How to Gain Buy-In for an Agile Transformation

Erik DietrichMon, 05/07/2018 - 08:40

I'm going to talk today about getting buy-in for something called an agile transformation.  But before I get into the details of what an agile transformation is exactly and how to get people to buy into one, let's clear up a misconception that you might well have.

Who do you think is buying, and who do you think is selling?

Often, in the corporate world, getting buy-in is tantamount to getting management approval.  You want to use new, expensive defect tracking software or you want to change how frequently you deploy.  In this situation, individual contributors and line management build a case for leadership approval.

Agile transformations do not work this way.  With an agile transformation, leadership initiates the transformation.  But the transformation requires broad organizational support at all levels.  So, with an agile transformation, the game is getting buy-in from everyone in the organization, from the tippy top of middle management all the way down to the newest provisional junior employee.

What Is an Agile Transformation, Anyway?

To understand why this is the case, you need to understand what an agile transformation is.  In the broadest sense, this is a term for a company "going agile."  "Going Agile" is relatively easy for small organizations with a handful of developers.  Get yourself a copy of the Scrum guide and just, kind of, you know, do it.

But for huge companies, fondly known as "the enterprise," it's a different story.  You have entire cross sections and programs dedicated to governance, regulatory compliance, minimizing legal exposure, and plenty more fun stuff that only occurs at the outer reaches of organizational scale.  Going agile for a software product company of 20 people is like turning a jet ski around.  Doing it for the enterprise is like turning a battleship around.

Going agile, in the "turn the battleship" sense, has acquired a common name: agile transformation.  And there is an entire industry devoted to it, with enterprise-specific flavors of agile.

An agile transformation generally involves hiring waves of consultants, trainers, and specialists to help all of the different teams within the IT organization adopt these ways of working.  And, as you might expect, when organizational leadership rolls out a radically new way of working, people will react in a variety of ways.

For the rest of this post, I'm going to focus on how to get buy-in from people based on how they react.  And this buy-in is critical because you can't get hundreds of people to change their habits if they don't want to or if they refuse.

Get Buy-In From the Agile Enthusiasts

First of all, you need to get buy-in from the people I'll call agile enthusiasts.  These are the people that are excited about the upcoming transformation.  They've probably been stumping for it for years.

"Wait a minute," you might say.  "Why would we need to convince these folks?"

Well, here's the rub.  These folks have wanted to go agile for a long time, which means they've built up certain expectations about it.  They have certain ideas for which flavor of agile you should adopt and what that should look like.  And, if the substance of your transformation runs counter to their expectations, they can sour on you.

Get their buy-in ahead of time, before you roll out the initiative.  Consult them on which methodologies to adopt and who to hire.  Make sure that you hear their voices in the early going and that you leverage their knowledge and enthusiasm.  They'll probably have valuable suggestions.  And even if not, feeling as though you've heard them will go a long way to keeping them engaged and helping you sell the transformation to others.

Get Buy-In From the "Meh, Whatever" People

Next up, let's consider people who aren't excited.  In fact, these folks aren't don't really have much opinion one way or the other about such an initiative.  You can probably think of their motto as "Whatever, that's above my paygrade -- you tell me how to work and pay me, and I'll do it."

Again, you might wonder why you'd need buy-in from these folks.  Didn't they just say (in my hypothetical motto, anyway) that they'd do whatever you want, regardless?

Well, yes, sure.  But being willing to do something isn't the same as being glad to do it.  And because you're going to need all of the enthusiasm you can muster for dealing with the people I'll talk about shortly, you're going to need these folks to be glad.  (I would also argue, philosophically, that employee engagement and satisfying people's AMP needs is critically important, but that's fodder for another post.)

Getting buy-in from these folks happens by showing them how it's in their best interest.  The future lies down the agile road, so they're acquiring valuable resume skills.  It'll make their work more fun or give them more autonomy.  Work out the specifics to your situation and their role, and communicate those to them.  Make them excited.

Get Buy-In From the Passive-Aggressive Resisters

With buy-in from the enthusiasts and those indifferent, you now face a more uphill climb.  You're going to need to get buy-in from the passive-aggressive resisters.  And I promise you, there will be passive-aggressive resisters.

I've seen more agile transformations, from more angles, than I can recall off the top.  And they all have suffered from this problem.  The passive-aggressive resisters are people who will look at a casual glance like the indifferent folks or even the enthusiasts.  But around the water cooler, they'll talk sarcastically about the whole thing or roll their eyes and pronounce it doomed to fail.  "This is just another management fad, and we've seen those come and go, amirite?"

Their buy-in is elusive because they are elusive.  It's hard for leadership to identify them, relatively speaking.  But identify them you must, particularly if they're in influential roles, either officially or unofficially.  Look for people who say all the right things when pressed, but who "forget" to adopt new processes or attend the new ceremonies.

Once you've identified them, listen to them.  This sort of behavior happens when people don't feel like they have a voice or a say in what's happening.  Ask for an honest, consequence-free statement of their objections, concerns, worries, and complaints.  Hear them out.

Then, blend the approach to the last two groups: convince them of the benefit to them and give them a voice in the process.  This will often work.  But, if it doesn't, surfacing them as resisters surfaces the issue and makes them part of the next group that I'll address.

Get Buy-In From the Active Resisters

The group in question is the active resisters.  This will consist of passive-aggressive resisters with their "cover blown" and of less organizationally savvy people that are dead set against change from the outset.  Oh, yeah, those will also exist.  I promise.  At every step, they'll resist.

For these folks, you have all of the tactics that I've mentioned throughout the post.  Convincing them of their benefits and making them feel heard can turn things around with them.  And sometimes they just run out of steam with their resistance or see that the new reality is actually all right.  Keep working with them to see if you can convince them.

But also be prepared for the fact that you might never do so.  And give them the chance to self-select.

What I mean by this isn't an "our way or the highway" proclamation for their employment.  Rather, I'm talking about offering them an escape hatch to somewhere else in the organization -- somewhere they're continuing to do things the "traditional way."  Enterprises always have gentle landing spots like this for folks. See the active resister as an unhappy person who never signed up for this, if you think that person is a valuable contributor.

If they're truly dead-set against the changes, keeping them in the program is going to be bad for them, and it's going to affect others' morale and the effort as a whole.  Don't let that happen.  Be prepared for this and offer people options.  Hopefully, this kind of shuffling in the shorter term will open their mind in the longer term, when the organizational changes come to their new home.

You're In It for the Long Haul

I'll conclude by restating that you're turning a battleship.  It's going to take a long time, it's going to proceed in fits and starts, and it's going to get weird.

Not everyone will buy in initially.  Tell them upfront about the benefits, ask for their input, and beg for their patience.  Do all of that, but do not allow passive or active resistance to fester because it will stall your efforts.  People will adjust to the new reality, you'll make new hires, and things will improve over the course of time.

But also bear in mind that the agile movement, philosophically, shifts a lot of decision-making to the line-level employees and encourages autonomy.  So, even as you steer the organization from leadership positions, remember never to stop seeking buy-in and approval from the organization, bottom to top.