Getting Unstuck in your Transformation: How to Evolve and Transform

Jan 27, 2022

Agile transformations in organizations have been occurring since before the Agile Manifesto made clear what many of us saw as gaps in our management. As we have seen over time these transformations continue to grow and evolve throughout any organization’s history and as methodologies and frameworks change and adapt. There will be setbacks, new management, new initiatives for the company, major budget cuts, etc… The nature of these ever-changing landscapes challenges even the most well-formed launches.

So what do we do about it? How do we get through a stale transformation? How do we light the fires of change or overcome the biggest roadblocks to continued success?

The following are my steps and corresponding principles that guide me when coming into an organization that feels stuck. As is the case with most Agile implementations and guides, the focus here is on the principles. The actions themselves will vary depending on your group, role, and the previous steps taken during the initial transformation.

A little disclaimer, this post is from the perspective of an internal or external coach coming in and working with an organization that feels like they are not progressing. The ideal situation is that the organization feels stuck, and uses existing retrospective and adaption ceremonies to evolve. However, in the effort to stay accurate to the real world, I am taking the perspective of the more common practice of bringing in external or internal coaches to help organizations.

How do you know this organization is stuck?

SAFe Implementation Roadmap

When referencing the Implementation Roadmap, the following points can be a helpful guide for determining when an organization might be stuck.

“The organization is stuck when…”

  • They do not know where they logically fit on this roadmap.
  • The Measure and Grow points along the roadmap provide little to no value.
  • They are not moving along this roadmap or any other transformation roadmap.
  • They cannot record measurable change.

In summary, if the organization is not moving down a transformation roadmap, not able to measure change, and/or is not seeing increases in their fundamental business results, then they are stuck.

Common Reasons Why Organizations “Get Stuck”.

When interacting with an organization you suspect is stuck, it is important to understand generally why organizations stop transforming in the first place.

Here are some of the most common reasons I’ve experienced in the industry:

  • Changes in management or leadership
  • Lack of movement on previous I&A items or retrospective ideas
  • Lack of prioritization of relentless improvement
  • Frustrated change agents and LACE members
  • Lack of training or knowledge across the organization

I am sure every well-renowned coach has seen each of these reasons in detail and you will too; however, my Principle for Understanding is:

“Find the Sour Spots in the Transformation”

  • Sour Spots in a Transformation are foundational steps that were either missed, skipped, thought too risky, or difficult at the beginning or mid-transformation that has allowed dysfunction to fester.
  • Sour Spots are people, processes, products, technologies, and culture that will take more time, energy, and careful conversations than other team or organizational transformative actions.

Will all reasons be sour spots? Of course not. However, it is important to see what might qualify as sour spots and decide your best course of action for both visualizing and addressing those within the organization.

One sour spot I regularly see while coaching stalling organizations is a lack of understanding around the Value Stream Identification workshop and its outputs. This can be a tough and tiresome exercise for organizations, with little help in the beginning, and oftentimes are led by new coaches or individuals without an objective view of the organization. There are a lot of parts of that workshop that, if not done correctly, can cause scaling dysfunction. Additionally, this workshop is supposedly regularly evaluated when introducing new Epics, new product lines, and when understanding any halts in the flow of value.

If the organization had a negative or grueling experience with the initial workshop, they may be very resistant to attempt it again or put it into a regular practice. You will have to take extra time to empathize with those that feel resistant and with leadership that may feel this workshop will change their current structure or realm of control.

Evolving – Taking a Systems Thinking Approach

Now that you know how to identify an organization that’s stuck, what steps can you take to identify the key reasons/issues for the dysfunction? How do you visualize to make clear what is holding them back? It is time to bring them into a state of organizational evolution.

Evolving - Taking a Systems Thinking Approach

The steps for organizational evolution are…

  1. Research this organization’s transformation past, present, and future.
    • Research: Track down the Transformation Goals and Strategic Themes to uncover the real reasons the organization had for “going Agile”.
    • Question: What is their top priority that they are not seeing measurable growth in? Does the relationship between their goals and what they are measuring match?
    • Summarize: If you could summarize their Transformation in one paragraph, what would you say?
    • Dive In: Dig into each level as its own transformation: Portfolio to Teams to Program and maybe Solution, if they have that level. Create a layout of this portfolio. I commonly take a people, process, and technology perspective here. Invite yourself to key events to see if roles match activities performed. Try to look for visible agreements, metrics, and information.
    • Listen: Everything tells you something so, don’t be afraid to gather all the information you can.
    • Re-Evaluate: Continually be on the lookout for additional sour spots within the organization or transformation. Bring them into your Empathy Interviews.
  2. Conduct Empathy Interviews
    • What is an Empathy Interview?
      • Empathy interviews are about asking key coaching questions to prompt them to think about themselves and their teams within the context of the transformation.
        • What is most important to them?
        • What keeps them up at night?
        • What is lurking beneath the surface?
    • Who to Interview?
      • Find your current LACE or lead change agents. If unsure, ask around for who they may be – try to keep the number of people interviewed to as few as possible to start.
    • Why conduct interviews?
      • Interviews will tell you what the data can not. They allow you to build trust while also getting the opinions of others on the potential organizational sour spots you might discover.
  3. Identify Meaningful Assessment Categories
    • Assessment Categories are highly variable between coaches, implementation, or organizational preference/goals.
    • Choose what will resonate with that organization and those leaders while embracing our Evolving Principle.
    • The output of this should be the start of a data-based assessment you can introduce to the organization.

    Some Examples:

    • Agile Values & Principles
    • SAFe Business Agility Assessment/Core Competencies
    • Portfolio vs. Program vs. Team
    • Culture vs. Product vs. System vs. Process Implementation
  4. Organize Your Results
    • Choose what will resonate with that organization and those leaders.
    • Create a mix of anecdotal observations and summaries with a measurable data-based assessment.

    Some Examples:

    • Spider graphs
    • Bar charts
    • Word clouds from Empathy interviews
    • Excel sheet
    • PowerPoint
    • Interactive post-it boards
    • Mural boards
Organize Your Results

Your specific actions and ways you organize your assessments may change, however, keep in mind my Principle for Evolving:

Focus your assessments, research, and discussions on the value of “being” Agile over “doing” Agile.

There are lots of ways to do Agile Assessments or take a comprehensive view of an organization’s struggles. You may want to just grab something off the shelf and use it for any organization. However, the objective is to focus an organization on improving and humbling yourself and the processes in place to the values, principles, and needs of the organization you are working with.

It was brought up when I gave this as a presentation that some organizations are not going to care about “being” Agile, they’ll just want to check the boxes and do the ceremonies right. Us Agilists know the earth-shattering impact that Agile mindsets can have on the individuals and teams within a transformation. However, sometimes, emphasizing “being” Agile over “doing” Agile comes with time, trust, empathy, and taking a holistic and economic view. Choose the best and most focused way to get that across to your organization even if it means they continue to make some mistakes or work suboptimally.

Now that you have assessed and have a lot of very organized data, what do you do with it to make real, sustainable relentless improvements?

Transforming – Bringing in the change agents/LACE

Depending on your organization’s maturity level you might be working with a LACE (Lean-Agile Center of Excellence), part of a LACE, or a small group of change agents from that transformation. You may even be working solely with the Scrum Masters of a team(s). Regardless of the structure, it is important to find that team of individuals and start to enable them to lead their organization forward.

This organization can kick start its new transformation after you…

Transforming - Bringing in the change agents/LACE
  1. Present results to change agents/LACE and gain initial feedback.
    • Present: Time to shine! Present your results either to the LACE or respective change agents and at different organizational levels as necessary.
    • Identify: different teams depending on if it is a DevOps transformation vs. a Product Management focused transformation.
    • Ask for Feedback: Be what you preach and ask for feedback!
    • Coach: Start to coach negative organizational habits.

    It is important to note that, when you start to introduce categories and assessments and make visible the different impediments in the organization, you are going to start influencing people’s ideas or feelings on their organization’s people, processes, and technology. The sour spots are now visible, and this will not be a welcome message to some individuals or departments. It is best to continue to make these assessments visible using empathy, compassion, and humility.

  2. Input results into the Inspect and Adapt, or current retrospective ceremonies of this organization.
    • Transformation Backlog: All items, regardless of priority, go into the Backlog.
    • Transformation Funnel: Start a funnel for all transformation assessment opportunities to feed back into the portfolio, program, and team improvement ceremonies where possible.

    It is important for programs and teams to start taking responsibility or asking for support on these transformative opportunities for improvement. They need to determine how to address them and when. Internal or external coaches are there to make the problems visible and help to coach change, not dictate it. So let the funnel begin!

    Input results into the Inspect and Adapt
  3. Kick-off a Culture for Relentless Improvement.
    • Empower: Coach the LACE or Transformation group to own the transformation – My best advice here is to have the organization’s leadership or management drive the message that Relentless Improvement is the goal of the organization moving forward, and that this LACE or Transformation group are the agents of that improvement. Leadership buy-in and approval of this group, to me, is paramount.
    • Create the “Principles for Relentless Improvement”: This document should serve as a working agreement for the new/improved group of change agents. They should be able to answer how they will work together and how they plan to keep the momentum going over time.
    • Retrospect: More than likely you are performing this activity as one person or a small subset of persons. With that comes bias, preferences, and mistakes. One of the first goals of this new/improved group will be to retrospect on how they will do better with future assessments or funneling of retrospective items.

This article has included a lot of information and a lot of steps that you may or may not agree with depending on the structure of your organization, or the walls you will need to break down to get there. I will leave you with my Principle for Transforming since regardless of your structure, culture, sour spots, LACE, or Agile practices one statement remains true for instilling a culture for Relentless Improvement and continued transformation:

“The goal of any retrospective activity is grassroot change by enabling individuals, teams, and organizations to problem solve for themselves and their organization to the mutual benefit of employees and customers.”

Grassroot Change

Need additional help evolving your Agile Transformation? Learn how to improve and continuously adapt your companies strategies, plans, and outcomes by contacting one of our experts today.

Written by Emily Lint


Emily is a business and technical SAFe/Agile SPC5 Coach, Trainer, Certified Scrum Master, & Certified Release Train Engineer, who has a Top Secret/Q DOE clearance. She is proficient at enabling high-compliance programs using a people-focused approach to coaching. A master facilitator and energized change agent adept at harnessing the power of leadership across all aisles from management to developer to supplier to find root causes to the organization’s deepest blockers.