Effective Executive Sponsors for Agile are a rare breed.
In the VersionOne 11th Annual State of Agile Report 2017 the importance of Executive Sponsors is highlighted both to the success of scaling Agile and to mitigate challenges.
This importance has grown dramatically over the last five years as Agile transformations have moved past the realms of just changing teams, projects and even programs and have expanded into the whole organisation stratosphere of transformation – trying to address the problems of governance, finance, HR and leadership within the enterprise.
I’ve seen a vast number of Executive Sponsors over the years, some amazing and inspiring, others competent, and sadly a few who were dropped into the role (or used it for a launchpad to boost their career) who didn’t believe in Agile.
But what does a good Agile Executive Sponsor do?
They are a role model, with a vision, a growth mindset and willing to invest their time and reputation against making the tough calls and re-wiring the culture of the organisation. How does that translate to activities and behaviours on a day to day basis? Highly effective Agile Executive Sponsors will:
- Live and breath agile
- Set a vision and not stop talking about it
- Make the hard calls
- Give space for reflection, learning and improvement
- Stop starting and start finishing
- Go to the place of work, and
- Invest a considerable amount of their time to removing impediments.
Let’s look in more depth at these seven key activities and behaviours:
Practice what you preach
As an Agile Executive Sponsor, if you are asking teams and people to change their behaviours and activities, the first person that has to change is likely to be yourself. How much are you living the values of both the organisation and Agile? How often do you check yourself to ensure that you are living by those values? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you collaborate to get insight when making decisions or make decisions by yourself?
- Do you delegate decision authority down or make it centrally come to you?
- Is strategy defined collaboratively or defined by yourself?
- Are you seeking input on the strategy from a diverse set of people, regardless of hierarchy, or is it done by yourself and your immediate reporting line?
- Are you making yourself available to anyone in the organisation for feedback and insight or do you get insight only from your reporting line?
- Are you giving yourself time to reflect and improve or are you too busy to stop and think?
- Are you coaching and mentoring rather than advising and telling?
- Is your work, decisions and assumptions transparent to everyone or just limited to the people you have conversations with?
- Do you share information and encourage others to do so as well or you ask for reports to be made for you?
- Do you proactively seek the root cause of issues and look for patterns or you react and try to fix things as they arise?
- Do you see failure as a learning opportunity or do you remove trust on failure?
- Do you encourage simple, lightweight approaches to solve customer and business problems or do you ask for a plan before committing to trying anything?
- Do you treat all assumptions as hypotheses to be validated or encourage solutions to be built because you already know the problems?
- Do you ask for help or is everything on your shoulders?
If you answered “yes” to the left hand side of the questions then you are fast on your way to becoming an Agile Executive Sponsor who practices what they preach.
Activities (aligned to strategy of transformation)
- Are you having stand-ups?
- Are you attending showcases?
- Are you removing roadblocks raised to you?
- Are you participating in ceremonies that encourage continuous improvement and innovation?
- Is your plan flexible and adaptive as your discover new insights?
- Are you attending customer tests?
If you said ”yes” to these activities then you are setting up the environment around you to work in a more Agile manner.
Set and grow a clear vision
Agile Executive Sponsors don’t set a vision by themselves. They aggregate many people and many narratives to be able to understand the current state, the constraints in the system, the appetite for change and build a vision for the next state with these in mind. They set a very simple high level vision and focus on only the next or or two steps that need to be made immediately.
The vision isn’t just talked about once, it is re-iterated many times opportunistically through conversations and clarified when needed.
The vision isn’t set in stone but can adapt and change as both new information comes to hand and as experiments are run.
On a day to day basis the Agile Executive Sponsor seeks out narratives and stories by people which indicate that there is a misalignment on the vision and seeks to bring people together to re-establish connectivity to the vision.
Make the hard calls
This seems to be the most challenging of Agile Executive Sponsor capabilities. There is a paradox of behaviours and activities in conflict – on one hand as an Agile Leader you are encouraged to care deeply about people because you know that it is through highly engaged people that magic happens, and yet enterprise transformations call for a significant shift in capabilities and roles in the organisation. Some roles will remain unchanged, some roles will cease to exist, some roles will be consolidated and simplified and new roles may be created.
Making the hard calls may mean changing who remains in the organisation. It may mean having crucial conversations with senior leaders in very traditional parts of the organisation to shift their focus, to challenge their thinking and their behaviours. Your influencing skills have to be strong.
There will be winners and losers in an enterprise Agile transformation. This sounds rough, but it is a harsh reality. Not everyone is going to like what you are attempting to do, but whilst it will be hard there will be many people around you to support you, if you ask for help.
Create slack for reflection, learning and improvement
Changing an organisation from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset (also known as a learning organisation) doesn’t happen overnight. There is often an overwhelming pressure for delivery above all else. It is relentless, and in its wake learning and slack are the losers.
After making the hard calls, one of the biggest challenges for Agile Executive Sponsors and leaders is how to give space for reflection, learning and improvement. Here are the top tips for Agile Executive Sponsors to create slack:
- Don’t load up teams and people beyond 80% allocation. In Agile teams this is done through a technique that may not be immediately obvious – yesterday’s weather – where teams load up their planned velocity for an Iteration based on their previously achieved velocity. The hidden assumption in this is that the previous velocity takes into account unknowns and re-using that velocity will automatically build in slack for the Iteration. The reality is this tends to be true 50% of the time. Why 80%? Studies have shown that 80% gives enough space to handle unforeseen urgent items.
- Encourage goals that weight learning equal to delivery. KPIs are often unilaterally or predominantly focused on delivery – is it any wonder that learning tends to take a back seat to delivery when this occurs?
- Understand that working smarter rather than working harder will have an incremental payoff that will take time. As learning and improvement grows, capability will grow and teams will find better ways, quicker over time.
- Slack and introspection are as equally important to yourself as they are to Agile teams. With slack, people tend to think more creatively about problems which results in better solutions.
- Understand that personal change takes considerable time and re-enforcing of behaviours.
Stop starting (or restarting) and start finishing
One of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had with enterprise Agile transformations is the one where the vision, goals and activities of the transformation were continuously changing. Just as change was starting to happen the goal post moved again (and again).
It’s okay as an Agile Executive Sponsor to not get your vision right from day one, it’s okay to change and adapt the plan, but if all it turns into is talk with no change after a few months then there is a big issue with your transformation.
Agile Executive Sponsors get fearful that they have to do a change perfectly for everyone at once. Instead, focus on a small change through multiple experiments across multiple teams. Use this information to work out what changes work better and then amplify the patterns that are successful.
Agile Executive Sponsors also think they need to have lots of different work on the go – just like delivery teams, it is better to focus on getting the few changes done well than trying to do everything at once.
Go to the place of value (gemba)
In today’s age of distributed teams it seems to be a common excuse that leaders can’t go to their teams as they aren’t sitting together. If their teams reside in the same city it really is an excuse and one of the highest priorities of an Agile Executive Sponsor should be to move people and teams together.
Lean uses the term ‘Gemba’ to refer to the act of going to the place of work where value is created. Agile Executive Sponsors should make a constant effort to sit and move around the teams who are delivering work in order to gather insights on the challenges that teams and individuals face through overhearing conversations and being available for direct conversations.
But it isn’t enough to gather insights, highly effective Agile Executive Sponsors will follow through and solve these problems.
Removing issues that are either blocking teams or slowing teams down from delivering should be the primary day to day activity that Agile Executive Sponsors focus on. They will need to integrate all of the above six practices together in order to successfully achieve this. Start small and simply, getting some early runs on the board of solving issues. An Agile Executive Sponsor must be fully empowered by the CEO in order to achieve this, otherwise they are highly likely to fail in a system that is still heavily dependent on positional power to enact change.
This doesn’t mean that the Agile Executive Sponsor personally has to solve all the issues, rather they have the connections, pathways, influencing power and tenacity to follow through on delegated issues as they are raised across the organisation. The biggest challenge an Agile Executive Sponsor will face is that there will be so many issues how to best prioritise them – using both Agile techniques and insights gathered to prioritise.
Transformations take a long time, are fraught with many issues as adopting new changes is hard for everyone. Aside from performing these seven habits, Agile Executive Sponsors will need to have a tempered balance of both patience, resilience and tenacity. Too much patience and the transformation will stall, too much tenacity and the change will be fully rejected, too much resilience and people will be change fatigued.
In a few weeks we will take a look at Agile Leadership and see how the role of a Manager changes in an Agile organisation.
A note on enterprise transformations
I have seen some great Agile Executive Sponsors who started an transformation by not being very strategic or proactive and instead focusing the transformation in a one step at a time fashion. Primarily they did this for one of three reasons:
- They don’t have the authority to change elements outside of their boundary of influence
- There was limited organisational appetite at the C-Suite for an enterprise change
- There was limited understanding at the C-Suite about what an Agile Enterprise Transformation meant
These executives were highly successful in the areas that they championed the change in, but in all instances the change stalled and was limited in its effectiveness. As an approach, if one of the above three problems exists in the organisation it is highly likely that a such a champion does need to step up and perform a smaller scoped transformation so that insights can be gathered at the C-suite level before a wider scale change is endorsed.