a book and be ready to ‘go agile’ on Monday is not a good way to start!)