The Most Important Question to Answer for Successful Agile Transformations

By: Mike Hall | Sep 24, 2019 |  Agile Transformation,  Article,  Leadership

A single question mark in a thought bubble is against a solid yellow background, representing the most important question to ask for a successful Agile transformation. For leaders during an Agile transformation, the question of why the organization is going Agile is vital. Without this compelling reason for change, the transformation runs the risk of losing steam and failing.In a recent discussion with a business leader, I asked a simple question: “Why are you considering an Agile transformation?” 

“We just want to get better,” she replied.

Awkward silence. 

I understood what she meant. We all want to get better. But that’s not a great reason to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on full-scale organizational change. Not when she didn’t have any particular business goal in mind.

Any type of transformation—Agile, digital, or otherwise—is serious in terms of cost, effort, and time. It’s not uncommon for a transformation to last several years, impacting hundreds of workers. Plus, not all Agile transformations are successful Agile transformations. CIO digital magazine reports only 17% of transformations achieve a sustained level of improvement

In my experience, this is often caused by a lack of a compelling, business-centric purpose or focus for the transformation. Successful Agile transformations ask workers to think differently, act differently, and evolve through continuous improvement. Workers must adopt different values and be willing to change their mindset about how they approach work. When asking this much of your people, you should provide a good reason. Something that is both exciting and important. 

Identifying Your Compelling Reason for Change

As a leader, you can uncover your compelling reason for transformation by asking this killer question first and foremost:

What is our business objective(s) for this Agile transformation?”

Starting with a business objective helps ensure that everyone involved in the Agile transformation understands why they are being asked to change. This is key to a successful Agile transformation.

A business objective also aligns the underlying Agile transformation efforts in pursuit of the stated objective. Progress towards your business objective can be measured and adjustments made as needed. Establishing a business objective will also naturally lead to a host of relevant follow-up questions that can be explored to determine the path forward. 

Business objectives such as “We want to get better,” “Everyone is doing agile now,” and “We need to go SAFe® because it is popular” are not enough. They make it more difficult to prioritize work pertaining to the Agile initiative.

In contrast, great business objectives are S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound). But don’t stop there! They should also be inspiring, motivating, and action-oriented. For example:

  •     To keep our customers safe from digital harm and reduce damage from criminal cyber activity, we want to improve our market responsiveness to 1 month or less when new security breaches are found.
  •     In order to re-establish customer trust in our XYZ product line, we want to reduce post-release defects found within 6 months of a release by 80%.
  •     Increase our product revenue by 40% within 2 years through prioritized delivery of add-on services in order to stave off the market competition from the fast-follower competition.

Agile Velocity’s Path to Agility® framework identifies the following 9 areas for business objectives. Consider these areas when crafting your own business objective for your Agile transformation.

As I delved deeper with the business leader I mentioned earlier, she realized she was truly after a level of development predictability that would allow her company to make accurate marketing statements about upcoming product releases. From there, I encouraged her to include a quantitative factor in her business objective to ensure that it was measurable.

We went from “We want to get better” to a clear business goal that guided the transformation through to success. 


In my next article, I’ll explore how to organize the Agile transformation effort. Now that we have a great business objective, we can identify transformation outcomes and underlying technical capabilities that influence our business objective.

In the meantime, you can read more about our approach to building lasting business agility, you can check out our Transformation Services page.

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