Agile Stakeholder Engagement

As enterprises increasingly adopt Agile practices across their organizations, they must also carefully consider how such a transformation will impact people and teams. Change practitioners are often asked to lead organizations through this journey. However, conventional change management approaches are imperfect fits for Agile transformation. Traditional change models were developed to guide planned change and transformation in support of Waterfall projects. They are focused on managing change and adoption sequentially over a significant period of time, utilizing a defined roadmap and end state. Figure 1 illustrates the conventional change model – a big bang approach featuring a large drop in user productivity followed by a long, drawn-out period of adoption.

Figure 1: The Old Change Curve

Figure 1: The Old Change Curve

A new paradigm is therefore needed to address the challenges inherent in managing change within an Agile environment. This new paradigm must allow change practitioners to work in a more collaborative and flexible way, with the ability to adjust to shifting priorities, in order to maximize stakeholder engagement and adoption. In other words, change managers must adopt and adapt existing Agile values for their own work. Figure 2 demonstrates how an Agile change model would function – smaller drops in productivity followed by quick adoption of small amounts of change.

Figure 2: The Agile Change Curve

Figure 2: The Agile Change Curve

Before embracing Agile principles, it is important to first understand the core values of Agile. The Agile Manifesto, developed in 2001 as a guide to iterative and people-centric software development, emphasizes:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

How do we adapt these values to execute a stakeholder engagement and adoption program? Listed below are the four Agile Manifesto principles and the key activities and tools that can be utilized for each principle:

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

  • Information Radiators
    Information Radiators are displays of information located in highly visible areas. They are used so team members or anyone walking by can see the most recent data at a glance. This, in turn, promotes transparency and accountability to external stakeholders and within the team itself. Information radiators also tend to elicit conversation with visitors, which can produce valuable feedback. Examples of Agile information radiators include team velocity (the measure of the amount of work a team can tackle during a single sprint), burn down charts (a graphical representation of work left to do versus time), and defect rates. Scrum Boards are also great radiators – they visibly demonstrate the team’s sprint progress and stimulate dialogue with stakeholders regarding prioritization of backlog items.
  • Interactive Events
    Another way to increase stakeholder interaction is by sponsoring events such as open houses, roadshows, and tech conferences. These events give Agile teams a forum for marketing their products. Likewise, they encourage stakeholders to become active participants in the creation of those products. Stakeholders are, therefore, more likely to feel invested as part of the team. Their buy-in will generate more feedback loops which will lead to greater return on investment.
  • Collaborative Channels
    A fun way to engage stakeholders is through collaborative channels like Lean Coffees, Gemba Walks, and Fishbowls. Lean Coffees are structured meetings that begin without a set agenda. Participants gather, democratically build the agenda, and begin talking. This format leads to more directed and productive conversations. A Gemba Walk is simply in-person observation where the work is happening, usually conducted by leadership. The goal is to observe and understand without taking action. Fishbowls take place in large groups where any member of the audience can join the conversation. Fishbowls eliminate the divide between the speakers and audience. In sum, these collaboration activities allow the stakeholders to drive the conversation about the change.

Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation

An Agile change practitioner might read this principle as “Iterative and incremental over comprehensive documentation”.

  • Iterative Planning
    Agile change management requires one to think like an Agile practitioner. There won’t be time to create a detailed change plan for the entire project; instead, teams plan change products iteratively using 2 to 4-week sprints. Create a Scrum Board to display and manage change work, with nearer-term change products more clearly defined than farther-term ones. This not only provides visibility into the plan to the rest of the organization, but also allows for quick re-prioritization based on stakeholder feedback.
  • Incremental Releases
    Similarly, teams should use an Agile framework to release change products. Instead of delivering change products all at once, Agile teams deliver them incrementally at the end of each sprint. Imperfect change products can be released to kick off the feedback gathering process and enable faster product improvement.

Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation

This principle might more appropriately read “Customer collaboration over hierarchical decision-making” for an Agile change manager.

  • Feedback Loops
    Agile values collaboration with the customer, and the easiest way to collaborate is by establishing short feedback loops early in the project. Rapid feedback allows us to learn, iterate, and improve continuously. An easy way to maintain an ongoing dialogue between users and developers is to establish a collaborative technology where the users can report bugs and request features directly through the product itself. This tool makes it easy for users to track the progress of their requests. Stakeholders should also be encouraged to attend demos, participate in retrospectives, and capture lessons learned, to maintain the feedback loops throughout the entire project lifecycle.
  • Champion Network
    Organizations must identify product champions early in the project lifecycle who are willing to build support, participate in product development and represent the user base. Champions represent different products, can share best practices, and assist in scaling Agile across the enterprise. Champions can also serve as coaches for the users – coaches can be valuable change agents, as they spend every day with the teams going through the transformation.
  • Learn by Doing
    Instead of passively training users in the classroom, Agile teams should enable them to actively learn through face-to-face sessions led by experienced users. Users should be encouraged to take risks and make mistakes in an environment where it is safe to do so. eLearning concepts, such as micro-learning and gamification can motivate participation, engagement, and loyalty. Many eLearning applications also leverage machine learning to automatically deliver relevant material to users according to their knowledge.
  • Face-to-Face Communication
    For an Agile project, the most efficient and preferred method of communication is face-to-face. Face-to-face communication makes it simple to convey thoughts and exchange feedback, and makes it less likely that information will be lost in translation.

Responding to Change over Following a Plan

A more active way of expressing this value might be “Pivoting with change over following a plan”.

  • Track and Prioritize Change Activities
    A backlog should be kept to continually prioritize activities that deliver the most value to the stakeholders. Champions should be involved in backlog grooming and invited to sprint planning and review sessions. These strategies empower and enable stakeholders to make decisions, thereby making them more productive, engaged, and satisfied with their work.

For most organizations today, the development cycle is a black hole. Taking a more customer-centric approach means focusing on transparency, prioritizing interactions with stakeholders, planning iteratively, and delivering incrementally. While the list above is by no means an exhaustive list of Agile change management activities, focusing on these ten keys will leave you better equipped to spearhead an Agile transformation, ultimately leading to increased awareness, trust, partnership, and buy-in from key stakeholders.

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