The company’s leadership is keenly aware that to stay ahead in the game, they need to be able to respond more rapidly to changing customer needs. “We are committed to a full agile transformation” is the mantra. They hire us to help them in this process. My assignment is to support a small innovation unit at corporate headquarters in New York City to strengthen the agile mindset and ways of working.
I learn that the unit consists of seven people and is tasked with launching new products on the market. To this end, the unit has to coordinate heavily with counterparts across the organization, including branding, marketing, production and supply. Most members of the unit were recruited into the company recently. Some came fresh from business school.
Challenges – moving beyond agile terminology
When I do my Gemba Walk, a concept borrowed from Lean Manufacturing to observe the way the “floor” operates, I notice that the unit makes extensive use of the agile lexicon. I receive a flurry of emails and invites that mention sprint planning, stand-ups and reviews. The unit lead also proudly showed me a book, ‘Scrum’. She says, “Everyone here read this book”.
I find out that the unit operates in two-week sprints, for which it uses an online platform – more of a monthly planner than an agile tool – and that it plans daily stand-ups and bi-weekly reviews. Although the unit lead is committed to the agile process, nobody seems very excited.
Members of the unit grumble that “they don’t know what is expected of them”, that “the [Agile] theory doesn’t work here” and that “nobody shows up for the different ceremonies”. The unit lead also weighs in: “I spent all my time managing these teams”, and “they are too preoccupied with preparing for leadership briefings to focus on the sprint goals”.
I identify the following challenges:
No teams: The innovation unit is made up of seven people, but it is not a team. Rather, the unit is made up of individuals or pairs that are each a “team” tasked with launching products. They coordinate with (remote) counterparts across the organization. But these other team members and stakeholders do not participate in the sprint planning, stand-ups or review.
No empowerment: The unit lead is actively involved with every meeting of all teams. As a result, the teams are not self-organizing and stand-ups are de facto status updates by unit members to the manager. The teams also spend a lot of time to update senior management through prepared slide decks, which is separate from the review but happens bi-weekly as well.
No agile: The teams use agile terminologies but do not have clarity on the roles of product owner, scrum master and key stakeholders. Although the team works in two-week sprints, it follows mostly a ‘waterfall’ approach to project implementation. There is no end-to-end delivery of ‘working products’ at the end of each sprint, and the customer is not central to their efforts.
Realizing the potential of team-based innovation
I learned that the current situation is slowing teams down, undermining motivation and preventing cooperation with other parts of the organization. With this knowledge, I decide to tackle these challenges on three levels:
Leadership: A big challenge for the teams is that their counterparts across the organization do not have the time or mandate to be part of the team. I propose a briefing to senior leadership on what is required for agile and agile leadership. This helps pave the way for the different function heads to allow their people to actually commit to be part of agile teams.
Management: There is no clarity of agile roles nor a proper implementation of agile ceremonies within the innovation unit. I propose that the unit lead empowers the teams to manage their ceremonies themselves, that product owners and scrum masters are assigned, and that she transforms her role to that of a product manager (supporting the product owners).
Teams: Even though teams in the innovation unit are using agile terms, they lack understanding of each ceremony or the skills to take on the role of product owner or scrum master. I propose to provide training to address these gaps, introduce the retrospective, and coach the teams through the first several sprints to optimize the agile process.
After two months with the company, significant strides have been made. Although it has only been a first step, leadership has put agile on the agenda, management has clarified roles and designated product owners and scrum masters for specialty training, and the teams have vastly improved their agile mindset and ways of working.
But what contribution to the company makes me most proud? I gave them daily feedback on their product!