Whenever I get in touch with organizations that set sail for their endeavor of an agile transformation I hear one sentence frequently: „We need the top-management’s buy-in to be successful.“ Unfortunately, this is fundamentally wrong and I am honestly sorry that I dropped this sentence in some consulting projects myself some time ago. However, I was wrong and many others are as well. You don’t need a buy-in: You need absolute personal involvement, contribution, and engagement of your top-managers.
Top-managers are not the audience of change
I’m well aware of good reasons why it is called ‚top-management buy-in‘. Usually, when you want to launch a project – that one great idea – you simply need support, funds and someone who eventually is going to pull some strings if something blocks your great idea from becoming reality. This makes perfect sense whenever you want to sneak one project through a system, whenever you are looking for the red flag you can raise to get things done faster or without the common political games. All you need then is the backing from someone with enough authority to make things run a little smoother. However, this terminology is highly misleading when an organization is on its path of agile transformation.
To say that you need the buy-in from your top-managers, C-level executives, your major shareholders or the company’s owners is wrong because it turns these important people into the audience of the transformation process. However, these people are not sitting at the ranks looking down at the stage where the rest of the company is performing its unique ‘agile transformation’. On the contrary, (top-) managers are on the same stage as well.
Top-managers are part of the show
Agile transformations are organization-wide change movements even if they are started bottom-up. This quite often touches the core of an organization: its culture. Even if your top-manager says: „The agile transformation has my full buy-in, let me see where it goes” – it would in fact be going nowhere.
Unfortunately, I have experienced this more than once. It took me quite some time to understand the reasons to a broader extent. The (top-)management defines the culture of the whole organization. Organizational culture in that sense is everything that employees experience on a day-to-day basis without being able of expressing the details. Behavior of formal and informal authorities determines culture. Managers are without a doubt formal authorities.
So even if they just say: „We want agile!“ (which happens quite often recently), nothing significant is going to happen. To change the culture over the course of time, a visibly different managerial behavior on a day-to-day basis is needed, which is the whole idea of an agile transformation. Without the honest will of changing behavior, all change intentions are very likely going to fail.
To change the organization, change yourself
This leads to one important conclusion: (Top-)managers have to be(-have) agile to support an agile transformation. They must personally contribute to this organizational change. And I really mean ‘personally’. Of course, managers should fund the change. But it’s equally important that they invest in themselves to support the change. They should attend the same trainings as their employees, they should read the books they want employees to read and they need to make the same agile experiences they want their employees to make.
This is tough, because it implies that managers have to change first before the organization can follow. It even gets tougher: Agile behavior of top-managers ultimately limits the degree to which the whole organization can be agile. Bottom-up initiatives will only thrive until they collide with the top-managements behavior. If the top-management doesn’t take this collision as an impulse to inspect, reflect and adapt, the bottom-up initiative is going to deteriorate sooner or later.
The reason is obvious: To be agile it is necessary to learn how to behave differently. Agility is never just a matter of methods, processes or job descriptions. An agile mindset as the foundation of agile behavior is built upon agile experiences made in the past. How does it feel to be agile? Although ‘agile’ has a strong theoretical foundation, the agile mindset cannot be solely built on theory. Insights have to be rooted in personal experiences in order to be able to act differently. Agile experiences need to be personal, even for (top-)managers. Which also means that you cannot delegate change! You want someone to stick to his commitment? Do so yourself.
You cannot delegate change!
Once I had an interesting moment with a group of top-managers who had started an agile journey and began to work together as a top-management Scrum team. During the second sprint, which they performed very publicly for the rest of the organization, one of the top-managers posed an important question which I hear quite often from Scrum development teams. „What happens if we commit to deliver something and then someone gets ill and it cannot be delivered anymore?“ The same manager was asking the teams in the organization to make commitments all the time. But in this special moment he personally felt the pressure and seriousness of a commitment. This changed the way he interacted with the teams regarding commitments. He slowly understood that commitment is based on voluntariness.
This management Scrum team used a physical task board and held daily stand-ups publicly. They started to transparently deliver organizational change in iterations and invited employees to management reviews where employees gave feedback to the latest change-increment. They defined a company backlog and created a visible release plan for the company which displayed the strategic product initiatives of the company for the next months. They used the Magic Matrix Technique to structure their backlogs and got used to Magic Estimation. Some of them attended Scrum and agile leadership trainings and they experienced how much they needed a ScrumMaster in their team. They delivered frequently and user-centric. They had started to inspect, reflect and adapt. Within a short time, they became agile.
These top-managers began to walk around the company, talking about their own experiences in their personal agile transformation. And guess what happened: All over the company task boards emerged. Teams started to experiment with practices and artifacts, they used Scrum meetings to structure their delivery iterations and they started to make their progress visible to the rest of the company. Engaged people started creating guilds, flyers for coding dojos and tech bites circulated, and people from within the teams initiated hackathons.
Before the top-management team recognized these changes in their organization they tended to say: „We are the only ones in this company who are looking for change. It’s only us who want the agile transformation. The employees are so resistant to change. Very likely we are going to fail.“
Funnily enough, employees had desperately been longing for the change. Most of them wanted to work more agile and more collaboratively. But they did not feel well supported or they were afraid to start their own initiative because the management didn’t seem supportive. Some of them even told me that they had tried to be more agile but then had been pushed back by some of the top-managers. So, the foundation for the transformation had been there for a long time, however it needed the visible change of the top-managers’ behavior to make movement possible.
Being agile: Make it safe to fail
It might sound odd but in some consulting assignments I didn’t realize early enough that the managers themselves needed time to understand the basic elements of Scrum and an agile working environment. Honestly, I don’t know why, but somehow I assumed that the managers who “commissioned” an agile transformation already had understood the concept of an agile organization. However, that hardly ever was the case. As managers are only human like any other person in an organization they need the same time to understand and reflect. It became obvious to me that they needed a safe zone for experimenting and thinking without being under pressure or being judged.
Unfortunately, I often experience this not being the case. I experience (top-)managers pressured for success with ultra-tight schedules and stuffed calendars. In such an environment, it is almost impossible to have a positive learning experience. Learning quite often includes failure which – under the given circumstances – will be avoided at all cost.
To deal with such situations, I, as a consultant, usually request blocked time to work on agile experiences and to reflect and learn. If managers hardly ever have time to deeply think one topic through, I block whole days for offsite workshops. Don’t consider this time as wasted! It is crucial for managers to have that time to think, reflect, try and learn. You need some free capacity on your schedule and in your head to do so.
Practical implications for those longing for agile transformation
Are you working in an organization that needs a more agile culture but you don’t want to wait for your top-managers? Look for opportunities to involve them into your ‚agile life‘ so that they can make their own agile experiences. Quite often I experience (top-)managers being frustrated with sitting at the ranks of the theatre. Allow them to join you at the stage. This also means that you should have the courage to treat them as normal human beings or as colleagues. If no one ever invites (top-)managers to participate how are they supposed to make a personal experience of what it means for you to be agile?
The easiest way to involve your manager is by talking to him or her about your agile experiences and what you personally have learned. This might not change the managers’ mind over night, but it may create curiosity. The second easiest way is to invite your manager to some of your agile meetings. Most of the companies have some sort of ‘agile‘ established on team level. Give managers the chance to see for themselves. You might establish shared artifacts which help them to learn interacting with employees differently.
Agile awareness workshops are a more sophisticated way for managers to make agile experiences safely by using simulations and problem solving ‘games‘. This can be a door opener.
What if you cannot get in contact with top-managers? Then it might be a good start to engage the manager within your reach. Maybe he or she can – if personally willing to change – help to develop your working environment for the better. Over the course of time he might engage with managers in his range and so on. Obviously, this takes time and it carries the risk that the chain of engaged managers will never build up. Unfortunately, this might tell you one thing: As long as authorities, preventing the change, stay the same and are not forced into change by outside events, agile transformation very likely will not happen. If this is the case, you might have to consider to move on to a different organization.
Whenever you talk about agile transformation or an agile change program forget about the ‚top-management’s buy-in‘. You are going to need far more than that. What you want is personal involvement and engagement of your top-managers. Their capability of making a personal change determines the speed of change for the whole organization. To make a personal change, managers need time to try, reflect and learn just like any other employee in the organization.