More companies than ever are embracing Agile as a way to work more productively and collaboratively as well as drive transformational initiatives. But adopting Agile can be intimidating if it’s new to the organization or if teams have struggled with previous attempts at implementation.
Whatever your exact situation, most adoptions start by following well-established practices and frameworks. For example, there are different practices that make up Agile processes (e.g., Scrums and retrospectives) and dedicated roles with formal titles (e.g., Scrum Master, product owner). These can all seem a bit confusing or overly formal without a knowledge of the underlying principles.
But processes and frameworks alone are not enough to get the full value from Agile or make it an intrinsic part of the culture. To truly instill an Agile mindset throughout your organization and get everyone comfortable with it, people need to start by thinking and acting differently. Again, it’s helpful to know about the practices and frameworks, but ultimately how teams behave determines an organization’s success with Agile.
The truth is, a team’s ability to embrace and adapt to change plays a huge part in how smoothly the Agile adoption process will go. More than following strict protocols and pre-defined frameworks, behavioral change is a more important indicator of long-term success with Agile. Even simple behavioral changes can make a powerful difference.
Throughout my 15 years of experience as an enterprise Agile coach, I’ve seen many different types of teams and organizations – from huge global companies to dynamic, young startups across a range of industries – succeed with Agile thanks to their willingness to change behaviors. And though Agile started in the world of software development, the beauty of Agile is that with the right approach and commitment, many different functions can benefit. Indeed, in our view, Agile should be everywhere in the business.
One of the most successful Agile adoptions I’ve seen was with a global financial regulator. Now, regulatory agencies or public sector organizations may not seem like ideal groups for Agile. But this organization’s leadership valued the five key behaviors below, which form the bedrock of successful implementations.
1. Sharing knowledge:
Stovepipes and handoffs are often recognized as the bottlenecks Agile can help eliminate. That’s why cross-functional teams are key. However, you want to be sure team members are willing to share their knowledge, experience, and expertise, whether they specialize in technology, operations or business strategy. Creating cross-functional teams puts people together, but does not explicitly make knowledge sharing happen. Stovepipes can exist within a team if the team members don’t actively share knowledge. Indeed, sometimes individuals hoard information because they think it will help them protect their current position, rank or influence. That can be a big barrier to Agile success.
What does knowledge sharing look like?
- “Team, I heard there is going to be an outage with our partner Saturday night. I’ll forward everyone the email and ensure everyone is informed.”
- “I noticed a competitor already created the function we had in mind. Let’s take a look together to define how we should differentiate in the marketplace.”
- “On my last team, we would stand for our daily Scrums; it helped keep them short and on point.”
2. Facilitating ideas:
It is not enough to have individuals with ideas; diversity of thought and insight is where innovation is often born. That’s why the facilitation of ideas is so important. It’s not just one person’s responsibility (e.g., the Scrum Master). Anyone on a team should encourage or create an atmosphere that inspires and welcomes ideas. Conversely, it only takes one person – or one incident – shutting down an idea before it’s fully explored to dampen the team’s enthusiasm for sharing ideas in the future. Facilitation of ideas also strengthens the overall team, as everyone is expected to provide input, rather than a select few.
What does the facilitation of ideas look like?
- “Let’s hear some more about what Kevin was talking about. That sounds interesting!”
- “Before we move on, Kim, do you have a thought on the subject?”
- “Randy, what do you think? We want to hear from everyone before we decide.”
Developing or adopting anything new requires the courage to try it. A team that supports risks rather than ridiculing failure creates a supportive environment for risk-taking. Still, it may feel easier to step out of an airplane with a parachute than it is to change your mind about something at work. Both new and established teams face this challenge. Teams who have worked together for a long time often have preconceived notions about what everyone thinks, and it’s difficult to change those assumptions. Alternately, new teams may not have the comfort level to feel supported if an experiment doesn’t work.
What does a team supportive of risk-taking look like?
- “Thanks for trying that out Julie. Even though it didn’t work out, it really helped to explore that option.”
- “Kyle, that sounds really interesting, what can we do to try it?”
- “It’s an experiment – let’s try it for this sprint and circle back at the retrospective.”
4. Speaking candidly:
The three previous behaviors build psychological safety, which is the cornerstone of a team’s ability to grow and innovate. Candor involves caring enough about a team or a teammate to help each other grow. Providing honest feedback with sincere intent to improve the entire team helps create and maintain an atmosphere of improvements. It also fosters the view that mistakes are part of the process of getting better.
What does candor look like?
- “Josh, when you repeatedly interrupted Phyllis during the sprint review, it felt as though you didn’t respect her opinion. Can you tell me how you felt about the interaction?”
- “Even though we have worked on this feature for three sprints, it doesn’t seem to be any easier to use. We should reconsider our approach.”
- “Donna, the way the company recruits our developers isn’t making for the kind of team members we need. Can we find a way to help with recruiting or training?”
5. Showing appreciation:
Appreciation builds respect within a team. It’s also contagious. By recognizing the contributions of others, we stay humble. As Google’s Aristotle study showed, we don’t need a team of superstars to innovate; rather, we need team members who support each other. Giving and getting praise helps the team stay cohesive and generate the innovation we need.
What does appreciation look like?
- “Thanks for leading the retrospective session. It’s great to learn new ways of facilitating.”
- “John, thanks for taking the time to work with me. I would have been stuck on that for days.”
- “I’m new, but I appreciate you asking my opinion!”
Now that we know what to look for, how do we reward such behaviors? As Daniel Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, merely giving people a bonus isn’t the answer. One of the best rewards is being able to do the work you find interesting and fulfilling alongside the people you want to work with. These five behaviors help on both of those fronts.
Thus, the goal is to attract and retain people who can develop and sustain these behaviors and attributes. Giving autonomy helps boost Agile adoption, as do the opportunities to work on the company’s most creative initiatives and to learn new skills. It also helps attract the right type of people for your organization. Yes, Agile roles are important, but the commitment and actions of the entire team are vital enablers of success.
It’s also worth noting that behaviors are viral. The more a team sees these key behaviors modeled in each other and their leaders, the quicker the culture shift begins. That’s how Agile becomes part of an organization’s DNA and takes hold in building the self-starting, innovative culture required to meet the company’s most important objectives, like digital transformation, significant performance improvements, and enhanced value for customers.