Derk-Jan de Grood works as an Agile transition coach for Squerist. As a consultant, he helps organizations with their Agile transformation and embedding quality. He’s an experienced trainer and he wrote several successful books. In 2016, he published “Agile in the real world - Starting with Scrum”. On his blog, he shares his knowledge and experience for everyone to benefit.  

14 January 2020

“We’ve mastered the Agile way of working. The teams will continue doing their work, whether you coach them or not.” I just started a new assignment as an Agile coach and did my new manager just tell me that I wasn’t needed?

Agile has been around for many years and some organizations are pretty far in adopting the Agile practices and mindset. Others are just starting and many are struggling to make it work. Analyzing the various organizations I’ve worked with, I distinguish three separate waves, each with its own challenges and scope. The waves overlap each other and each wave builds on its predecessor.

During the first wave, the main focus is on teaching Agile and training the teams. As progress declines, the second wave arrives, shifting the focus to cross-team alignment. There might be a small downfall in the perceived maturity as teams need to reorganize and adapt their way of working to align with the other teams, but this will enable a next growth spurt. The third wave comes with teams building a technical product and changing their focus to delivering value and boosting business performance. Again, there might be a downfall in maturity as more people in the enterprise get involved, but this will enable a further acceleration in business delivery.

3 waves of Agile
The three phases of Agile. The challenges and scope change as Agile maturity grows over time.

Understanding and recognizing the waves of an Agile journey helps to grasp the different perceptions organizations have and enables us to tailor our coaching approach. The first reviewers of this article started to map their organization on the waves and spontaneously indicated which practices were already in place and what they needed to work on. I, therefore, believe it will enable us to have a better grip on Agile transformations and help us explain why we focus on certain aspects. It puts our interventions in perspective and provides a roadmap for the organization. It also offers insight into how the role of an Agile coach is developing. In part 1 of this article, we’ll look at the first two waves of Agile. The third wave we’ll address in part 2.

The first wave: focus on teaching Agile and training the teams

Most organizations starting with Agile adopt Scrum or Kanban. Management plays a crucial role during the transformation. They’ll need to explain to their teams why they chose for an Agile way of working and how this has an impact on what’s expected from everyone. Agile coaches work with management to explain the impact of Agile and support the change. But the teams are the foundation for the Agile development process. If their core activity – realizing IT solutions – is hampered, this will obstruct the later phases as well. The first wave is therefore characterized by a strong focus on teaching Agile and training the teams.

During the introductory phase, the Agile teams get trained and are accompanied by an Agile coach while doing their daily work. The transition to Scrum is a learning process. By doing they will learn what it’s like to work together in short iterations, create transparency and continuously improve themselves. In some respects, the Agile way of working differs greatly from traditional development, with different roles and responsibilities. The product owner and scrum master roles will need to be clearly defined so they’re understood by everyone.

The teams are the foundation of the first wave of Agile. When they’ve shown that they can deliver completed backlog items and that they’re capable of self-improvement, the first wave naturally evolves into a new phase. This doesn’t mean that Agile coaches should ignore the teams, since these will still need attention and guidance. But when the individual teams hit their stride, more impact is achieved by looking at the way they collaborate.

The second wave: cross-team alignment

In the second wave, the adoption of Agile is shifting from a single-team focus to a wider organizational approach. Organizations increasingly start to understand that business agility and responsiveness are key to survive and stay ahead of the competition. In order to yield value, the work of single Agile teams should, therefore, be integrated and embedded in larger business processes. During this phase, we pay less attention to the output of single teams, but rather start thinking in releases. We can call these technical products or minimal viable products.

In order to organize the work, all teams engage in portfolio planning. The aim is to align the teams and to start working on a collective goal. The focus on workable releases can be enhanced by having a chief product owner or leader to help the product owners prioritize and see the bigger picture. In organizations employing the Scaled Agile Framework (Safe), this is done in so-called program increment planning sessions, in which all the teams gather to plan their work for the following six sprints. In none-Safe organizations, we often see the product owners of the different teams reconvene at a portfolio marketplace. In both settings, the aim is the same: set a release goal and translate it into more detailed work items, reduce the team interdependencies or at least make them transparent so that the work of the various teams can be combined and integrated into one single solution.

Restructuring the teams will reduce dependencies, enabling a more predictable flow of product releases. A performance dialogue will stimulate teams to help each other and frequently integrate their work. Although this seems obvious, I still encounter many organizations with teams that don’t share the same objectives and have their own priorities. Helping another team on its most important item is not always high on their own sprint backlog. A collective program board, review sessions with other teams and the involvement of the business stakeholders can boost the focus on collaboration and collective ownership.

Whereas the Agile transformation during the first wave focused on teaching the teams to adopt Agile practices, managers of organizations in the second wave will experience that their role is changing. They might have been used to project management-like roles and strong involvement in both content and planning. Now, they’re expected to facilitate and lead rather than manage the teams. In this phase, discussions will arise about the role of management in relation to that of the product owner and the scrum master – most likely resulting in more autonomy for the teams that embrace the Agile values and mindset.

The second wave is a difficult phase. Individual teams will get less attention as the Agile coach is focusing on cross-team challenges. Still, coaches might spend some time ensuring that the organization can train new people and teams don’t fall back in maturity. Coaching in the second wave is aimed at defining clear release goals. On the release level, there’s a need for portfolio meetings, stakeholder involvement and a test approach. Coaches can moderate role discussions and accompany management in its search for a new leadership role.

The second wave is followed by the third once teams have learned to plan and launch collectively built releases and focus shifts from realizing technical products to business delivery. Part 2 of this article discusses the characteristics of the third wave.

Edited by Nieke Roos