Let’s Focus on “Inside Out” Agile Transformation

Let’s Focus on “Inside Out” Agile Transformation

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I used to think that there were basically three forms of agile transformation. They were and are:

  • Bottom Up
  • Top Down
  • Middle Out

and I used to say the most effective strategy for a true transformation is…all three!

I still basically coach that as an effective strategy. But as time has passed, and I’ve gained more and more experience, I realize that there is a fourth option that intersects all of these.

It’s:

And it doesn’t apply to the organization at all. It applies to the individuals within the organization.  Let me explain.

Before and during your agile transformation, you need to be enabling, inspiring, explaining, guiding, and nurturing a different level of transformation. That is individual transformation. It starts and continues…

In our own heads!

I’ll risk making the point by telling a story from a colleague and friend of mine. What’s interesting about the story is the internal transformation that she makes and how it influences her agile journey.

I had heard about Tricia Broderick in our community for quite some time before I attended a leadership summit at the 2012 Agile Development Practices Conference by TechWell. Tricia was one of the speakers and she sat at my table for the day.

She told a story as part of her presentation. I will do the retelling a disservice, but I’ll do it anyway because it’s compelling and relevant to this theme.

Tricia has a software development background and over time she became a senior leader of development teams. If you meet Tricia, you’ll realize she has a no-nonsense, direct, and driven style. As a command-and-control leader, she strikes me as being “scary focused”.

And she talked about a period where her leadership style was focused more on getting things done and less towards the team.  And, since she got things done, she continued to be promoted and grew in responsibilities. But it was her personally growing and not necessarily her teams.

But as she tells it, one day she was struck by her own limitations of scale. She realized that “even she” couldn’t scale enough to make everything happen. She also realized that no matter how hard she worked, she wasn’t perfect and couldn’t drive perfect results. This revelation happened around the time that she discovered agile approaches AND she began to change her leadership style to be more servant-based, more team-based, more coaching focused, and more goal oriented.

That is, she gave over “her power” to her teams and she discovered something. The results became much better. Her teams delivered more, with better quality and greater team health. They also had fun and joy doing it. And they developed and grew as teams. She still felt and was a leader. But she was leading differently, not from the front, but from the back.

She realized that by empowering and growing her team, every dynamic was far better than before. And it was the team “stepping up” that moved Tricia the most. In the telling of the story, she speaks about team members who grew during this time. Most of her memories surround the team and their performance, with little to no mention of herself.

In a nutshell, Tricia became an “Agile Leader” on the inside. And the measure of her effectiveness was through her team, their morale and their results. And it was this fundamental realization and change that set her out on her current direction as an agile coach and teacher, as she continues to be inspired from the inside and by the results that true agility can deliver.

As I said at the beginning, we often view agile transformation from our traditional spaces. That is, we simply need to:

  • Get some coaching and training
  • Pick a scaling model
  • Buy some new tools
  • Importantly, define a new organization chart
  • Define new roles and responsibilities
  • Create Product Backlogs
  • And Go!

All of those things that we may have worked for us before in our career change initiatives, but its not enough for an agile transformation. In fact, all of these actions may not lead to a successful adoption if we don’t foster internalized agility.

Just to give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here are some indicators of Inside Out agility…

  • You realize that software development is really about customer engagement, experimentation & learning, and narrowing in on delivering customer value. Part of this mindset is the notion of failing fast, learning fast, and pivoting quickly. 
  • Iterative delivery becomes a part of your DNA. You don’t look to deliver perfection, but a set of releases that triangulate towards your customers’ needs. 
  • Doing things well (professionally, craftsman-like) becomes your default mode of operation. You fundamentally know that quality needs to be “built in” to your products and avoid cutting corners. No matter what. 
  • Trust is something you bring to work every day. Trust of team members up through your organizational leaders. You don’t adopt a “trust but verify” stance, but instead extend trust to your team freely.  
  • You’re a continuous learner across a broad set of agile practices, techniques and related topics. Beyond learning, you also teach and share your passion and learning’s with others.  
  • You walk your talk. You practice “personal agility”, for example, trying on Personal Kanban and leveraging agile techniques at all levels of the organization. 
  • You realize that you are new to agility, so you seek out experts and openly try their advice. Instead of pushing back or doubting, you embrace agile principles and try them first. Seeking first to understand and to figure out what works in your contexts. 
  • You don’t view distributed agile teams any differently than co-located teams. Sure, there are challenges in the former, but you emphasize a commitment to agile collaboration and tactics first. You realize that the team needs to become a team and everything else sorts itself out. 
  • You don’t try and drive your agile transformation with tools and frameworks first. Instead, you try to influence the mindset and culture first – getting individuals to start from the Inside Out.

And this is just a “seed list” of indicators of your personal transformation. Can you come up with others?

I shared Tricia’s story because I think every solid agile transformer has a similar revelation in their background. Or at least they should.

The reason we’re passionate about agility is that:

  • It works;
  • It’s simple;
  • It’s balanced;
  • It puts your most valuable resource (people) first;
  • It emphasizes lean leadership skills;
  • It fosters experimentation, learning, and growth.

Ultimately, it delivers the goods better than any other method we’ve tried.

My colleague and friend Daniel Mezick is the creator and advocate for a transformation method called Open Space Agility.  One of the critical aspects of OSA is establishing an environment (Open Space) where individuals start the process of Inside Out transformation. That is, they need to begin understanding, reconciliation, and commitment to change from the inside. And they opt-in to the transformation.

While parts of your transformation strategy might include top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out, please don’t forget about Inside Out!

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

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