What is agile transformation?
Agile transformation sounds like what it means — it is the process of shifting an organization to agile ways of working. This means applying the philosophy behind agile software development to teamwork, collaboration, processes, and measurement. Broadly speaking, agile companies strive to be streamlined and efficient. They avoid rigid processes and minimize bureaucracy, silos, and delays. Cross-functional teams work incrementally and pivot based on customer feedback and business needs. The ultimate goal is to deliver value faster and improve customer experiences.
While agile is most commonly associated with software as a service (SaaS) organizations and development teams, adopting agile tenets can actually be useful for all types of teams and organizations — because flexibility, collaboration, and transparency benefit everyone. This is true whether or not your company offers a SaaS product.
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Sounds pretty great, right? Of course, applying agile methodologies and frameworks across an entire company can be more than a little challenging. The right path to delivering greater value and delighting customers will depend on several factors — your industry, the product you sell, organizational maturity, and team skill sets, just to name a few.
Companies that are able to tailor agile effectively to their unique situation can enjoy increased output, fewer inefficiencies, and higher team engagement. But "going agile" is not a cure-all — and it often means different things to different people in the organization. What a leader on the sales team may interpret when they hear about undergoing an agile transformation is likely different from what an engineer on the development team interprets. This guide is meant to cover agile in a way that is relevant to either perspective. Because no matter your role in the organization, it is important to come to a shared understanding of what agile transformation means, how it can benefit your organization, and the steps you can take to achieve it.
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What does it really mean to "go agile"?
Let's start with the confusion around "going agile." You have probably heard the phrase circulated in tech spaces, but its meaning often changes depending on who says it. And it may or may not indicate what some would consider a true agile transformation.
Imagine that an engineering team "goes agile." Typically, this refers to adopting agile or lean practices, such as self-organizing teams, time-boxed sprints, and kanban-like workflows. These practices certainly impact "how" you get work done — but can not fundamentally transform the organization or turn a struggling company or product into a successful one.
An agile transformation in its fullest sense takes deep investigation and collaboration across the organization. You must assess how you operate across functions, how you adapt to change, and how you serve customers at every touchpoint.
Transformation means considering the "why" and "what" of how teams choose and prioritize work, not just the "how" the work gets done.
You can think of a true agile transformation as company-wide, incremental changes across three key areas — digital, solution, and data.
Digital transformation — using technology to improve customer experiences.
Solution transformation — improving the way that products are sold or bundled to make it easier for customers to buy and use your product.
Data transformation — analyzing the market and customers, running tests to better understand customer needs, and using the results to make better decisions.
The three types of enterprise transformation are digital, solution, and data transformations.
But improving technology, solutions, and data analysis is not the end game. No matter how you describe the elements of an agile transformation, the overarching goal should be unequivocal: Improve the Complete Product Experience (CPE) that users have from discovering your product to purchasing to becoming loyal customers.
Who owns agile transformation?
Engineering is integral to digital, solution, and data transformations. For instance, the chief technology officer (CTO) and engineering leaders select the tools, platforms, and technology that the company uses. Engineering is closely involved in building how products are bundled and sold — working in close collaboration with finance, operations, and product teams. And to achieve a data transformation, the engineering team helps store, serve, and analyze data for the entire organization. Without these efforts, the organization simply cannot transform.
Agile transformation often starts with developers adopting agile frameworks (such as kanban, scrum, or the Scaled Agile Framework®) as a pilot project. If these teams see positive results, other groups may choose to apply agile more broadly.
But it would be short-sighted to position ownership on technology teams alone. In order to implement meaningful change, agile transformation must be embraced by executive leadership across the organization. You need to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve holistically and a roadmap for how you will communicate and roll out changes across people, processes, and technology.
What are the benefits of agile transformation?
Agile organizations commit to being responsive to customer needs and identifying opportunities to increase speed without sacrificing quality. So however you define agile in your organization, steer away from following any of its frameworks by rote. Instead, focus on the larger objectives — releasing new functionality to users faster, adapting to customer feedback more quickly, and delivering more value.
The company as a whole typically benefits from greater transparency, collaboration, and productivity, as well as less risk. But let's examine how those benefits might look for the agile development team specifically:
Priorities from product management are clearly documented and accessible. The team uses an agile development tool to visualize work in progress and track ownership, dependencies, and dates. Tools across the organization are integrated, so you can always see the status of cross-functional work that impacts your own.
You communicate frequently with product management as well as the broader cross-functional product team. Because a representative from engineering attends regular product team meetings, everyone is clear on scope, priorities, and the time frame for completion.
Breaking work into sprints or short iterations helps you release new functionality faster. Whether your development team practices scrum, kanban, or another agile approach, everyone understands how the workflows and processes aid efficiency.
By adapting and iterating throughout the product development cycle, you can address bugs quickly and respond to customer feedback in real time. This is in contrast to a waterfall planning approach that requires a larger upfront investment of resources — with less feedback and opportunity to course correct throughout the development process.
Simply put, agile teams are more integrated and better able to establish cycles of continuous improvement.
The benefits mentioned above zero in on the development team. But you can extend those same themes to other groups in the organization who take part in an agile transformation and focus on achieving a Complete Product Experience (CPE).
Agile transformation on product development teams
Company leaders set the tone for agile transformation. Every team needs to understand where you are going and why. This requires mapping the CPE — understanding how customers interact with your company and product at every touchpoint. If everyone understands why achieving a stellar CPE matters — and the role they play in contributing to it — it is easier to align around the most impactful work as an organization.
Transformation requires tremendous cross-functional efforts. Take the product development team as an example — these are the cross-functional representatives from product management, engineering, innovation, product marketing, and operations who work together to plan, build, and support the product. The team must be highly coordinated and adaptive based on customer and market feedback.
What does this look like in practice? It starts with defining top-level strategy — working from a shared product roadmap with the same goals and success metrics. An agile product manager defines initiatives and define epics upfront, but is flexible about which features are prioritized from one release to another. Engineers practice start-to-finish development by peer testing and regularly releasing code themselves, rather than pushing code over to the operations team. And marketing and support collaborate on go-to-market plans and customer communications in line with the same release schedule.
6 areas of change in agile transformations
Achieving this level of coordination takes time. Most companies move to an agile approach gradually over several years. No matter what approach your company takes, there are six areas of change that must be endorsed across teams:
Embrace learning and change. Instead of clinging to what worked in the past, place value on understanding how customer and team needs are changing. And invest in the tools and technology that will help you better meet those needs.
Agile teams are not static — new skillsets and types of experience are always needed to make the team perform at its best. So question the status quo, identify opportunities to improve workflows, and pursue additional training that will benefit the team.
Instead of following rigid workflows, aim to be iterative and responsive. Some agile teams do this by working in two- to four-week sprints and relying on lightweight frameworks to accomplish their goals. Pivot only after careful consideration — when company goals or customer feedback necessitate it.
Better tools can help you work more efficiently and better serve customers. Agile company leaders invest in new platforms and technology not for the sake of adopting something new, but to help the team accomplish meaningful work faster.
Long before releasing any new functionality or enhancements, agile product marketing teams collaborate closely with members of product management, engineering, and project management to ensure a smooth launch. And customer feedback informs changes to future launches — so give users the opportunity to submit feedback and ideas and listen carefully to what they say.
Track data and metrics that will help you determine the success of your agile transformation. Agile metrics might include sprint capacity, team velocity, or new customers over time. Your team might also use burndown charts or velocity reports to track and showcase key agile metrics.
Embarking on an agile transformation
Every company is different — there is no one right way to become agile. But strategy is paramount. Leadership must first clearly define and reiterate the "why" behind any agile transformation.
Pivoting too frequently and failing to sync areas of investment to the overall company goals will quickly squash any benefits a company will enjoy from releasing faster.
Organizations must also commit sufficient resources for agile training, tools, and technology. This is where engineering can lead — you are responsive to the technical needs of other functional groups and support them on their own agile journey.
Be patient. Some folks may resist change. Continue to reflect on your processes and refine them — defining (and redefining) a flexible approach that suits your specific team and situation.
Cultivating more customer delight should guide you as you consider what to build, why, and how to build and deliver it faster. When you have an overarching vision to direct your work, it is easier to zoom in on the "why" driving the need for agile transformation in the first place.
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