Without Executive Sponsorship, Agile Goes Splat

In the technology industry, there has been a rising chorus of questions about the role of the executive in Agile adoption. The recent acceleration of Agile adoption has a lot to do with the frequency of the question. Here's the other reason: Agile has been around long enough for a collective contemplation of lessons learned. In the after action reports about Agile implementations, executives regularly appear as major characters.

Given the ripple effects of Agile adoption throughout a technology company, it would have been surprising indeed if executives had played only a minor role. When the development team changes when and how it delivers new technology, everyone (Sales, Marketing, Support, Consulting, etc.) is affected in some way. With Agile adoption, executives who are already trying to bring departments into greater alignment face another potential source of misalignment. At the same time, as Forrester's research into Agile adoption in the tech industry shows, executives are less able to influence the priorities and activities in Development. If the executives don't really understand Agile, or haven't invested much in making this profound transformation work, an avalanche of backlash from the upper regions of the org chart is the usual result.

The study of the executive's role in Agile adoption is still in its infancy. You can find it as a semi-regular topic in blogs, conferences, and other channels. Unfortunately, many of the discussions don't go far beyond recognizing that executives play an important role, without getting into specifics. Case studies? Best practices? Models of leadership? Not so much.

Not surprisingly, the people with the most to say on this topic have interacted with a lot of Agile teams. ThoughtWorks, a company that specializes in Agile services and products, just launched its Agile Transitions community site, where members can "discuss a range of executive-focused topics, including IT governance, organization, budgeting and financing, risk management, HR issues and enterprise adoption and integration." Vendors like ThoughtWorks are well-positioned to build these communities (see also Rally's Agile Commons), and there's a clear need for specialization and segmentation among them.

Executives need a place where they can discuss the pros and cons of Agile adoption, validate what their own employees are telling them, and figure out what kind of role they need to play. The word sponsorship appears regularly in discussions about the Agile executive, but what does that mean, in practice? Should executives limit their involvement to setting the goals for Agile adoption, or do they need to intervene regularly in operational and tactical issues as they arise? How big an investment in training, coaching, or tools may be required? What metrics tell an executive whether or not Agile remains on track? (Hint: Executives don't care about nightly build reports.)

Building an Agile executive community makes a lot of sense. Obviously, executives need to start with general formulas for supporting and leading Agile adoptions. (Here's a sample set of guidelines from Israel Gat, someone who definitely knows about the executive's role in Agile.) Executives also benefit greatly from hearing how their peers in other organizations have applied these principles. As Benjamin Franklin once noted, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." Other people's experiences with budgeting, goals, metrics, staffing, timelines, and other executive-level concerns provide a potentially valuable, if surrogate, form of involvement.

Postscript: I have material, collected during recent research about Agile, about the executive role. Unfortunately, given the limitations of publishing schedules, this information didn't make it into the research reports. Is this an important enough issue that I should finish the work that I started? As an experiment, I posted a poll in our shiny new Forrester community (registration required) where you can help us prioritize, relative to other Agile-related topics. Your feedback is definitely appreciated.


Sponsorship is so 1990's

I do not believe anyone would disagree that sponsorship is critical to the success of an agile transition. Actually, executive sponsorship has been shown to be a key critical success factor for any kind of project, so why would an agile project be different?

In my opinion, the question no longer is about the need (or not) of executive sponsorship but on WHAT the sponsor must do. Using the Scrum roles, the (one) executive sponsor of the agile transition should act as a Product Owner (setting direction and making hard decisions when required) while the supporting executives should act as Scrum Masters (facilitators). They should act as servant leaders as opposed to "command-and-control" executives types.

Agreed, but...

"In my opinion, the question no longer is about the need (or not) of executive sponsorship but on WHAT the sponsor must do."

We're in heated agreement, but I bet when we get to the WHAT, there's going to still be considerable disagreement. For example, some organizations would recoil at the idea of an executive being the product owner. Responsible at a strategic plane for the product? Definitely. But the product owner, as someone who's down in the proverbial weeds? Maybe not.

Thanks for your reply Tom.

Thanks for your reply Tom. Indeed, not much disagreement here.

When I deal with executives and use the "Product Owner" perspective, it is much more in the context of the "role" than the actual title. What I want the executive to be / do is:

- Communicate the vision of the initiative
- Assess the proposed approach
- Collaborate with the team

A good "Product Owner" must:
- Know the market value of the initiative
- Have the power to bring diverse interests and desires together
- Be available
- Be the driver of the initiative and communicate it to his peers

Extremely Insightful Post!

Thanks for such an insightful view into the role of Executive Sponsorship on Agile projects. The Executive holds the founding key to successful Agile projects. They foster adoption by providing a leadership vision and design a strategy that will afford Agile organizations to walk down a path to success.

Once the Vision and Strategy to execute the vision become clear, it becomes easier to lay a foundational roadmap and plan for upcoming releases. Although many people consider Agile rollout to be a primarily grassroots effort, it is a breath of fresh air to hear your view on this hot topic. With a solid foundation and understanding of the Agile Executive role, the team should be able to achieve even greater things.