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Eight steps for leaders to develop an agile culture

Jon Kern
2 May 23 Agile
Top-down transformation: how to lead your organisation to a more agile future

They say a poor craftsperson blames their tools. And it’s easy to see why. Tools are the most concrete aspect of our businesses. We can pick them up, throw them out, and point the finger at them when things go wrong. 

No wonder management often turns to tools first when trying to make change happen. It’s far easier to hope new tech will be a quick fix than to address the less-tangible aspects of our organisations that make the biggest difference: the people and the processes.

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"I think we'll see organisations less interested in having the shiny new agile tool and more focused on what solves their business-critical problems. Now is a great time for organisations to introspect and adapt. If your prevailing system of management was not meeting your needs, time to invest in your people and culture."
Jon Kern, Agile Consultant, Adaptavist and co-author Agile Manifesto

Tools don’t drive agile transformation

While there’s lots to learn from how agile thinking has transformed software development, the tools people shout about only play a small part in this success. Agile transformation is about integrating people, processes and tools. Without rethinking your culture, and the people and processes you need to embody that culture, it doesn’t matter how good your tools are—you’ll never be an agile enterprise.

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What does an agile enterprise look like?

An agile enterprise can adapt to operate in new ways. According to McKinsey, these are "fluid organisations that continually evolve to capture market opportunities while highly engaging their employees." They comprise flexible, cross-functional teams that own their own value creation and make their own decisions. As a result, they have satisfied customers and engaged employees—oh, and they make more money. 

Did you know?

Agile methods were first tried out in car manufacturing, aerospace, computer, and defence industries as early as the 1950s. In 2001, 17 software developers (including Adaptavist’s Agile Consultant Jon Kern), got together and created the Agile Manifesto – an alternative to step-wise, 'waterfall', documentation-driven, heavyweight software development processes. One of the Agile Manifesto’s four values is individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

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It’s time to step up

Transformation will not take place in an instant. Agile enterprises evolve over time and, by their very nature, never stop evolving. That said, you can’t sit back and wait for business agility to happen. As a senior manager, it’s up to you to embrace an agile mindset, set the tone, and lead the way. Cultural change requires a spearhead.

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Top-down transformation: how to lead your organisation to a more agile future

Here are eight steps you can take to boost your agile transformation journey.

1. Think like a technology company

Whether you’re deploying software innovations or selling a product or service online, your employees rely on software to get their jobs done. Software also creates value for your stakeholders and drives interactions with your customers. You are a technology company, and it’s time to start thinking like one.

Much like how DevOps in software development brings siloed developers and operations teams together, you must use an agile mindset and workflows to bridge organisational divides, eliminate siloed working, and accelerate the feedback loop.

2. Relinquish control

The hard truth is that if you’ve been trained to have all the answers and hold all the power, you will struggle to transform your enterprise. Why? Because a strict hierarchy prevents open communication, fast decision-making and execution, and adaptability because their voices and opinions are never heard.

You have to be willing to relinquish control and empower others to act autonomously. This will impact the way power and communication move through the organisation. 


No one has all the answers; the solutions you need to succeed could come from anywhere. By decentralising power and trusting other people’s expertise, you allow great ideas to surface. 

Autonomy is not synonymous with chaos. With a clearly and continually articulated vision, autonomy is the ability for your people to act of their own volition to judge the next step to take and the direction of travel, versus waiting for instructions or asking permission for every move.

3. Set outcomes rather than actions

In agile enterprises, autonomous teams own a complete workflow. They’re cross-functional and self-organising, making informed decisions on when to expand and contract, and how to optimise their value chain in relation to the business’ wider objectives.

As a leader, it’s your job to steer the ship but not to power it forward. By setting meaningful desired outcomes rather than dictating actions teams should take to achieve them, you empower others to put their expertise into practice.

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"If you want your people to think, don’t give instructions, give intent."
David Marquet, Retired US Navy Captain and author of Turn the Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level
The leader’s guide to creating an agile enterprise eBook

‘During the Covid pandemic, companies already operating under agile methods were able to quickly reconfigure processes as their customers’ needs and the environment rapidly evolved.’

From The leader’s guide to creating an agile enterprise

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4. Eliminate gaps between actions and feedback

Agile enterprises seek feedback early and often. They are able to respond quickly to feedback (but not hurriedly); this is what makes them great. With teams taking action as soon as possible to improve their customer experience continuously, it’s your job, as a senior leader, to ensure there is as little friction and political baggage as possible. Make decision-making a reality rather than being the roadblock that holds it up.

Did you know?

Agile businesses boast a 20 to 30% boost in financial performance. Source: ‘Five core IT shifts of scaled agile organisations’, McKinsey and Co. April 2021

5. Embrace automation

If something repetitive can be automated, it probably should be. Automation frees up your people to innovate. Transformation can be time-consuming and costly, but that shouldn’t hold you back. Slowly introduce automation where you can get the most bang for the buck and encourage teams to experiment, even in small ways.

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Let the team experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t; failing fast is vital
Let the team experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t; failing fast is vital.

6. Start small and fail together

To start, build a pioneering team and agile practices around a specific value stream or initiative. This will avoid too much disruption to other business activities. Let the team experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t; failing fast is vital. Assess and document the results openly—maybe through a retrospective—and share widely.

It is (counterintuitively) important to share failures—and let everyone know failing is part of learning and ultimately succeeding. And that is okay. You won’t get your head chopped off for sticking your neck out on a bold idea.

7. Offer incentives

To encourage an agile culture, incentives should be built into the process. We’re not necessarily talking about money here (it’s often not the greatest motivator). This could be opening up communication channels with leadership or recognising team or individual accomplishments through internal communication tools and forums.

8. Scale up your successes  

As agility takes hold and your pioneer team grows in confidence, you must maintain that momentum. Identify other adjacent parts of the enterprise that can adopt similar approaches and piggyback on this success. Or, if you are really lucky, folks will step forward and express interest in being next on the list to try new ways of working. Keep an eye on interdependencies between workflows and use these as a roadmap to scale up agile working across the enterprise.

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"Agile is more a direction than an end."
Pearl Zhu, Author of the Digital Master book series

The never-ending journey

If you take away one thing from this article, it’s that agile transformation is not a destination—it’s a journey. No matter where you are, you won’t end up somewhere static. As an agile enterprise, you should always improve, evolve, and adapt to your customers’ needs, your competitors, your innovations, and the environment. 

And, as a leader, it’s up to you to commit to making that change happen.

It all starts with you.

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