Mobilis Strategic Advisors (acquired by MNP in January 2020) was an independent consulting firm that helped clients adapt to disruption, build strategic agility, and get the right things done faster.
To support this work, Mobilis employed formal Agile methods, helping companies create and deploy Agile frameworks that enable them to move faster on new opportunities while increasing alignment across the business.
Prior to the firm's acquisition, we spoke with Mobilis’s CEO, Mary Larson, President Kevin Joy, and Senior Consultant Danica Meredith about making agile transformations successful.
Why do you think executives are so interested in learning about Agile?
Mary: Most organizations these days have to deal with change in a way that’s fast, yet still highly inclusive and constructive.
Kevin: We often talk about “strategic agility.” Companies need a clear strategy, effective leadership, and a culture that enables it. And then, as far as implementation goes, the Agile framework complements that and makes things happen more effectively.
When did you first start working with Agile methods?
Mary: Several years ago, we were engaged by a large retailer here in Canada. For years, the CEO had been trying to shorten the design-to-store cycle. Originally, it was about 18 months. He got it down to nine months, and then he wanted to reduce it to three months.
To help him accomplish that, we brought in an Agile coach who began, first, to train the executive team, and then launched a number of agile teams in merchandising, design, manufacturing, supply chain, and so on.
Not just IT, in other words.
Mary: That’s right. It was unbelievably successful. We’re now working with a very large, global healthcare company on a culture transformation exercise that leverages Agile to realign processes like compensation, communication, and accountability to the values of the firm. We’ve thought a lot about what you need to do to embed Agile practices inside an organization. One of the key reasons this project is succeeding is that the product owners and scrum masters aren’t coming from an Agile group within the company, but instead are people’s colleagues, whom we trained. We helped them create a center of excellence around culture transformation—that is built on agile methodologies—that keeps those teams alive and brings new people into the Agile way of getting things done.
As opposed to a more top-down approach that starts with an influx of scrum masters who are new to the company.
Danica: A SWAT team approach to Agile implementation doesn’t work. When you come in from the outside, you’re never going to know what the employees know. When you bring people up from inside, it accelerates everything and increases people’s trust in each other.
Mary: Agile is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The model that’s sustainable is the one that uses the talents of internal people in the right place in the right way.
What are some of the other ways that organizations can build—and sustain—success with Agile?
Danica: Our approach starts with executive leadership, because if you don’t have leadership buy-in, it’s not going to happen.
Then we talk about goals. Agile is a hot word, like “innovation.” Everybody’s got “innovation” in their strat plan, but what does that actually mean? Agile can be anything from a quick project to an initiative that spans the entire organization. So when executives tell us they’re going Agile, we always ask them why. What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve? What are you trying to improve?
Assuming Agile is an appropriate answer, what then?
Danica: We define a small area that can give us proof of concept within the organization, and we start to look at the corporate culture. Does the company have the right people in the right roles for what they’re trying to do? If Joe worked for eight years to become a team lead, and that title is important to him, it may not work to make him a scrum master and say, “Oh yeah. You have no authority in an agile team; you are there to facilitate the process.”
Mary: We often use a psychometric tool called SuccessFinder to determine, objectively, whether someone has the behavioral characteristics to be effective as a scrum master or in some other role.
Danica: The goal is to build a high-performance team and increase accountability and trust, while reskilling the middle layer of executives and helping them excel at their job.
Kevin: That’s so important. You’re not just trying to train scrum masters. You are trying to make sure that everyone’s who’s involved understands the objectives and the terminology and everything that makes it important.
What about the actual pilot?
Mary: One of the things that makes Agile helpful is that you can start to get quick wins happening through the process of defining the epic story and the other stories underneath it. You start to get results very quickly, which in turn helps drive engagement.
What’s more, the approach that we’re talking about has an implicit multiplier effect. It does not require 35 people.
Mary, you mentioned earlier that Agile isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Can you talk about some of the scenarios where you think it is and isn’t appropriate?
Mary: If the solution to the problem lies within a particular group and the answer is probably pretty clearly defined, and you don’t need Agile.
But if your problem requires cross-functional collaboration to solve, or if you don’t have a good idea as to what the answer is going to look like at the outset, that is a really good time to use Agile. The word “transformation” is used all over the place, but big culture transformations, organizational transformations, supply chain transformations, and other big, complex, cross-functional problems are perfect for Agile.
What are some of the most common things that go wrong during Agile transformations and initiatives?
Mary: One thing that causes problems is when there are people acting as scrum masters and coaches who don’t understand the business. That’s why we have an almost allergic reaction to organizations that try to implement Agile through IT. They may be fabulous IT people, but they don’t necessarily understand the business.
Agile must be driven by a well-understood business imperative, where everyone understands “we’ve got to do this,” and senior leadership is playing an active role in bolstering the confidence of the team.
Danica: Another common source of pain is an overly hierarchical, top-down implementation process. People can really go cuckoo pajamas when they don’t understand or believe in the change—I mean, I’ve seen IT people cut their own ethernet cables. Clients say, “But we sent them an email. We did a town hall.” If you don’t find and activate change agents in different parts of the organization, it can be very, very traumatic.
Kevin: The final point I’d make is that if organizations go into this and the culture is not accepting of failure, they will have a hard time. Agile is all about iteration, it’s about failing fast and learning from mistakes. If the expectation is that everyone knows everything and if you don’t, you shut up, that’s antithetical to the framework.
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