Agile Leaders: “The organizational structure, stupid”


This quote recently came to mind while working with a leadership team when they asked:

“We have 24 teams working with agile and scrum. We saw some improvements initially, but now they are at a plateau. And some are slipping backwards.
WHY ARE THEY NOT IMPROVING?" 

I responded with:

“What have you done to the organizational structure to support the teams?"

I left the “stupid” off. (We don't use that word in our house :) )


The room went silent...


Organizational Leaders: If I have one thing for you, please understand that when you commit to agile to build products and high performing teams, it is mandatory you address the structural deficiencies of your organization. 


What do we define as structural deficiencies? Common examples include:

  • Organizational silos where multiple teams must work together to get one piece of work to "done" (a.k.a in the hands of your customer)

  • Business units with competing and contradictory goals

  • Local specialization of functions such as Business Analysts, Marketing, Design, Database Analysts, Software Engineers, etc.

  • "The Business" and IT in separate buildings or geographic locations

We believe that your (scrum) teams will outperform your current organizational structure within 6 months. Now it is your responsibility to make the tough choices on how to evolve the structure of your organization in order to speed up your teams even more.


This will suck! People’s jobs are going to change. Their organizational authority will adjust. Their number of direct reports will change. Their bonus structure will change. Their path up the leadership ladder will change. Welcome to business in 2020!


BUT if you are truly serving your customer by providing them with the best product, you will be making all of these changes for the right reason. 

And in my experience, the actual amount of disappointed employees are much smaller than anticipated:

  • Some are excited to have an opportunity to have a broader impact to the organization

  • Some are excited to be closer to the customer

  • Some are excited not to have to manage other human beings anymore

  • Some are excited to do a new individual contributor job (and get paid to learn a new skill)

Others will not. And then you have to do another tough leadership job:

  • Provide appropriate time and mentoring to help people through the change and see if they will “self-select” into the new organizational structure

  • Provide a clear path for training and upskilling to fit into the new organization’s structure

  • Or, thank them for their valuable contributions and provide them a generous severance package and outplacement services.

Not everybody is going to make it through this change. As an agile leader you will do everything in your power to make it good for everybody, but it is unrealistic. 

Sometimes serving your employees means having to let them move onto another opportunity.

In addition, as you make these organizational structure changes you will see your culture change for the better too. People will have clearer focus, priorities, and outcomes that are challenging and rewarding.  


@CraigLarman in Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior #4 observes that: 

“Culture follows structure”.

Stop thinking that just because you have created some agile teams that you are now "agile". That is only the beginning. The hard work comes from the Leaders of the organization and the decisions they make to create an organizational structure that removes limits for agile teams. 


Agile Leaders don't allow the organizational structure to be the obstacle in the agile team's way.


Have a valuable week!


Thomas (Tom) Auld is a Product Owner and Enterprise Agile Coach. Since 2006 he has been part of agile transformations resulting in over $400MM of value created (and counting). Tom is featured in @JJ Sutherland's new book: "The Scrum Fieldbook: A Master Class on Accelerating Performance, Getting Results, and Defining the Future". Amazon's #1 New Release in Organizational Change.


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