Paths of Agile Adoption and Middle Management’s Role

Agile has definitely crossed the so called “chasm of adoption” on the life cycle adoption curve and is becoming a mainstream work practice not just in IT but as well in other areas of organisations and even sometimes in private endeavors of employees. While smaller companies and start-ups have been early adopters of agile, now medium to large IT organisations have to find a systematic approach on how to integrate agile work practices into their operations without major interruptions, since internal and external customers start to expect the level of flexibility and involvement that comes with agile. Since moving to agile work practices is a paradigm change in terms or organizing and managing work, it is not a simple and straight forward task to get it right and not cause major disruption on the ongoing operations.

Articles about agile adoption usually focus on the question whether the adoption path is bottom-up vs top-down, but there is a second dimension to it and that is the dimension of organisational capability to deal with rapid change. This capability ranges from rigid to very flexible and is often driven by both the industry or the sector the organisation is operating in and it’s business culture. The combination of both dimensions in a binary grid identifies four core adoption paths for agile:

Slide1

  • Scenario A – Bottom-up in a rigid framework: Scenario A is a difficult, but quite common situation, where a successful adoption depends on the operational agile groups to deliver quick agile wins to convince middle management and later senior management to support agile adoption. The success of this path depends on the operational level reaching up fast and forcefully enough to senior level to communicate its successes and to get buy in to adopt agile and break the inertia of the organisation.
  • Scenario B – Bottom-up in a very flexible framework: Scenario B is an unusual scenario. As in scenario A the adoption starts with the operational organisation pushing for agile, but not to break the organisations inertia, but to protect themselves from the organisations extreme flexibility and ever-changing short-term priorities of its senior management. Though agile requires a very flexible mind set, successful agile depends as well on strict and relentless focus on process discipline. An example of this process discipline is the adherence to not allowing any scope change during an ongoing scrum sprint, unless the scrum explicitly agrees to the change. In essence agile is used by the operational level of the organisation to structure and “tame” its senior management down to a manageable level of change. In order to have senior management accept and support agile the operational level has to demonstrate is advantages in terms of delivery reliability and increased performance.
  • Scenario C – Top-down in a rigid framework: Scenario C is a very difficult adoption path usually triggered by an external event or market shift. This trigger event convinces senior management that a major shift in its organisations’ approach to organisational agility is essential to its survival. Agile adoption has to be pushed down through all levels of the organisation which requires major organisational effort. Unless senior management can make a very convincing and sustained case for the change to agile, this adoption path will be a very difficult one to follow and succeed.
  • Scenario D – Top-down in a very flexible framework: Scenario D is actually a relatively easy path with a high probability of success, where senior management pushes for organisational agility and it is being received with open arms by the operational levels of the organisation, since they are already acting in a very flexible way. Agile adoption is just structuring, channeling and augmenting present flexible work practices into a coherent agile management and engineering framework across the organisation.

Actually there is scenario E, which is a combination of scenario A and C (or B and D), where pockets of agile practices have emerged on the operational levels while at the same time senior management is forced to consider resetting the organisation’s approach to agility to be more flexible due to a significant shift in the strategic landscape which require the organisation to increase its organisational agility rapidly or they will suffer severe consequences in the market. The success in such a situation depends on the senior management recognizing and leveraging the pockets of agile adoption to turn the whole organisation. At the same time the pockets of agility have to push hard upward and around middle management to reach senior management to get noticed and supported. Once the connection is made and senior management is on the record supporting agile transformation, there is a good chance to adopt agile successfully. CSC has seen this scenario playing out in some of its organisations.

Slide2

In all scenarios rate of agile adoption depends very much on the middle management being the catalyst for the information flow bottom-up and/or top-down. If the middle management is not working as a communication catalyst, then in every scenario mentioned above, the likelihood of success is severely diminished. Several factors influence middle management capability to support the information flow regarding agile:

  • Basic knowledge of agile, its advantages but as well its’ limitations and requirements
  • Clear understanding the consequences of agile for the triple constraint prioritization and contract structuring
  • Performance appraisal and bonus system aligned with agile goals and practices and not running counter to that (this includes performance targets for procurement not tied to pushing for lowest-cost fixed price contracts above anything else)
  • Consistent messaging from senior management to middle management in words and deeds which are in line with the agile framework

The first two points are relatively easy to achieve, while the other two points take time, patience and quite some senior management support to be implemented. If these four points are in place, then there is a high likelihood of middle management supporting agile adoption and making it successful for the organisation. Without them being in place it will be very difficult to have a success on an organizational level with implementing agile.

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