What does an established ‘old school’ organisation need to do , to make change, prepare, or even think about implementing agile?

Home » What does an established ‘old school’ organisation need to do , to make change, prepare, or even think about implementing agile?
What does an established ‘old school’ organisation need to do , to make change, prepare, or even think about implementing agile?
An established organisation is likely to have a deeply entrenched culture and strongly defined processes. It will need to prepare itself to make way for new innovative ways of working.

An established organisation is likely to have a deeply entrenched culture and strongly defined processes.

Before we discuss what this old-school organisation needs to do to even think about implementing Agile, let’s get something out of the way.  “Agile” the word, we all agree is somewhat overused.   In fact we haven’t seen it used more than in the last few months during the 2020 pandemic.   And we believe it’s confusing to some organisations, and let’s be honest – to some smart people.

It’s fair enough to be agile in an approach, using the term in its appropriate dictionary definition.

What we are discussing here, is Agile, the methodology.  We also refer to it as New Ways of Working.   It’s an actual methodology that is intricate and nuanced.  It has processes and guidelines.

And, this is important.  If done right, will not only reduce costs drastically, it will improve performance, customer ranking, and employee and business morale.

Moving to an Agile way of working is going to challenge the people and the systems which operate in the environment of deeply entrenched culture and strongly defined processes.

So first, let’s understand the term ‘agile’ in this new context.   Agile is at it’s most important a mindset.  It’s a way of thinking that is different from old school organisational and management ways.   In a soon to be released video interview Sarah Hajipour tells Sean Woon from TRIBE “The reason I keep saying ‘mindset’ is ‘tools’ change, ‘frameworks’ are going to keep evolving, but what matters is that since ‘change’ is a norm to human evolution… we need to be able to have that flexibility.  That very much aligns with Agile.”

Agile methodology begins and ends with having an Agile mindset.

ADAPTOVATE spent time with some of our senior staff around the world to discuss their thoughts on what established organisations should do to begin change.  Below features some takeouts from this discussion.


Firstly, the organisation should stop thinking about “implementing” agile, since agile for agile’s sake is almost always certain to lead to failure.

Instead, the organisation should consider why it needs to change.  Do this by looking at where its biggest problems or opportunities are, either by conducting an internal diagnosis or, preferably, an external diagnosis that is not biased by the organisational lens.

Mark Barber, a Project Lead in Australia says “Doing this will uncover areas that, if changed, will have a huge positive impact on the organisation. This could be employee engagement, lack of prioritisation, lack of alignment or a vast combination of other factors.

Once this view has been established, consider how you will measure the impact of change – how will you know that fixing these problems or seizing these opportunities has the desired outcome?

Perhaps it is an increase in revenue, or employee retention? Now that we have targeted areas to change, and we’re able to measure the impact of change, we can start looking at what we need to do.

Perhaps we need to redesign how our organisation works or perhaps we need to get much closer to the customer?” says Mark.

Steve Walton – a principal in our Australian office agrees. “Attempting change is difficult, so you have to know why you are willing to put the effort it. If there is no reason to change people will not come along the journey with you.”

Additionally, there needs to be a reason to do it NOW. If there is no “burning platform” why jump into the unknown?

Many people would sooner wait until there was a clearer future, however there never is – tomorrow never comes.

This change imperative needs to be communicated clearly and simply as everyone needs to share the same understanding, overcomplicating the message will cause confusion, insincerity will drive suspicion and rumour.

What we have now done is focused on fixing those things that will have a huge impact on the organisation, in a way that is targeted to the organisation’s context, rather than an implementation of something that likely would not fit.

Look elsewhere

Rachna Verma, a senior consultant for ADAPTOVATE also suggests “Look at your peers and do a deep dive to understand the changes they have made to their operating rhythm and how has that benefitted the organisation. Consult your industry body for growth thinking or support that can be provided.”

And returning to our earlier point Nate Nelson, our Managing Director in the US states “Agile is really about mindset shift.

Agile ways of working requires leadership buy-in, a shift in mindset, and Agile processes and tools. It’s hard, and it’s nearly impossible unless you are addressing all three.” He says.

So using Nate’s three points, let us dig a bit deeper.


“Agile starts and stops at the top” Slav Koziol, our Project lead in our European office states.

The decision to implement Agile needs to come from the top and the exec team need to buy into it. They need to commit to the change that is about to happen.” Says Laura Scott – one of our Project Leads in Australia.

Alignment and endorsement by the Leadership team is critical to the success of rolling out agile.

Employees need to see a consistent message from their Leadership Team on how the organisation will operate and how agile will help them achieve their strategy and vision.” Says Rachna.

At this stage, let’s pause and consider what ‘leadership’ looks like at your organisation.   Senior executives or C-suite can often be the low-hanging fruit to get buy-in.    It’s the ‘frontline leaders’ as BCG describe them, that are often the hardest to get over the line.

In research done in 2018 on Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace, BCG said this “ Even when the executive team is fully committed, employees working under a less-than-committed direct manager are far less likely to feel welcome and included—and far more likely to leave for a job elsewhere. In short, getting frontline leaders to support D&I is a huge opportunity and should be a focus of every organization’s D&I strategy.”

So while this direct example is Diversity and Inclusion it clearly shows that that the frontline leader can have a direct impact of rolling out change.

Ensure when you are looking to implement Agile in an organisation – that you have buy-in from all the leaders.  Both the executive and the frontline.

OKR’s or What’s the plan?

If you don’t have some sort of ideal state you are moving to, you should not expect others to follow you in good faith.   “By sharing the future vision you start to include people in the journey as they begin to consider how they might, or might not be part of that future.” says Steve.

If we really think about implementing new ways of working and not just “ticking the box” and claiming we’re agile, a clear vision, goals and roadmap are necessary.

Laura says “I would recommend setting some goals – We use OKR’s, we map them out for the quarter then putting them on a roadmap will allow the team to see a visual representation of what the quarter looks like.

We then break the work down into small easily digestible chunks of work and train the team on their new ways of working.”she says.   


With Leadership buy-in comes a shift in mindset.  Both from the leadership team, but also the employees.    If the employees start to see the benefits of new ways of working, through pilot teams and leadership actions, then the change in mindset begins.

Going back to our BCG D&I case study example.   Consider this “frontline leaders—the middle managers who directly supervise line employees—can have a huge impact on an organization’s performance. A large company may have hundreds or even thousands of people performing this role, and they have the most direct influence on the day-to-day experience of employees. Frontline leaders are particularly critical in implementing large cultural changes.”

Once it begins it will travel around the organisation, however communication will be key.

Implementing Agile, like any other large change program requires individuals to redefine their role and identify within the organisation. This is a big ask of people and will require you to give something to get something back.

“People will need information from you and likely need to have coaching to help them along the way. The plan will need to address how to change decision making, work breakdown and operating rhythms across the organisation.” Says Steve.

This can be done by designing new ways of working and support and coaching people in how to interact differently as you build an Agile culture based on new behaviours and actions.

Once your company is well on it’s agile transformation, you will see the shift in mindset across the organisation, from the leadership, to the frontline leaders to all employees..   It will impact everything from how problems are approached, to how products are launched.


Begin with a Pilot Team

To begin a journey of introducing New Ways of Working, you must empower some of the team to drive the process throughout the company. Drive the change through a pilot team that is external facing and success can be measured.

Agile transformations can take two paths.  Slav explains  “The first path is to prepare and execute it top-down as a “big bang” transformation. It takes months (or even years) to prepare and requires determination and leadership commitment to shift the organization to new ways of working at one point in time.

This is possible and doable. It is, however, relatively risky. There is little room for “test and learn” to adjust the Agile operating model to company specifics.” Slav says.

In our experience, a better path for Agile transformation is bottom-up. After the initial readiness assessment, one or more pilot teams are launched, creating “pockets of Agile” or “lighthouse projects”.

“And as soon as the teams start working and run a few retrospective sessions, adjustments are made, e.g. to cadence, ceremonies, artefacts or even terminology. These refinements allow more and more teams to effectively adopt new ways of working and demonstrate impressive results right off the bat.” He says.

Testing, however, is far from complete.

Train this team first to ensure the cascade in the ‘old school’ company is effective. Test and learn by kicking off the pilot team with the support of Agile coaching.

Rachna recommends giving the team the opportunity to develop and explore new skills whilst also solving organisation problems. “This lighthouse approach enables the wider organisation to see the different ways of working and see results delivered.” She says.

Be open and transparent on the outcomes, show where the team failed, what they learnt and what they would change once agile is rolled out to a larger number of teams.

Rachna also suggests that your make the workspace interactive allowing other people to visit and see the artefacts. Have a team member on hand for any questions or alternatively make a box/ipad available for visitors to leave questions and comments.


The transformation journey will create value when we change underlying culture and values. And that requires dedication and hard work. Many organizations fail to recognize the value of Agile outside of IT.

We all know by now that most organizations start implementing Agile in IT.

At this point the benefits are visible but the tensions between IT and business still exist. The natural next step is to invite parts of the business that work closely with IT to collaborate on cross-functional teams.

Slav explains “Typically, parts of business involved in development of products and processes jump onboard here. Many organizations stop at this point, leaving out the rest of the business and support areas.

The tensions between Agile and non-Agile parts of the organization are still there. As long as they exist, the full benefits of new ways of working will not be attained.”

Bringing new ways of working to the remaining business and support areas is a step worth taking. The fact that these areas don’t develop products or run projects is not an excuse to leave them out of transformation.

With some adjustments to the methods and tools and effective collaborations models, all units start to speak the same customer language and a truly Agile organization emerges.

At this point new ways are necessary for the teams to collaborate with each other and integrate their work.

New mechanisms & tools for team alignment (e.g. OKRs and QBRs) and autonomy (e.g. portfolio design with clear accountabilities, leadership behaviours) are tested and refined.

This way the new ways of working can be refined and adjusted to the specifics of the organization before scaling-up. Additionally, the success of the initial teams helps build interest and buy-in in the rest of the organization, showing what “good” looks like.


We encourage businesses, who feel burdened by old-school processes, to just begin.  Start with the ‘Why’, do the due diligence, find experts, and set up your pilot team and begin.

ADAPTOVATE would like to thank the following authors for their contributions to this article.

Mark Barber.  Project Lead, Melbourne.

Steve Walton. Principal, Melbourne.

Rachna Verma. Senior consultant, Sydney.

Caitilin Studdert. Principal, Sydney.

Laura Scott. Project Lead, Sydney.

Nate Nelson.  Managing Director, US.

Slawomir Koziol. Project Lead, Warsaw.

Benny Ko.  Consultant, Melbourne.

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