March 2017 | Point of View

The 6 essential pillars of a successful agile transformation


Today’s market requires companies to bring new capabilities that win the hearts and wallets of consumers faster than ever. The most successful companies will need to become more adaptable in all facets of their business to respond to evolutions in technology, consumer demands, workforce dynamics and regulatory requirements. In turn, this is elevating demand for agile development and agile practices.

Moving from waterfall to agile practices—or, more properly stated, creating an environment that can do both well and at the right time—is easier said than done. Many mature technology and business teams have stumbled in their effort to become agile—particularly when they focus more on technology than on the other changes involved. A recent study found that three of the top five causes for failed agile projects had nothing to do with agile development methods, but were rooted in unaddressed issues with governance, culture and leadership. While effective agile methods must remain at the core of any agile program, the truth is that agile evolution is as much about people and leadership as it is about technology.

This article outlines a framework of six “pillars” that are essential for the successful transformation toward agile. 

Chapter 1: The agile imperative

In today’s fast-paced market and digital economy, every company is trying to get to market faster, be more nimble, and meet customers’ needs better than competitors. Technology teams are increasingly challenged to respond to disruption and to discover new solutions that help their organizations remain relevant and survive—and preferably thrive. That’s where agile comes in.

Agile is a proven strategy for meeting customer needs, delivering products or services, and adapting business models in a smarter, faster, and better way. Underneath the broad agile umbrella, there are numerous methods and techniques: Scrum, Scaled Agile Framework and Enterprise Agile, to name just a few. While each methodology has its merits and will require adaptation to fit a particular organization, across all of these methods are several common tenets of success:

  • Satisfying the customer first and foremost

  • Welcoming change at every pass

  • Delivering frequently

  • Taking bias towards action and experimentation over planning and setting requirements

  • Understanding that requirements change when something is put in customers’ hands

  • Working together to achieve multi-disciplinary advantages and diverse thinking

  • Failing fast while building trust (succeeding faster through demos and pilots)

  • Reducing risks inherent in large projects (e.g., stalling, cost overruns, stagnation, etc.)

  • Always measuring progress and innovation

  • Celebrating simplicity for scale 

Agile methodologies become tools in the hands of the technology artists who can craft transcendent solutions that customers want, in a fraction of the time, and in ways previously thought impossible.

Chapter 2: The agile transformation challenge

What happens, though, when the desire to adopt an agile release cycle meets decades of entrenched corporate management processes?

For most organizations, the results are less than satisfying, and leave both senior leaders and agile practitioners deeply frustrated. 

One of the primary reasons that companies get stuck in the transition to agile is because the desired outcomes are not clearly identified. It feels like agile is a better approach, but early efforts aren’t meeting expectations. So, they revert back to old ways of working.

Consider the example of a software company with legacy products that require substantial effort to update, causing missed release dates. The organization wanted to re-architect the solution to better meet customer needs and had to change its development approach to apply agile practices to get there faster, with better results. Despite significant work to assign coaches and train on tools in preparation for the organizational changes required to use agile development successfully, the organization dove into a pilot project without proper clarity around desired outcomes or cultural change support for the project. After time, frustration, and excess costs, it reverted back to a waterfall approach.

A holistic approach to agile transformation includes identifying the proper stakeholders and defining desired outcomes of the pilot project itself, in addition to outcomes of the effort as a whole.

Chapter 3: Are you ready to be agile?

Fostering agility and sharpening focus on the customer can yield great results. But what does it really take to become an agile organization? It is not an overnight trip. It is not a 10-paragraph memo to the company outlining the change. Agile coaches can help with the day-to-day transitions, but they typically cannot drive holistic organizational and leadership change. Becoming agile is an evolutionary journey, and it can take a while—typically up to two years.

Companies shifting to agile should assess preparedness before embarking on an agile evolution. Some of the signs that an organization is ready may include:

  • A strong vision and values set from a compassionate and passionate leadership team—one that motivates and encourages learning, growth and collaboration
  • A compelling strategy that sets the right direction
  • An introspective and critical understanding of strengths and weaknesses relative to the agile transformation
  • A comprehensive and accurate inventory of tools, assets, and infrastructure
  • A deep and unwavering focus on the customer
  • A strong commitment to the organization’s most important assets—its people and talent 

This type of self-diagnostic exercise can help in building a roadmap with the essential elements for successful evolution. It can also be helpful for assessing progress along the journey and identifying where and when it is necessary to reroute. 

It is important to note that becoming agile doesn’t mean only being agile. Most organizations’ development needs are far too nuanced for that. Rather, becoming agile means finding the optimal balance between traditional and agile approaches—and using each one at the right time.

Chapter 4: An effective framework for guiding agile evolution

Every organization that has successfully introduced agile approaches started somewhere. We have found the following six “pillars” to be essential components of successful agile evolution.


“North Star” strategy.

A strategic, clearly defined customer “North Star” strategy is critical for agile success. The North Star gives direction to employees about what success looks like. After all, rapidly moving to a place that customers don’t care about defeats the purpose. To understand what a North Star looks like, consider Apple and Costco. Both companies deliver great experiences but do so in dramatically different ways. Costco’s warehouse, self-service style is almost opposite Apple’s modern stores and highly attentive staff and genius bar, yet both are successful because they have clearly defined their customer experience.

When defining your North Star strategy, companies should:

  • Articulate the desired experience explicitly
  • Give the strategy a purpose—inspire people with a vision that transcends the product or service and focuses on outcomes customers seek to achieve
  • Add customer perspectives to metrics through use of measures such as the Net Promoter® Score, or a customer effort index 

Governance and reporting.

Incorporating agile principles into existing organizations requires revisiting decades-old approaches to planning, resource management and budgeting. For most organizations, a bi-modal (or hybrid) delivery model that utilizes both waterfall and agile approaches is most effective. Some projects may not be good candidates for agile—for example, complex integrations that involve packaged or aging legacy systems.

The most important question leaders must answer first: In what parts of my organization do I want to leverage agile delivery methods, and to what extent? While criteria may differ by organization, having a clearly defined evaluation approach will guide use of the right methodology for the right projects, and greatly reduce delays.

Once the desired model and selection criteria is established, a hybrid organization needs to re- evaluate the way it governs and manages projects. An agile project requiring approval from multiple steering committees for any change will deeply frustrate an agile team. Conversely, launching an agile program without having leadership buy-in on reporting metrics can cause confusion and suspicion from management. Establishing new governance norms is key for both initiating and sustaining agile transformation. Aligning the operations of the business and IT in this new world is crucial for successful adoption and will greatly reduce the “spin” around measuring success in a bi-modal organization.

Organization design.

Agile transformation is a big cultural shift for any organization. It brings in exciting new ways of working, but it also requires letting go of old ways of working. Typically, it is not technology or principles that derail successful agile evolution, but rather outdated processes and policies, team structures, and reward structures that promote the wrong behaviors. Various change management methods and activities, grounded in organizational design principles, can support successful evolution from waterfall to agile approaches, including:

  • Workshops to define or clarify the organization’s vision and values for agile
  • Organizational alignment assessments to understand opportunities and challenges
  • Support for strengthening key competencies and providing opportunities for employees to upskill based on core capabilities of teams
  • Understanding of formal and informal organizational drivers 

Customer-focused agile processes.

The “Field of Dreams” model (if you build it, they will come) can be expensive and grossly inefficient if the end result fails to resonate with users—or, worse yet, if their needs and/or competitive offerings have evolved in the interim.

In today’s environment, customers have come to expect great service and experience, ease of use, fast (if not instantaneous) response, and reasonable pricing, regardless of industry. Utilities must think like retailers, insurance companies like entertainment companies, and so on. Delivering on customer expectations requires using a customer-centered design methodology. (For example, West Monroe uses an experience design methodology we call DEEPEN—Define, Empathize, Envision, Plan, ENact). Effectively engaging users in the design process increases adoption and reduces rework and overall cost, thus facilitating agile transformation.

This human-centered design process should come before selecting an appropriate agile methodology. The agile umbrella encompasses a number of methodologies – such as Kanban, Scrum, and Scrumban – that should be implemented based on business environment, type of projects, and team dynamics.

Agile methodologies do not prescribe engineering practices - they are technology-agnostic, and organizations may need to use more than one to be successful across the organization. The different methodologies can and have been adapted and applied to business groups producing anything from marketing campaigns to executive strategies. The key is when both business and technology groups are in sync and include end users, they can multiply the benefit and enable mutual adoption of agile approaches and lasting cultural change.

Infrastructure and tools.

Agile transformation requires a platform that is nimble and flexible, can scale-up or down quickly, can be provisioned or de-provisioned on-demand, and can provide the security that customers and regulations demand. This can be challenging, especially for established companies that have entrenched investments in traditional and aging infrastructure.

Data centers, storage solutions, and collaboration tools are increasingly expected to be “cloud-first” or “cloud-native.” Modernizing infrastructure will mean investing in new services, best-in-class security processes and toolsets, on-premises infrastructure, operations management and monitoring tools, and other areas.

Beyond changes to the technology infrastructure and tools, organizations are also collapsing some of the traditional silos that have historically separated network and storage engineers from software developers and digital teams. This is affecting the way these teams work, report and collaborate. Working across silos, stacks and segments to provide solutions for the customer is a new way of working for many digital and infrastructure teams, and it requires education and enablement.

Leadership engagement and change management.

Underpinning any transformation to agile is the persistent need for ongoing leadership engagement and change management. Leaders need to set an example by continuously communicating the strategic goals and tactical needs to make agile a successful effort in their enterprise. They cannot do this alone, however.

Leading an effective agile transformation requires a robust and reoccurring set of change management activities:

  • Just-in-time training for leaders and developers
  • Change champion networks
  • Regular change-readiness pulse checks and assessments
  • Innovation centers to encourage design thinking
  • “Day in the life” journey maps that help employees envision their “new day”
  • “Finish line” features that help teams understand what “done” looks like

Conclusion: Putting it into practice

An organization should be thinking about all six pillars as it plans for agile evolution. Keep in mind, this a journey and it is not usually necessary to have all pieces in place to move into the pilot phase. Realistically, not every step taken will be perfect and, the agile journey is never quite complete. But using a thoughtful, holistic approach to creating the proper pillars for success will help advance agile transformation in the long run. Start with understanding and assessing the organization’s capacity for continuous improvement, while making sure management remains engaged, updating reporting to reflect evolving agile metrics, and bringing together talent in your organization who can advance agile thinking and capabilities. And if you find your team starts to lose momentum or get off track, it’s worthwhile to refer back to the six pillars to understand if you are neglecting a critical area in creating lasting change and ability to adapt.

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