Organisational Alignment - Bottom Up

Today I'll start looking at organisational alignment patterns. The first thing I should do is explain what the heck I mean by that. In this context, organisational alignment is which parts of the organisation are supporting an agile adoption. This is a really key thing to know because where the support for agile is coming from will seriously affect how agile can be introduced, how far it can go before it meets resistance, the type of resistance it can meet and so on. Having worked as a coach in a number of companies, I have found that organisations tend to align around agile in a number of fairly standard ways. I call these standard ways alignment patterns. There are two dimensions to an alignment pattern - vertical (which layers of the business are aligned) and horizontal (which parts of the business are aligned).

If you can pick which alignment pattern you are dealing with, that gives you some insight into the sorts of issues you will experience when managing an agile transition. Knowing your alignment pattern lets you pick the right adoption pattern to get the best success. Essentially, different alignment patterns work well with certain adoption patterns while blocking others. Pick the adoption pattern that matches your alignment pattern and things will go smoother than picking one that is incompatible. Or if you want to use a particular adoption pattern but it's incompatible with the current alignment pattern, then you may need to change the organisational alignment before proceeding. Anyway. I'll talk more about this mixing of patterns later. First I'll start by describing the basic alignment patterns, starting with the most common - the bottom up pattern.

Bottom up is on the vertical dimension and it's really simple - the folks at the bottom of the organisation want to go agile but management is resisting. This is a really common situation. The dev teams know about agile, they may have used it in other organisations, they may have learned it at university, they know the benefits and want to apply them to their work in this organisation. Management, though, are reluctant (if they aren't - great... but that's a different pattern which I'll cover later).

In an organisation with bottom up alignment, agile is usually very easy to get started at the team level (in fact individual teams may already be using agile and just not telling anyone) but very hard to expand beyond that. It's also very hard to keep agile going as it's continually causing friction with the rest of the organisation. All organisations have a built-in immune system that tries to eliminate things that challenge the status quo. This is a particular problem with bottom up adoptions.

To work successfully in a bottom up environment, it's really important to pick your battles well. The organisational immune system will be fighting back all the time and it's much stronger than you are. A purist approach won't work here, you will need to be pragmatic. Pick key battles that you know you can win. Accommodate the organisation on the rest. This may well make you do things that make you cringe (Gantt charts for an agile project anyone?) but persevere.

Start at the team level. Pick the right place to start. Build quick successes. Don't even think about scaling beyond maybe a couple of teams. Get the teams running well. Build up technical practices. The organisation will see benefit from this. Publicise the benefits as widely as you can. Win management over. Even if it's just one small area.

It's often a good idea to start small. Pick one area which is an easy win, preferably with sympathetic (or at least not outrightly hostile) management and focus your efforts there. Better to have one small area that does an amazing job that lots of little pockets of ho-hum success scattered everywhere. This is a win with management in that area as well. They get to brag to other managers about how great their part of the business is running. That will go a long way towards winning the rest of management over.

If you can win management over you have just changed the organisational alignment and a whole bunch of options open up for you.