You may find many reasons why several Agile transformations fail, but one is more than a cause—it’s a precondition: top management buy-in. Without full support from your company’s leadership, no Agile implementation can thrive.
The million-dollar question is how can you convince the top level to support your agile initiative?
In our dream world, an Agile transformation kicks off after management realizes a massive change must happen. Sadly, that mainly occurs in our dreams. Most transformations I’ve seen happen either bottom-up or with mid-level management, and the challenge is convincing the C-level to work differently than they are used to.
I wouldn’t dare promise a recipe to get buy-in from your management, but I’ve learned some techniques that helped me during my journey. And I’d like to share them with you.
Bring the Costs to the Table
First and foremost, do you know why leadership is resistant to a real Agile transformation? From my experience, they think Agile is more expensive than a traditional approach. They believe teams can work more efficiently if they have clear directions. Also, they are often skeptical that teams are ready to make decisions without approval from senior management.
One way of helping them see things differently is showing them the costs of the current approach. One of my approaches is making the status quo clear and correcting misconceptions:
- Cost of significant failures: Traditional companies make few bets with high investments. Many of them will fail and lose a lot of money. Bring historical failures to your leadership and explain how these could have been avoided with Agile by validating the hypothesis before implementing a complete solution.
- Too many meetings: Management tends to perceive Scrum as a meeting-heavy framework, which they believe is highly inefficient; they want developers to code, designers to design, and so on. You can relate what happens when teams don’t prepare for the challenge ahead of them. For example, without refinement sessions, you have confusion on your hands; without retrospectives, teams miss chances to evolve and become stronger.
- Exhaustive approval process: When management doesn't renounce control, it means you need to get approval for any change you encounter. This scenario slows the team down and causes inefficiency. Potentially, you miss opportunities and demotivate team members. It’s more encouraging for them to ignore their learnings than go through a bureaucratic change process.
After walking the leadership through the status quo, I encourage asking questions that lead to a negative answer. This will open up the conversation. Here are some examples:
- Do you want to continue losing a lot of money because we make big bets instead of investing time into learning?
- Do you think our teams should burn out and leave the company because we don’t give them space to reflect and address problems?
- Do you want to slow down our teams because they need to justify any required change to senior management?
Generally, the conversation warms up when I ask such questions. Let me help you continue with the second part.
Make the Consequences Clear
A secret to getting top management to listen to you is to trigger a feeling of loss prevention. That’s why I suggested you start the conversation by analyzing the status quo and losses and getting them to say “no” to your questions. After that, it’s time to get them to understand the consequences of not being Agile. The most relevant ones I observe are:
- High turnover: In traditional companies, employee turnover is generally higher than in a truly Agile company. The reason is simple—people experience ownership and accountability with Agile, creating commitment.
- Demotivation: Without decision power, the team follows orders. This approach is demotivating because people feel their ideas are ignored. With time, they stop doing their best at work because they don’t feel heard and lose their sense of purpose.
- Blame game: If an initiative fails, somebody else gets the blame, and employees behave as victims. They won’t try changing the situation because they don’t feel accountable for it.
- Nine to five: People come to work for a paycheck. They won’t go the extra mile. Every day is more or less the same—come to work, get some things done, others don’t, and everyone only wants to get to five o’clock and call it a day. The work might be OK, but it’s not inspiring.
Once you make the consequences crystal clear, you can expect leadership to at least be open to listening to you. They would potentially want to know how to improve the scenario. Then, it’s time for you to shine.
Why Agile or - What does it mean to be Agile?
Key benefits of Agile
Do you know how to answer this question? It took me several years to understand the essence of Agile. For me, the three main points are:
- Speed up the learning
- Deliver value sooner
- Embrace change
No matter the framework you use, these three aspects should be present in the team. Otherwise, you’re missing the point. However, these points aren’t enough to get buy-in from leadership. You need to make clear the results they can expect from a transformation. Here are the ones I experienced:
- Reduced overall losses: Agile encourages frequent small bets and continuously inspects and adapts. You will still fail and experience losses, but it won’t be comparable to a waterfall approach.
- Stable value: The team will deliver value at a steady pace, as often as possible, for the business and end-user. This is made possible due to a solid discovery process that accelerates the learning time and helps the team reorient itself.
- Commitment: Team members present a high level of responsibility because they feel accountable for the solution. When you have a say in your work, you will give your best to ensure the results you promised.
- Low turnover: When team members feel their opinion counts, work becomes fun. People stay in a place where they feel they belong; if they feel valued and appreciated, they will probably not search for a new job.
After helping your leadership understand the key benefits of Agile, you need to get them to commit to the next step, but you have to be careful. Top management is generally against dramatic changes, so don’t try to convince them to make a big bang change. You will potentially be unsuccessful with that. However, results can increase their confidence. I recommend encouraging them to make an end-to-end trial with one team.
After this conversation, suggest top management start working differently with one team only. Ask them to name a goal to reach, and be accountable for making it happen. If you succeed, they will potentially allow you to continue, step by step, with more teams.
The secret is meeting management one step ahead and bringing them on a step-by-step journey. Don’t overwhelm them; help them benefit from small achievements.
Key Ingredients of Successful Agile Implementations
After more than a decade of working with Agile, I learned that setting solid foundations is vital for thriving. Patience is essential.
Eventually, you may think you’re moving too slow and start hurrying up; that’s often when the transformation fails. Here are the required foundations I identified:
- Leadership buy-in: It’s mandatory to have full support from the company's highest level. Without that, you will fail.
- Goal orientation: Agile teams cannot succeed if they receive prescriptive roadmaps. Successful teams pursue goals instead of following plans.
- Empower teams: Agile teams must be empowered to make decisions. Leadership leads by context and does not require approval from teams’ decisions.
- Remove dependencies: Teams cannot scale with dependencies. Ensure teams have end-to-end responsibilities. Some dependencies may be inevitable, but treat that as an exception and not the norm.
- Prioritize learning: Investing time to validate assumptions is mandatory for success. Ensure the team acts based on learnings instead of opinions.
Successful Agile transformations don’t happen in a day. It takes years to master.