The 5 Pillars of an Agile Change Initiative

Hi there,


there are many reasons for changing to Agile or Lean ways of working. Keeping up with the competitors, huge problems in quality or maybe even doing it right from the beginning?

One thing that good consultants will be able to tell you is: it’s not about the methodology that you choose. This can be a factor but won’t be key to success.

So what do you have to do, what is it you have to consider?

Pillars of Justice
Pillars of Justice – Hindrik Sijens – flickr

  1. Methodology
  2. All-level management support & understanding
  3. The right setup
  4. Honest Feedback culture
  5. Continuous Improvement

I call these the 5 pillars. But before we go into detail about them, I’ll first describe you what happens to many of the unsuccessful agile adoptions. They focus on methodology. And methodology only.

1. Methodology

Step 1 – Choosing

It normally all starts with certain pain points that need to be addressed.

  • Quality is not sufficient
  • Delivery speed is not high enough
  • Architecture is “broken” and the software no longer extensible
  • Projects take too long don’t get finished and cost too much
After that the next step often is to choose a “silver bullet” to solve the problem.
E.g. Scrum as the “new project management framework”. Which it is not. It’s an empirical process improvement framework in reality which is a completely different thing.
Now with the Silver Bullet in their hands next thing

Step 2 – Adjusting

Trying to fit the Methodology to the status quo.
Whatever feels uncomfortable will not be taken over in the new methodology, the parts that fit the current environment will be adapted.
In the Scrum environment that often leads to teams doing Daily Scrums but no Retrospectives.
And Testing + Reviews are done at the end of the sprint instead of continuously and automated. This is called Mini-Waterfalls.

Step 3 – Depression

Partial or complete failure. Putting blame on the Methodology as not fitting and not solving the problems.
Why is that a quite common scenario?
Is it because the wrong methodology was chosen?
Would XP be a better solution than Scrum?
Isn’t Kanban much better than Scrum in certain situations?

Systems thinking is needed

Whatever methodology you choose, if you don’t address the pain points that brought you to your change initiative it will be fruitless.
This typically requires systems thinking:
  • looking at the big picture
  • visualising what is going on for the whole and it’s parts
  • fixing structural problems
  • having people who can see the whole instead of the small little cogwheels
  • e.g. identifying the testing problem and changing the whole testing approach
Methodologies alone are useless.
You might have heard the saying”a fool with a tool is still a fool”, this is similar.

2. Management support & understanding

This point is somehow obvious, since for any initiative you’ll basically need management’s support to get started. They need to provide budget to get Agile Coaching on board or simple give your team enough time to start learning on how to do Scrum and test automation.

But this is by far not enough to succeed.

Start by coaching the Management

The senior and middle management can be the single point of failure for any change initiative.
That’s why the change initiative should make management the engine of change.
First of all all levels of management need to understand how the future state should look like and why things will work better. They need to be the ones driving the change and working with their people, the Coaches should aim to educate them so that they’re enabled to do it.
This is not fast and it is not easy. Understanding concepts like Agile and Lean takes time and hard work. Reading books, working with it, participating in communities.
Nonetheless it’s essential. Someone who doesn’t understand or know the How and Why will inevitably take decisions that will block or negate the whole initiative.

Management Support

Now that the management is on board they can ensure:
  • Impediments that affect the whole organisation are worked on by upper management
  • structural changes that affect personell hierarchies can be done
  • that strategical decisions resulting out of insights gained in the change initiative will be better informed and faster

3. The right setup

Did you ever try to explain a concept like cross functional teams to someone that has either no clue of software development or worked in silos for 10-15 years? In either case it’s difficult. That’s why management needs to understand first how it can and should work. Only then will they support structural changes. And only if they know or learn what systems thinking is and how to apply it will they be able to take the right actions.
The organisation should be built around the value flow. Using tools like Value Stream Mapping and Kaizen Management will be able to change the structures where needed.
Changing organisational structure is a painful and costly process, which leads us to the next pillar.

4. Honest feedback culture

When organisations are changed to improve value flow this often results in roles or whole departments to get redundant. Especially for all people that are affected by this change it’s utterly important to get positive feedback and another role or position in case they are doing a good job.
And then there are those that didn’t really do a good job. It’s also important to be honest and transparent with those people, especially if there is no other role that they could fulfil in the new setup.
Let me give you an example to understand this better.
In Scrum a full team consists of Product Owner, Scrum Master and Team Members.
There are no hierarchies between the people. Everyone is equal.
Before you could have had a setup like: Product Manager, Project Manager, Team Lead, Developers, Testers. Product and Project Managers were telling others what to do, Developers were looking down to testers.
All the hierarchies and reporting lines that existed in the previous team setup will be eradicated with the introduction of Scrum.
This is especially important for all the middle management like Team Leads and Department Leads. They will need to be mentors and Servant Leaders in the new setup which is not compatible with a Command and Control mindset. So better be open and honest with them and go separate ways early instead of having them corrupt the change initiative. Identify and support all the Servant Leaders because those will help tremendously.
Which leads us to the most difficult and basically the only thing that will help you to succeed.

5. Continuous Improvement

Another word for Continous Improvement is Kaizen. This results out of Toyota Production System which was the start for the Lean movement.

Kaizen on Wikipedia: “When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, kaizen refers to activities that continually improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers.”

That’s exactly the idea.
  • Resolve problems immediately
  • Actively work to remove impediments
  • Never accept the status quo always strive to improve
  • built quality into all steps of the value chain
  • Aim for the impossible to achieve greatness
Not having a continuous improvement cycle will kill all change initiatives sooner or later.
It’s like doing Scrum without having Retrospectives. This is taking away the insights and learning part and makes it almost impossible to improve.
Combining all the pillars together leads you to this:
As you can see everything is building on each other and still the pyramid is upside down to visualise that continuous improvement is the key to success but won’t really work if you don’t have the rest.

In my experience Step 1 is done right by most companies.
Unfortunately Step 2-5 are barely executed by all those companies trying to get better.

Key to success is having all 5 Pillars in place or at least worked on. Any such initiative takes 2-5 or more years depending on the size of the company. If you’re struggling with getting any of the pillars in place get in touch with me or any of the other coaches of Oikosofy. You’ll find us at
A good start could be to attend the Scrum Master Toolbox webinar. This is done by my appreciated  partners Vasco Duarte and Luis Goncalves. (@duarte_vasco@lgoncalves1979)

If you liked this blog post please share it with your friends or colleagues who might be interested.
You can also follow me on Twitter @MrSnow76 to get updated when I publish new blog posts.

Thx for reading,
Sven Schnee aka MrSnow76

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