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Passing the Baton: The Role of Leadership in Sustainable Agile Transformations

Em Campbell-Pretty
Aug 21, 2014

Five years ago, before I had ever heard of an Agile Release Train, I was given a copy of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great by my line manager. Over the years I have read and re-read this book and it continues to be one of my favourites. I even recommended it to the EDW Book Club where we spent a number of hours dissecting the findings and considering how they might be applicable to launching an Agile Release Train.

Good to Great is the result of five years of research aimed at understanding the defining characteristics of “companies that made the leap from good results to great results”.  Jim Collins and his team identified seven concepts that were present in all the companies that had made the leap from good-to-great. One of the most compelling messages I took away from my first reading of this book was the concept of “Level 5 Leadership”.  That is, leaders who display the following behavioural patterns:

  • Setting up Successors for Success
  • A Compelling Modesty
  • Unwavering Resolve...To Do What Must Be Done
  • The Window and the Mirror
good to great concepts
Good to Great concepts

I was reminded of this recently, after leaving the EDW Release Train. In the months since I said goodbye, I began to wonder if I had done enough to set my successor up for success. Was I just another “agile evangelist” leaving a raft of unsustainable ideas in my wake? While I had complete faith in the team I left behind, I was concerned that the organisation would close in on them. After all, the transformation that took place with the EDW team was for the most part unique and not replicated across the corporation.

I had some reason to be hopeful. Over the years I had observed that the “bright spot” that is the EDW Release Train inspire change in other parts of the organisation. For example, some groups across the broader department had started their own Unity Day, the practice of measuring team happiness had been adopted by various teams across the organisation and more Agile Release Trains had been launched in other lines of business. But it wasn’t enough.

As mentioned in previous blog posts the success of the train had led to an increase in demand for delivery. In the days following the announcement that I was leaving, the offshore vendor that used to be responsible for EDW delivery was re-engaged to assist with the increased demand. I don’t know what lead to that decision, but I have to wonder if the only thing that had been preventing such a decision being made before I resigned was the belief that I would fight it tooth and nail - which was a completely fair assumption! As it turned out, I was not the only champion of the EDW Release Train and the outsourcing decision was reversed almost as quickly as it was made.

I have not had the opportunity to visit the EDW Release Train since my tear filled last day with them at the end of April. The grape vine tells me they are continuing to grow and evolve. A new carriage (team) is being added to the train. The tradition of Unity Hour is ongoing, with new quirky ideas like the recent “Mr Strategic Delivery” competition. The project described in my blog on Impact Mapping has gone on to deliver on its promise. The progress towards flow, mentioned in my blog on SAFe without PSI planning, has resulted in the Epic and Feature kanbans being merged to help with visualising flow. And the tradition of growing leaders from within continues as existing team members step up into the leadership roles that have been vacated.

The research team behind Good to Great found that every sustained transformation was led by a leader that whose ambition was "for the greatness of the work and the company" and actively set their successors up for success. Whether you are a coach, manager, scrum master or team member, you all play a role in ensuring the improvements you champion are sustainable. There is nothing more disheartening for the teams you work with, than to be led to a better place only to find it is an illusion. In the case of the EDW Release Train the baton has been passed smoothly, the team continues to accelerate, and I look forward to following their story as they break new frontiers

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