Organisational Alignment - Top Down

Last time we looked at the bottom up pattern. Today we'll look at its inverse - the top down pattern. In this case, the top levels of the organisation want agile but the levels below them are resisting (again, if they aren't... great, but that's a different pattern). This can be a tricky pattern as senior execs may want agile but often don't know much about what it is and what it means for their organisation. With most agile adoptions, you need to spend a lot of time educating your detractors, with this pattern you may need to spend as much time educating your supporters as well.

They probably see agile as a delivery methodology and expect it to be implemented that way. They don't see it as a major cultural change at all levels (including theirs). Tread carefully. Don't lose them. It's very easy to go in too hard, making it seem like too big a change too quickly. Senior managers got where they are by successfully managing risk. They tend to be quite risk averse. They will want to see a strategy that manages organisational risk during the transition.

The trick with this pattern is to work out how far down in the organisation the resistance goes. Is it middle management and the delivery teams? Or are the delivery teams supportive and the blockage is in the "frozen middle". If it's the latter, you can work top down and bottom up which makes you life much easier. Use your successes with the delivery teams and the influence of your senior supporters to unfreeze the middle.

Often middle management are frozen due to pressure from above to deliver. They probably have KPIs based on waterfall measures that their bonuses depend on. They have established power structures and relationships based on old ways of doing things. Fortunately, these can be fixed with the help of senior management. Get the KPIs aligned to agile measures. Work with senior management to minimise the threat to bonuses and power structures.

Work from below as well in the same way you do for a bottom up alignment - start small where you do have middle management support and get quick wins. Use those (with support from above) to bring more middle management on side.

If the resistance goes deeper though, right down to the dev teams, then you have a much bigger problem. Although dev teams are often the first to jump on board with agile, in some organisations, the dev culture can be quite stagnant and resistant to change - "we've been doing it this way for 20 years... why change?". This is particularly true of organisations with a lot of complex legacy infrastructure.

If you have resistance right the way down, you really have your work cut out for you. Find the point of least resistance - a dev team that is supportive - and use that as an example to get the rest of the organisation unstuck (with lots of help from above). Or a middle manager who is supportive and use that support as a way to get their teams moving. If there isn't a point of least resistance you may need to create one. Use your management support to build an agile capability. Pick supportive people from around the organisation and move them into your new agile capability. Hire in talent if necessary.

You can try introducing individual practices one at a time to minimise change - try a fortnightly retrospective first. Then maybe a VMB, then a stand-up and so on. Let the teams see the benefits of the practices then introduce more.

Again, use your senior management influence to unblock the middle. Get agile KPIs in place. make bonuses dependent on organisational ability. Get the middle unfrozen.

Top down gives you a powerful lever. A stuck organisation is a formidable obstacle though. Even with a powerful lever it's too big to move in one piece so apply your lever strategically. Get one piece moving and the rest may move more easily. Try to get more of the organisation aligned.

Your biggest risk though, in a top down transition, is losing your executive support. Keep those folks on side. Give them wins. Show them the benefits. Educate them on agile. Actually, at exec level you are often better off talking about lean rather than agile. Lean is in business language. Agile was born from development and has a lot of development language in it. I tend to pitch to executives using lean and position agile as the way we implement lean within IT delivery.

So We've covered top down and bottom up. What happens if its middle management that's pushing for change? That's the middle out pattern and we'll look at that next time.