Elephant breaks through a wall - Agile Transformation - managementberatung | coaching
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Organisational Development | Agile Leadership

Leading Agile Transformation Successfully

From Sabine Walter, Head of network management consulting | coaching

More and more companies are working agilely or are at least converting individual company areas to agile working. Such "pilot areas" are, for example, IT or the innovation area. Regardless of whether an entire company changes its culture or only sub-areas undergo this change, this process rarely succeeds smoothly. In this article, we outline the different phases involved in an agile transformation and present what we consider to be the critical success factors.

Every transformation process is oriented towards the six phases of the human learning and development process:

6 phases of development - netzwerk managementberatung coaching
Transformation process: Six phases of development

And it affects three central levels of a company: the structures and processes, the competences and the culture.

Below we look at the critical success factors in the individual phases and stages of development.

Agile transformation

Transformation process: Phase 1 - Allowing

The central element in this phase is the Handing over responsibility and thus also of decision-making authority to employees and teams. This is the first key hurdle that needs to be overcome, especially in companies that were previously managed very strongly hierarchically or in companies in which the areas outside the pilot team are still managed very strongly hierarchically. If it is not taken, the transformation will neither progress nor succeed.

The focus of this first phase is the question: Who gets to decide what? Clarifying this question is an iterative process. Giving up responsibility, i.e. letting go, will not happen overnight with managers or specialists; it takes time and trust.

One instrument that helps to make decision-making levels transparent is the Delegation matrix.

Making decision-making levels transparent: Delegation matrix - netzwerk managementberatung coaching
Example of a delegation matrix

It is important that in addition to the different decision-making levels, it is also determined how the respective decision-making processes take place. Who is heard? Who takes an active part in decision-making? Who has a veto right? In addition, care must be taken to ensure that when decision-making authority is delegated, the budgetary sovereignty and underwriting authority associated with it are also delegated.

In agile organisations, more decision-making authority is usually transferred to teams. In order for these teams to be able to use their newly acquired competence and the associated responsibility with confidence, it is advisable to further develop the decision-making processes that take place in the teams. A Group decision-making procedure that has proven itself in practice is the consent decision. This procedure originates from sociocracy. In contrast to consensus, which is the lowest common denominator, the "Consent" as Absence of serious objections (that jeopardise the common goal).

We have written more about consensus and the competences required for it in our article "Giving decision-making authority to the team" written.

Especially in an organisation where agile working areas meet hierarchically managed areas, this different understanding of decision-making processes becomes a challenge in joint projects. This is why it requires absolute management attention and, if necessary, external moderation. It is important to perceive the needs of all participants and to reconcile them in the sense of constructive and timely decision-making.

If this is not properly clarified, there will be delays at the project level, as decision-making powers of members of agile teams are doubted and project members from hierarchically managed organisational areas can hide behind a lack of decision-making power. This results in the risk that even more decisions than before are escalated to top management level and the "bottle neck" in terms of decisions continues to grow. The speed of projects and development decreases instead of increases. The agile philosophy will be questioned and discarded due to a lack of success.

Agile transformation

Transformation process: Phase 2 - Want

Any form of change, including transformation, only has a chance of success if those involved in it are willing to accept it. Also want change. Only then are they willing to go through corresponding learning and development processes and acquire new competences. This willingness, i.e. intrinsic motivation, is then achieved, when employees see a sense and a personal benefit in the agile way of working and a Feel a sense of securitythat makes it possible to step out of the comfort zone. This requires time, space and recognition of even small successes and progress.

Define Purpose

Employees see a sense in the agile way of working when they have understood the why. Why are we changing the way we work? What are the benefits of agile working for us?

The acceptance of the why and ideally the enthusiasm for it is the driver for developing and living the how, i.e. agility. The why should always be answered before a company or a division starts an agile transformation. Agility is not an end in itself, but an attitude that makes it possible to master certain challenges or to achieve desired goals faster and / or better.. Which challenges and goals these are depends on the individual company.

Define sub-goals and recognise progress

To recognise progress, it must be perceptible. This is easier if the transformation process is broken down into small, perceptible sub-goals. This should be done at the three levels of structures & processes, competences and culture. Some of the underlying questions that help to perceive progress are:

Structures & Processes:

  • How do we perceive that our processes and structures have become more agile?
  • What goes faster?
  • Where does (customer) satisfaction increase?
  • Which decision-making processes have been accelerated?
  • Which decisions have gained in quality?
  • In which areas is less reactive power generated?
  • What benefits do we derive from the regular retrospectives?


  • How do we perceive that we have evolved?
  • In which areas have we left our comfort zone? With what result?
  • What new competences have we gained?
  • What methods and tools have we learned?
  • In which areas do we have more confidence?
  • Which competences could we use more than before?
  • Which problems could be solved more easily / differently than before?


  • How has the trust in us as a team developed?
  • To what extent has the agile mindset become more firmly established?
  • Which key people from other areas have we already been able to win over for the new way of working?
  • How has the cooperation with our (internal) customers improved?
  • What progress has been made in the project work?
  • How have team and / or project climate improved?
  • How has our feedback culture evolved?

Feedback as a central element of the development process

Feedback, i.e. giving feedback on what has been perceived, is a central element in development processes. In order for feedback to be received appreciatively and seen as an opportunity for further development, various factors are crucial. These include:

The cultural framework of the company / division and teams

  • Feedback cultureHow constructive and established has the feedback culture been so far? How sincere is the appreciation of persons and achievements?
  • Culture of trust: How strong was and is it?
  • Fault tolerance culture: To what extent were errors already seen as development opportunities before the agile transformation? To what extent is the quality demand for products seen as independent of the error tolerance culture in terms of learning and development processes? How established is it to learn from mistakes? How often is feedback given? How established is it to ask for feedback?

Personal maturity of the individuals

  • Critical faculties: How well can individuals separate person and thing? Can they accept criticism that is on the matter level, or do they perceive criticism as rejection and thus bring it to the relationship level?
  • Self-worth & self-confidence of all participants: As a rule, the ability to criticise is more pronounced in people with high self-esteem and self-confidence. They can usually distinguish between the person and the thing and take criticism without judgement and extract for themselves what helps them in their further development and the further development of the thing.

Competence to give constructive feedback

  • Traceability of the feedback: How concrete is it? To what extent does it fit with what has been agreed, such as defined goals and expected behaviour?
  • Attitude of the feedback giver: Is the feedback given on a factual level with the aim of appreciation or support for further development? Or is feedback instrumentalised to humiliate the feedback recipient?

Agile transformation

Transformation process: Phase 3 - Know

This phase of the transformation process is about knowledge transfer. It is about understanding agile instruments and methods, such as Scrum or Design Thinking. In order to turn knowledge into skills, it is important that the knowledge is imparted in the best possible way based on concrete questions and topics from everyday work and projects.

In this third phase of the transformation, it is also a matter of winning over key people from non-agile areas for agile elements, e.g. in project work.

In order for this to succeed, the following must be observed:

  • neither boast about agility nor threaten it,
  • not create uncertainty with the method,
  • but talk about goals, desired results or tasks to be completed, i.e. the What, Why and Where to in the foreground.

Agile transformation

Transformation process: Phase 4 and 5 - proficiency and mastery

These phases are characterised by trying out and applying the new - well accompanied by constructive and continuous feedback and exchange of experiences. This trial and error takes time and requires a culture of fault tolerance. If this is not established in the company, there will be no trial and error.

Agile transformation

Transformation process: Phase 6 - Further development

Further development happens at the moment when different methods, instruments or elements are creatively interlinked and adapted in such a way that they fit the respective situation, the individual objective, the given time frame, the budget and the participants. The process takes on something playful. New things emerge. Best practices are born. The cultural change is complete.

Agile transformation

Transformation process: Other success factors

The central success factor of an agile transformation is the recognition that it is a transformation. With this recognition comes the understanding that this process needs time, management attention, support and budget.

Achieve quick wins and recognise progress

As in every change process, the agile process also runs transformation process is not linear. Rather, at various points in the process, the will is challenged anew or questioned. Do we still want this? Does it still make sense, what we are doing? Is it taking us forward in any way? This makes it all the more important to recognise progress and successes, even if they are only small. Measures that accompany the agile transformation should be designed in such a way that successes are quickly visible, i.e. "quick wins" can be achieved.

Conduct regular retrospectives and use agile tools

We recommend to lead the "project" agile transformation with an agile attitude and to accompany it with agile tools.

  • Why not keep a backlog for the things to be done along the 6 phases?
  • Why not leave the responsibility for what is to be developed or done when with the key stakeholders of the transformation?
  • Why not conduct retrospectives in a defined time frame, celebrate successes and use lessons learned for further development, including further development of the transformation process?

The more agility is lived and exemplified in transformation, the faster the fear of the new is lost.


Leading Agile Transformation to Success

Agility is an attitude. Like any change in attitude, the change in thinking and acting towards more agility is a development process. For this development to be successful, it must meet the six phases follow:

  • May
  • Want
  • Know
  • Can
  • Master
  • Develop further

And it must be based on three levels take place: Structures & processes, competences and culture.

Before starting an agile transformation, it must be clear why this process is necessary. What is to be achieved with this changed attitude and way of working? What potential benefits does this way of working offer or what risks are avoided if such a change towards agility is successful? And - as with any major change - there must be sufficient management attention and resources to make this change a success.

Closing words

In transformations that we accompany as a team, we are often asked whether agile methods must now be used exclusively and whether procedures that have been successful in the past should no longer be used. Therefore, I would like to take the liberty of concluding at this point:

Being agile does not mean dogmatically applying agile tools. Nor does it mean bringing about every decision in a grassroots democratic way. An agile corporate culture is one in which the people, structures and processes that shape this culture have the ability to react quickly to the unexpected. The people involved decide which methods, processes and instruments are appropriate in each situation.

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