How an Agile CoE Can Help Non-Technical Teams Go Agile


As the Agile movement continues to grow and mature, more and more non-technical teams are trying to incorporate these ways of working into their processes.

On the one hand, this is an invigorating development.

Increasingly diverse applications of Agile frameworks helps them break out of their ruts and evolve.

On the other hand, the expansion is creating unforeseen complications.

Coaches, transformation leads, and change agents are being asked to apply Agile ways of working in contexts that are utterly unfamiliar to them.

Oftentimes those responsible for embedding agility across an organization are concentrated in an Agile CoE, or Center of Excellence. Since Agile originated in software development, odds are that most CoE members come from that background.

This shared experience can lead to a very particular approach to Agile transformation that may or may not work for the non-technical teams that will inevitably be part of an organization-wide Agile rollout.

After years of working with thousands of marketers, we’ve seen CoEs that do a great job of shepherding agility across the enterprise. We’ve also seen some get it...not quite right. For those who find themselves in a CoE trying to get a wide variety of teams on the Agile train, here are five key things to make sure you’re helping, not hurting:

  1. Take stock of your internal capabilities; make a plan to fill the gaps
  2. Create a communication plan
  3. Cultivate sponsorship across the executive team
  4. Build a crossfunctional transformation team
  5. Use data to make the case for expanding your team

What Can the CoE REALLY Handle?

First and foremost, the CoE needs to get together and be honest with each other. Some questions to ask:

  • What real experience and expertise do you have? Specifically, has anyone worked outside of IT/software development before? 
  • Can you handle the full spectrum of Agile engagement styles, from training to coaching to executive guidance? If not, where will you need to tap into other resources?
  • Where is the drive toward agility coming from? How can tap into truly engaged stakeholders?

CoE Experience with Non-IT Teams

The first question is an important one to start with. I’ve heard from dozens of marketing teams over the years that a very well-meaning trainer has come and given them an Agile overview that felt totally disconnected from their daily work.

Coming in and talking about features and developers and releases vastly increases the cognitive load for an audience; you’re asking them to not only understand a whole new set of processes, but to also simultaneously translate the language being used to describe those processes into something relevant to their work experience.

Most people aren’t going to do that translation work. Instead, they’ll just assume Agile isn’t for them.

So don’t assume that Agile expertise automatically translates to effective training capabilities for every team within the organization. If someone in the CoE has experience translating Agile for non-IT folks, that’s great. If not, it’s time to consider bringing in some outside help

CoE Expertise From Training to Coaching

As the 70-20-10 learning model tells us, we learn only a fraction of what we need to know about Agile frameworks during formal training sessions. Unfortunately, many CoEs that are stretched too thin on their resources concentrate only on training.

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Since it’s less time consuming and easier to schedule, training is an obvious place to focus.

But without consistent support over a longer period of time, the lessons from a workshop won’t stick. This is why coaching support for both teams and leaders is key to effective long-term transformation.

As with the first question, a good CoE should be honest about its capabilities here.

Do you have the skills needed to coach? Do you have the bandwidth on your team to support all the teams and leaders who need lots of hand-holding in the early days of their Agile adoption?

If the answer to either of these isn’t a resounding yes, it’s time to find a partner. Even if the CoE itself doesn’t have budget for third party support, you can look to departmental training budgets for help.

Get creative here if you need to -- spending extra time lobbying for some extra hands will make the transformation effort far more likely to succeed.

Engaging Champions Across the Organization

We’ll dig into this one in more detail in a future action item, but early on you’ll want to take stock as a group of where the drive for agility is coming from. Is it a c-suite mandate, or something driven more from the grassroots level? Maybe it’s a combination of both.

Knowing where the momentum lies will help you figure out who on your team has, or can cultivate, meaningful relationships with the folks actually implementing Agile.

There’s nothing worse than a CoE that’s doing amazing work and not getting any credit for it because they aren’t spending time sharing progress effectively with their champions.

Build Your Transformation Communication Plan

When we work with enterprise marketing organizations on their Agile transformations, it’s common to find that the champion has already developed a communication plan. Marketers intuitively grasp the need for telling the story of transformation, and CoEs can benefit from following their lead.

Agile transformations are long, winding roads. Sometimes there are huge boulders on the path that need to be broken down before the journey can proceed. Even the smoothest trips can take years in a large global enterprise.

If you don’t clearly articulate what’s happening, to whom, when, and why, you’ll lose both interest and momentum.

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In true Agile fashion your comms plan will evolve over time, but at a minimum you’ll want to lay out:

  • How you’ll communicate progress, milestones, and upcoming efforts, and at what frequency. Email, recurring all-hands meetings, and internal wikis are all options. You’ll likely want to test a blend of all of these (and maybe more). Someone on your team should be responsible for making sure each channel stays updated. 
  • Big wins and important watch-outs. Nobody wants to make unavoidable mistakes, so anything that active teams learn should be socialized far and wide. And of course you want to shout about successes to keep momentum going. 
  • Transformation strategy and team members. How will pilots work? Who’s going first, second, third? What are likely iterations, and how will decisions about those changes be made? Agile adoption is typically disruptive to a high percentage of an organization. The more information you can give about what’s going on, the less speculation and worry you’ll have to contend with. It’s also crucial for people to know who to approach with questions and concerns. 

Cultivate Executive Sponsors for Agility

Because Agile transformation is a long-term process, you want to make sure you have high-level support that will stay with you for the long haul.

And note that I say sponsors -- plural.

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There’s nothing worse than having one big advocate for agility who leaves at a crucial moment.

At best it’ll create confusion and delay; at worst it may lead to the transformation getting put on hold indefinitely.

Part of the role of an Agile CoE is to play internal politics. You need to identify sponsors in the c-suite, and make sure they play an active role in the Agile rollout. They should talk about it in meetings, use their clout to encourage hesitant adopters, and model Agile leadership behavior.

It’s not enough to just be a great coach; members of an Agile CoE have to also be adept at navigating an organization to drive a transformation forward. 

Build an Agile Transformation Team

Executive sponsors are vital, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle. You also need leaders across the org chart on board, ideally as a formal part of a transformation team.

This group is tasked with overseeing the Agile rollout and making sure it actually happens.

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Executives advocate; the transformation team executes.

Ideally this team will be diverse, bringing together leaders from different functions across the organization. Particularly important will be participation from teams like human resources and finance, as they support all other groups and their relative levels of agility can accelerate, or hinder, processes.

Your transformation team will ensure steady adoption within their part of the organization, while also coordinating with one another to address large-scale dependencies.

If there are tools that need to be adopted, they ensure it’s getting done within their function. They should also be plugged directly into your communication plan, helping to disseminate the transformation strategy, key wins, important watch-outs, and other key talking points.

In essence, your transformation team acts as an extension of the CoE. They augment your capabilities, and can make or break a transformation’s success.

Use Data to Grow the CoE Team

After you get the preceding pieces into place, you’ll want to consider the long-term growth of the CoE itself. As a transformation proceeds, unexpected hurdles will crop up and an ever-growing number of Agile teams will come online.

Having enough hands on deck to deal with these complexities is vital, but it can be hard to justify hiring more Agile expertise.

Wherever possible, look for opportunities to measure the business impact of your work.

Can marketing get campaigns to market faster? Do Agile sales teams make more calls or close deals faster? Is employee engagement at an all-time high thanks to agility in HR?

Track these outcomes, and use them to make the case for building out the team. If you can’t get the green light for true full time hires, you can look for more budget to support outside help on an as-needed basis. We often join forces with a CoE in this way, augmenting their reach for 6-12 months while demand is high, and then handing off responsibilities to internal resources once they can handle it. 

What Else Does the Agile CoE Need to Succeed?

Have you seen other success factors inside an Agile CoE? I’m always on the lookout for more ways to help Agile transformations succeed, and would love to hear from you!

Drop me a line -- andrea AT AgileSherpas DOT com -- and let me know what I missed on this list.

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