Senior leadership needs to lead by example.

Senior leadership needs to lead by example.

Over the past few weeks I have been asking friends and colleagues to answer the following question:

What are the top reasons you think an organization succeeds in implementing Agile?

The group that participated in this survey are from a highly experienced cohort of process improvement personnel, testers or developers. Not all of the respondents were sure Agile and success belonged in the same sentence (more on that later in the week). There was a rich range of answers, however after the first dozen responses a consensus formed. Today I would like to explore the most important success factor as reported in this survey: senior leadership support.

Senior management support was the most often mentioned factor influencing Agile success. By far one of the significant factors mentioned was that senior management exhibits a true understanding of Agile. In particular, senior managers must understand what Agile really is, rather than falling prey to buzzword bingo.  One of the respondents suggested that, “I feel most senior leaders that I have dealt with don’t have a full understanding of what is needed and it trickles down to the rest of the organization.” Senior leaders need to walk the talk when it comes to Agile if they expect to implement Agile successfully.  They need to prove to both team members and middle managers that they understand how Agile impacts the flow of work through a sprint and that Agile teams are expected to self-organize. Senior leaders will help pull the transition to Agile forward by asking questions that elicit proof that teams are acting Agile.  For example, asking to see team’s burn down chart rather than report-based status reporting sends a strong message that leads behavior.

In many organizations, following the process is as important as the outcome of any specific project. This is based on the presumption that precisely following the process insures success. In the role of process champion, senior leaders own one of the more significant barriers to change. Senior leadership needs to incent teams to try new processes such as Scrum. Senior managers need to understand that Agile frameworks are scaffolds that need to be tailored to fit project needs and requirements. Providing the incentive for teams to experiment will create an environment of flexibility so that teams can decide how address impediments as soon as they are encountered.

Teams need support from senior leadership to allow innovation or Agile implementations will fail. Support for Agile innovation derives from the expectations of senior management that teams will use Agile techniques.  These expectations need to be part of the annual goals and objectives and be in evidence in the questions that leaders ask of middle managers and project teams. The power of asking for questions that require that teams prove they are using Agile is a VERY powerful evidence of a senior leader’s expectations.