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The primary responsibilities of an executive in a transformation to Lean and Agile include (1) defining and reinforcing the objectives for the transformation, (2) establishing guardrails that keep the transformation “within bounds,” (3) ensuring that the effort gets the necessary level of resources and support, and (4) providing feedback at the level of the entire system, something that only an executive can provide. This article provides the barest bones of explanation; each responsibility will get further attention, in turn, in other articles in this clinic.
Executives Must be Transformational Leaders
An old stereotype of Agile adoption depicts a plucky team, raging against a system that does not work, pursuing a revolutionary approach to software development. That stereotype is now largely defunct, in the phase of countless contrary experiences. Teams need sponsors for their efforts, particularly since Agile perturbs the value stream. Not just the development team, but other groups as well, must be part of the transformation — a situation that demands, at some point, attention and support from the executive wing of the organization.
Executives occupy a unique position in the organization, able to see the results of changes in one group on the rest of the system of work that starts with an idea and ends with code in production. Therefore, they can provide the kind of guidance and support needed during the time that teams are both adopting Agile methods and interacting in new ways with the rest of the value stream (a Lean concern).
The details of the executive role in a transformation effort would take a much longer article to describe. (It is, in fact, the subject of many of the other articles in this clinic.) However, we can provide a brief outline here, with greater detail to be found elsewhere. Executive leadership in Lean-Agile transformation includes the following responsibilities:
These responsibilities demand that executives operate as leaders, not as managers, for Lean and Agile transformation to succeed. They must depict the happier future these changes will create, provide the means to reach it, and reinforce the constraints on how to arrive at the ultimate destination. They must operate as sponsors, not controllers. Without this leadership, transformation can devolve easily into a disconnected, directionless effort that might bring some tactical improvements, but not the strategic gains desired.
The transition from traditional software innovation to a Lean and Agile approach requires executive sponsorship to succeed. No one else has the bigger picture, both of how this transformation will help the organization achieve its larger goals, as well as the perspective on how well the organization overall is moving towards them.