Incrementalism and Digital Transformation: Team Edition

Zooming back in time to the 6th century BC, there was a wrestler named Milo. He was a prolific competitor in the festivals of the age including the Olympics, the Pythian Games, and the Isthmian Games. He was a five-time winner of the Periodonikes (which has nothing to do with dental work). It was the title given to an athlete who won all major festivals in the same cycle. He is the most renowned wrestler in antiquity. 

What is notable about Milo is how he acquired his great strength. According to legend, he started by picking up and placing a calf on his shoulders every day from its birth to its full size. 

This journey took over four years to complete. 

Whether true or not, this approach to growth has lessons that can be applied at a tactical level with individual development teams in the midst of an organizational digital transformation.

If I am honest, one of the personal challenges I have as a consultant is that there is no magic switch to turn “the agile” on. It is not possible to evaluate a team, identify areas of opportunity, and press all the right buttons to make it a high-performing team. There is no “Easy Button,” there is no magic incantation, and I cannot snap my fingers to effect immediate change. 

The truth is that it is a long and sometimes difficult journey for the team and organization. There are, however, a few nuggets of truth that can be pulled from Milo’s story to help keep a team focused and continuously improving.

Start Small

Of utmost importance is starting small. Milo did not start by carrying around a full-grown ox. He started with a newborn calf. I imagine that this was not very difficult and took little effort. 

When assembling a new development team that has little or no experience in an agile methodology, they should start small. Do not start them with a full backlog. Do not start them with ownership of many applications or products. Do not start them with a deluge of production support work. These will all result in lack of focus on building the agile muscles needed to effectively prioritize a backlog, discover products, practice good development “hygiene,” and invest in operations-first development practices like observability. 

Start the team with clear definitions of the roles on the team. Start the team with a clear, single, purpose – whether that is a small piece of functionality on an existing application or a proof-of-concept piece of discovery work. Give the team space to make mistakes and to learn. Give the team time to improve on their ability to solve bigger and more complex problems.

Make Small Changes

The beauty of the legend is that Milo did not pick up a baby calf one day and then an ox the next. He was ultimately able to hoist an ox on his shoulders because his body was able to adapt to the small daily addition of weight. Over four years, he slowly added to the burden and was able to do what might have seemed impossible on day one. 

When undergoing a digital transformation, arm your teams with tools and techniques for continuous process improvement. Give teams the space and freedom they need to try little things that they think will improve their delivery process. Give teams freedom to have process improvement work on their backlog and time in their iteration or sprint to make these small changes. 

While you might not see substantial improvement immediately, the long-term gain will outweigh the short-term cost. And remember, just as animals grow in spurts, the growth you see will not necessarily be linear nor steady. 

Give It Time

In the immortal words of George Harrison:

I got my mind set on you

But it’s gonna take money

A whole lotta spending money

It’s gonna take plenty of money

To do it right, child

It’s gonna take time

A whole lot of precious time

It’s gonna take patience and time, mmm

To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it

To do it right, child

It took Milo 4 years to get to the point where he could carry an ox on his shoulders. There are so many factors at play with a new team, in a new way of working, with new roles that it is unreasonable to expect a new team to be an instant high-performing team. They will need to go through the standard “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” cycle. 

After years of being told what to do and how to do it, they will need to get comfortable with what it means to be empowered. Some of the team’s experiments will take time to execute. If you also embrace the idea of keeping the changes small, then it will also take time for all those little changes to stack. 

In many companies, teams working in a new fashion will be incongruent with many other parts of the organization, resulting in friction. It will take time to make process, people, and systemic changes that enable the sort of rapid code delivery being sought.

Putting It Together

Digital transformation is a journey that cannot be completed overnight. It deeply affects the way a business is run, how value is delivered to customers, and how employees approach their work. 

In order to maximize the value of a digital transformation effort, reasonable expectations need to be embraced for how quickly teams will adapt to a new way of working. Toyota’s process revolves around two principles – continuous improvement and respect for people. 

They assert the following:

  • It is disrespectful to have anyone other than the people doing the work designing how the work should be performed. 
  • It is disrespectful to ask people to do work for which they have not been properly trained. 
  • It is disrespectful to ask a person to work within a process that does not function well.

When it comes to team aspects of a digital transformation, let us ensure that we respect the people who are doing the work. Give them the time, tools, training, and empowerment to incrementally improve how they perform their work and deliver value to customers. 

It will take time, but the rewards of a high-performing team are well worth the wait. Above all, remember this from Norm Kerth, the “father” of project retrospectives: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

This post was written by Peter Chodakowski, a product coach, on the Lean TECHniques team. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn here.