Agile Transformation: HR insight, Mark Buchan

Agile Transformation: The Big Interview with Mark Buchan

HR Heads held its Southampton Breakfast Forum in September and was fortunate enough to have guest speaker Mark Buchan talk about Agile Transformation.

After the event, Jen Gaster caught up with Mark to learn more about one of HR’s hottest topics.

What is Agile Transformation? 

Many organisations are currently undergoing what are called a Digital or Agile Transformation. 

At its most basic, a transformation may only be behaviourally focused and target team behaviours and processes.

It tends to start in the IT department and grow from there. 

Delivering an agile process along with the ability to choose how agile each project and programme needs to be, requires an agile mindset.

This is where my contemporaries and I differ in opinion.

Any effort that is to be truly transformative must focus on leadership thinking and subsequent behaviours, otherwise what is being delivered is what I refer to as pseudo-transformation:  the appearance of change where nothing really changes, and everything goes back to “normal”. 

Leaders lead. 

Leaders are responsible for the culture of their organisation and they lead by being agile.

This is genuine agile transformation, run in an agile way; led by agile leaders, with self-organising teams who deliver valuable outcomes to the benefit of the organisation, its customers and all stakeholders.

Who typically needs to drive Agile Transformation for it to be successful?

In my opinion, it’s the CEO who drives the culture or the organisation. 

But let’s be sure we understand what is meant by driving. 

From a traditional change management perspective, driving change is translated into:

“The leaders know the right choices to make and know the best solutions to our problems. We just need the people in the organisation to do as they are told and get on with it! I will empower my managers to coerce or ‘influence’ the change onto its subjects.

It needs to be recognised that teams need full autonomy over how they do their work. 

So, the old paradigm of the leader knows best does not fit in this context. 

Leaders can learn new ways to do things so that they can start to act in more agile ways, where driving change becomes “enabling their people”. 

The first place where this needs to happen is at the middle management layer. 

Trust the teams to do the right things and they will.

What has been the journey that has led you to specialise in Agile Transformations?

I was a systems analyst/programmer for the first 10 years of my career. 

A few colleagues and I experimented with what are known as agile engineering practices, one of which is pair programming, which, as the name suggests, means you programme in pairs.

I became bored with programming and instead turned my focus onto teams. 

I because hugely curious about what motivates and energises people and how leadership and culture impacts team dynamics.

I am also a contributor to the oldest Agile Methodology (DSDM). 

I helped influence thinking around the leadership and culture stream which resulted in the 9 Principles of Agile Leadership

With my background in technology, process delivery, and specialising in psychology for the last 15 years gives me a key set of capabilities, which enables me to help organisations to make what improvements they can in order to be more agile.

That can mean anything from providing executive agile coaching to the board or helping facilitate learning groups and retrospectives.

Why do 77% of transformations fail and how is Agile Transformation different?

In May of this year I published my first book. 

It’s got rather a lengthy title!

Leaders, It’s Not How You Finish, It’s How You Start! A Radical New Strategy For Delivering Successful Agile Transformations 

I suggest that the mistakes that are made are usually done so in the very early days of an agile transformation. 

For instance, mistake number one is that the leaders are appropriately or adequately appraised of what agile is (not just a process that is carried out in IT) and why organisational agility is important to organisations’ leaders. 

Because they aren’t informed of the nature of the change required. Some of that change will be in leadership and management behaviours and mindsets. 

This isn’t explained well enough and results in the second mistake: The change isn’t sponsored at the top. 

What this means is that each silo within the organisation will resist being broken up or down.

The leaders can’t delegate away their responsibility for culture change, which is what is required for agile transformations to be successful. 

In the absence of “Agile Culture”, teams end up playing games like, “We’re agile but …”, where they get to choose (or abuse) which parts of the process they want. 

Ultimately, when the manager in charge of your pay tells you to jump… 

Unless organisations target the third mistake: Mindset of the “managers and other helpers”.

Research has shown a positive correlation between leadership agility and business performance. 

The quickest way to acquire an agile mindset is to hire it. 

But ultimately every agile leader aspires to be more agile. 

The least agile of leaders are those who don’t engage in their own self-development journey.

For the sake of completion, the other two mistakes are: The Agile Transformation is planned and delivered in a waterfall fashion. 

And finally, the fifth mistake is that all focus of learning and improvement is targeted at the team.

Less than 1% of focus is ever on improving leadership behaviours. 

Maybe 5% is focused on management, which means the focus and attention is mostly not the team layer.

What advice would you give an organisation that wanted to embark on an Agile Transformation?

Take a couple of hours to read my book as it provides a step-by-step guide on how to deliver agile transformation successfully.

If I had to boil it down further, I would say do these three things and you will be radically better than most organisations who are attempting Agile Transformation and making such a bad job of it…

  • Take your time in understanding the many perspectives of Agile Transformation
  • Before starting any major change initiative like this carry out a health check. Many organisations start the journey before they are appropriately prepared, which is too soon. It is important to take time, have a health check and give an objective. assessment as to the organisation’s readiness for such a major change. In many instances, the right decision is “not just now!”.  It’s better to wait for the leaders to be onside with the change and then use their authority and influence to land the change effectively. 
  • Rather than hire agile coaches for the team (again this doesn’t make me popular with my contemporaries) hire the coaches for the senior team to help them improve their agile skills and to enhance their meta-capacities of leadership agility, resilience and deeper learning.
Agile Transformation. HR Blogs.
Click here to read Jen’s key three learnings from Mark’s Agile Transformation session.