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I want to build a SWAT team for agile transformation


This last year, I was deep into agile transformation in an organisation as an agile coach. On the eve of my handover, I had realised that much has been done and yet much more to be done. When I surveyed my body of work, I had also realised that the transformation had taken a direction with my background in organisation structure and human resources. And I was keenly aware that I had not been able to reach deep pockets of agility in other areas outside of my specialisation. It has been a while now since I talked about a SWAT team. On retrospection of my work, I knew that this is what I want to do going forward. Build a SWAT team for agile transformation. A special weapons and tactics team focusing on helping organisation be agile.

Let’s assume I don’t have to reiterate the benefits of agility. So many people have done that. But in case of any doubt, let me summarise by saying, there is no technology or business agility. An agile organisation that has a strong learning quotient to learn from the market and react accordingly cannot be agile in 1 area and completely lagging in another. That will be like saying, I need a strong right arm and the rest of my body can be waning. Physically, I am not possible you have isolate a part of the body to be strong while the rest is weak and lethargic. So I go back to systemic change and change that impacts all level. And this is why I think 1 person can’t do it all and neither can 1 type of person.

In Europe, I’ve often seen and was part of the agile community formed by individuals. Most agile coaches are independent and operate independently. That or they were engaged in-house as part of a group of agile coaches. There were various models of engagement and I had also experienced them myself. One time, I was hired as an independent change consultant, another, I was hired as a scrum master / agile coach. Some of the people I knew were hired as agile coach to coach a few teams, others as trainers. Often what I see (not always) is a fragmented market of demand and hence a fragmented market of supply. And the type of demand changes from medium to large organisations. The small companies are usually inherently agile and lean from entrepreneurial background. For medium to large companies, sometimes scaled agile is used to create some order in process.

In Asia, I have started to see some similar trends. Companies look for agile coach, trainers, scrum master / agile coach. Before I generalise further, I think I can say that there is a growing trend towards adopting agile. (For good or bad reasons.)

So what has all these got to do with SWAT?

Let me first lay out a few common observations and challenges to overcome in an organisation that is starting to think about agility.

  •  Business Cases – There is usually an investment accountability process for any product release. This means long research and requirement writing to finalise a strong business case for investment and a funding process that follows.
  • Project / Phase Approach – Large requirements are broken down into phases for delivery and usually, there is no respiration period to learn from the market if they were playing catch up. And teams delivery each phase can be made up of different people.
  • Silo Functional Organisation – In a project or product delivery, the people writing the business case, detailing the requirement and then explaining to technology team are independent functions not belonging to the same group. And there is hands off in the process.
  • Large and Non Stable Teams – Each silo function is probably a large group of people (over 10). For delivery groups, it is a large group of people gathered together for 1 project and they may or may not work on the next project together.
  • Lean and Cost Saving Infrastructure – Development environment is shared and there is no or little automation to handle multiple releases and shorter development cycles.

So it is not uncommon when a company thinks about trying agile, they use a project as a test bed and hire an agile coach to coach this project to see how that works. And then the next project and then the next. It would be ok but usually with a systemic environment that is not conducive, the initial team that experienced success will probably hit a break wall very soon. And when teams are formed for a project, the team building is gone to waste when they join other project teams and work with new people.

For an organisation convinced and committed to transform itself, I think it requires a pace that allows for sustainable momentum of change. But there is an initial stage of transformation that will be institutional followed by sustainable pace. That is when I think we need a SWAT team.

And these are the special weapons and tactics that will be needed in different order and combination of sequences. And it will be a tall order to expect an agile coach to embody all of these to help an organisation transform. And a team works together to focus on these areas to achieve the initial transformation before going into a sustainable mode.

Organisation Design Change

Teams have to be formed to create stable and dedicated teams. In existing context, this is not easy as each person can be involved in 2-3 projects that can finish at different times. They will need to be transitioned to form teams to start working together. Some of these roles may not even exist in the organisation chart and incumbent HR may not be able to support the creation of these profiles let alone the hiring of these people.

In tight labour markets and where labour laws are strict with strong unions, attrition, work contracts are common issues during this transition. Acquisition of external skills will also be difficult in particular skills area. In response, the design will have to have elements of transitioning, skills upgrading and development.

Product Driven Change

Where projects govern the way things are delivered, products thinking will have to take over to make way for stronger product integrity and innovation. Product driven thinking will mean a stronger focus on product performance and delivery where most valued. It will also require stronger design thinking to ensure products can be delivered incrementally in response to value driven in each delivery. To achieve the “cheaper” in a “faster and cheaper” agile delivery, it has to do with doing less and delivery more value to customers. Targeted delivery ensures each delivery enhances the product in a way the customer desires. And when objectives are achieved, stop developing the that area to focus on other areas of value. But this means better business domain knowledge, stronger design thinking and focus on innovation and market response.

Process Change

A waterfall or handoff type of process can be entrenched in the decision making process. For this to change towards agility without losing accountability will require process change to review both. When we lose the long business case and requirement gathering stage in place of agile delivery to build-test-learn from the market place, we need a different process of communicating requirements and account for investment. Often, this also means a process of “testing” and “learning” that may not be in place or as strong as the “building” and releasing process. Without it, the organisation will only be releasing in shorter spurts of time that may not also end up to be more expensive to support these frequent release.

Budgeting & Financing Change

Budgeting and financing is an integral part of process change but deserves a space on its own especially in large public organisations with stakeholders and shareholders to answer for. Inherent in any agile delivery is a shorter decision making cycle coupled with shorter release cycles so the over response to the market is shorter. Traditional funding and budgeting model is anything but short as it calls for scrutiny in investments and upfront accountability to ensure the money spent will deliver the said outcome. To move away from upfront promise to outcome driven accountability, the budgeting and financing process will have to be continuous and more frequent, as many as the release cycles intended.

Engineering Change

To respond to agile delivery, the engineering practice will have to change. Shorter delivery cycles requires teams to work at a sustainable pace but consistent. To ensure quality development that can be released “any time”, test driven development practices, test automation, code quality will have to meet those standards among others. In a longer release cycle, teams can handle a sudden surge of activities near release date where late nights ensued and adrenaline pumps high. With regular but shorter release cycles, the quality will have to ensure releases are smooth and each release doesn’t become a mayhem but just a regular exercise.

Infrastructure Change

There is almost always a need to change infrastructure to support agility. This can mean creating possibilities of automation to support the releases, newer technologies and transition to these technologies. It can mean cloud, different supporting systems and many more. (And this is where I am lost.)

So you see, I can’t do it all. I am your organisation design change and process change person. And I wished I had a design thinking person, a devops person, an XP person and a beyond budgeting person to come together and form a SWAT team.

In my dream, my team will study the state of the organisation and chain up the changes so each organisation design change is hooked up to the right process change and the right engineering change and etc. And each change is dosed at the right amount for that organisation to create the different layers of transformation. And we will work at the leadership level to create systemic change to the environment so the teams can work in a fail fast fail safe environment while delivering products they and customers love.

And the SWAT team will only apply our expertise where required for the areas required for “just in time” change. While one organisation is going through transformation, another organisation can be sustaining change. And the SWAT team can be an agile coach for those sustaining change and come together to SWAT through a transformation. And the SWAT team is stable, we know our strengths and we cover for each other when we are applied. We have all the ego in the world and yet none with each other. We push each other to be better. We fight, we work, we build. We are the best together and can stand on our own. (Now, I’m getting really idealistic.)

It changes nothing. It changes everything. I want to build an agile transformation SWAT team.

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