Capability Building In Practice

Last time we looked at how to transform large organisations by building capability internally rather than buying capability externally. There are a lot of benefits to this approach. It's faster. It's cheaper. It's more effective. But it does fundamentally change the way an organisation sees its agile transformation program.

Most of the time, a traditional coach-led transformation program is set up to minimise the disruption to staff. Apart from some training and a new way of working (and maybe a slight blurring of strict job titles), the organisation sees its staff doing pretty much exactly the same thing they were doing before the change. Developers develop, testers test, they just do it in a new, agile way. With an internally-led transformation, this is not the case. A significant number of staff will be involved in this program for a long time. This will impact their day jobs. So the first rule of internally-led transformations is - give people time.

If the organisation wants to run a transformation this way, it needs to accept that a significant number of people, often some of the best people, will be working as agile champions and change agents for at least some of their time. They cannot be fully committed to their day jobs and be an agile champion on the side. They need the time to do the job properly. That might be 20% of their time, it might be 50%, it might be 100%, depending on the person, how many other champions there are and what stage of the transformation the organisation is at. If you don't give the champions the time to be champions this will not work.

Organisations do this with other change programs. Many of the large organisations I have worked for have six sigma programs with hundreds of black and green belts in the organisation operating as change agents with dedicated time to do it. But they never seem to do this for agile transformations. You need to treat this like any other large, internally driven change program and give your change agents time. They need to have being a change agent written into their KPIs so they aren't penalised for doing it. They need to have a charge code to book change agent time to. Use the money you would otherwise have spent on lots of coaches to provide a budget for your internal change agents. Give your change agents time to be change agents.

Also remember that the more change agents you have, the less time each of them will individually spend being a change agent. The more you have to share the load, the more time they can spend on their day jobs. It's counter intuitive but the more change agents you have, the less impact there will be on people's day jobs.

You also need to give your change agents support. The organisation and its senior leaders need to back them up, so when a stressed manager demands that a change agent stop being a change agent and focus 100% on their project, the change agent has someone in the organisation who can stand up for them. Otherwise everyone gets sucked straight back into business as usual and the change dies. You will need to look after the stressed manager as well. They have work to deliver and they are losing a chunk of time from their best people. You may need to adjust timelines or re-allocate people to help make sure the work still gets done. This will impact the whole organisation - the organisation will need to adapt and make allowances.

There is also another fundamental change that needs to take place between the organisation's managers and their staff - the management needs to start listening to them. They are your change agents. They need to have their voices heard. It is a sad fact that in many large organisations, employees are seen as being capable of keeping the place running and doing their normal jobs but are incapable of any sort of innovative thinking. They can keep the wheels turning but that's all. Innovative thinking comes from external consultants, not from employees. A friend of mine who also works as an agile coach spent a long time putting together some training material for senior execs. When they went to arrange a test session, their management told them that the material was great but that they would have to get an external trainer in to present it because (paraphrasing slightly) "the executives will never listen to a staffer for this stuff, and especially not you". Apparently the presenter needed to be over 50, have grey hair, an American accent and be male to be worth listening to. My friend is conspicuously none of those things so apparently she isn't worth listening to, despite her years of experience and great talent. The years of experience and great talent that the organisation hired her for.

This really needs to change. You hire good people (you do, don't you?). You have a massive pool of talent within your organisation. Make use of it. If you don't have a massive pool of talent within your organisation, if you have been deliberately hiring dummies, then you need to take a good long look at your hiring policies before you go anywhere near an agile transformation. If you want internal change agents, you need to let them be change agents. You need to let them drive the change. That means listening to them and not relying on consultants to do all the thinking.

This is tremendously empowering for your people. The more the organisation listens to them and allows them to lead change, the more they will step up and drive the change. If people really are your greatest asset, here is a really good way to get the most out of that asset. Give your people a chance, they will surprise you.