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Your Agile Transformation Needs to Start with a Quiet Phase

From a really great blog post on agile adoption:
I've observed some different agile transformation patterns, and maybe you have too:

Just Do Standups  (Shoot, then Aim):  some people feel that since you're "agile," you should just start doing stuff, like daily standups, and then build more of the the plan as you go.  Find a team and start doing some agile with them!  Start a revolution one practice at a time, one team at a time.
  • Pros:  you're very busy from the start.
  • Cons:  what exactly are you doing and why?
KPI-Driven Change (Aim, then Shoot): some people who have worked in large corporations for a while will tell you that to get the respect of the people, you need to start with a plan, support the plan with awesome printed and online collateral.  Then you "kick off," tell teams what to do, and measure them using "Key Productivity Indicators," KPI, to see whether they are good at the new thing you want them to do.
  • Pros:  you know what you're doing and why
  • Cons:  you could fail in a big, public way.  Live by the KPI, die by the KPI.  Unless you lie.
I'm not going to call "Do What You Want And Lie About It" a strategy, but it certainly is a pattern.

Plan-Do-Check-Act (Shoot Something Easy To Hit Successfully, Then Move On to Bigger Game):  W. Edwards Deming's PDCA takes out a lot of the risk out of KPI-driven change.  In this pattern, you plan something small, try it out as a pilot, verify that the small thing worked as expected, and then try it with any needed modifications on a larger scale.  You can create a whole program as a series of PDCA cycles.  You could even create your own new acronym, PPME:  "Plan, Pilot, Modify the bigger plan based on the pilot, and Execute for real."
  • Pros:  you never bet more than you can afford to lose
  • Cons: depending on when the review cycle occurs, it may not look like you've done much while you're still doing small pilots.
So here is my personal revelation for the week.  You can even improve on Plan-Do-Check-Act, even though it's designed to not allow for anyone to trump it, ever.  Think about it.

What if... could LOOK like you were doing massively successful KPI-driven change, to impress all your command-and-control enterprise buddies, but you could control the risks the way you can with the PDCA method?  Allow me to introduce you to a standard practice of large-scale fund-raising:

The Quiet Phase (Don't Declare the Plan Until It's Already Succeeding):  An organization-scale transformation is extremely analogous to an institutional fundraising "capital campaign."  Just as you want to get a lot of your target employees to start developing software the agile way, fundraisers want to get a lot of target donors to actually give them money.  It's not clear what's hardest to do, and I suppose it partly depends on the economy.  But at any rate, suppose we stipulate that "raising billions of dollars is difficult," for purposes of the argument.  How do fundraisers do it?

Fundraisers always start their campaigns with a "quiet phase," in which a small number of "capital gifts" fund-raisers make personal appeals to large scale donors, asking them to help anchor the campaign.  Studies have shown that the most successful campaigns actually raise up to 40% of their targeted funds this way before the campaign is even announced.  So when the campaign kicks off, it is already successful.  (There also turns out to be an analogous "goal line effect," which is that a huge amount of donations come in after the campaign reaches 95% of its stated goal).

What can we learn from this?  If you need to do a very large transformation, plan to start by spending some time on a series of "Quiet Phase" Plan-Do-Check-Act pilots in a very "Lean Startup" entrepreneurial mode, tracking what works and what doesn't, and racking up success stories.  Once you know what important wins you are likely to gain at scale, and, more importantly, once you have actually achieved some important wins at scale, THEN do your kick-off and announce your KPIs.  You give the impression of having an incredible ability to succeed from the start, because you've made your mistakes before you were out in public.  And the people who had the "behind the scenes" view of the quiet phase feel all the more important because they were in on the ground floor.

As one of my awesome colleagues says, "perception is reality."  Make perception work for you, by setting the reality first.


  1. Should be W. Edwards Deming, not Steven Deming

    I currently think of transformation as introducing a new idea into a marketplace of minds


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