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Why Agile Transformations Fail – Insights from NatWest

I listened into a Planview conference for their clients a few weeks back and picked up on a session from NatWest about their agile transformation. An agile transformation for NatWest is all about business agility at an organisation level – changing the way things get done at all levels across the business. With over 50,000 people working for – what was Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) – the bank, it’s safe to say their transformation would face challenges and in some cases failure.
In this article, we share the insights from the session (unfortunately the recording can’t be shared) and reflect on what role the PMO could provide in supporting an enterprise-wide agile transformation programme like this. The session was led by the Head of Change CoE and in it, three failures were shared with lots of lessons learnt.
You can read the notes taken directly here and read on for the summary.Notes
Throughout the session, this quote was referred to:

Impediments are not the blocker to value, they are the path to value

BookIt’s taken from the book from Jon Smart called Sooner, Safer, Happier – Antipatterns and Patterns for Business Agility and highly recommended if your organisation is making a move to – or transforming to – a more agile way of working. Something for the PMO bookshelf for sure.
Let’s take a look at what the three key failures were in the NatWest transformation, what they learnt and what the PMO can take away from those lessons.

Failure One

Know Your People So You Can Focus on Objectives

I think we all know that any transformation – or a change in ways of working – is going to hit people hard. It’s not just about the people in the operational side of the business, it’s also about the people who are delivering the transformation too. We hear it all the time – people don’t like change, especially when change is done to them.
“Doing Agile to people does not make you Agile” you don’t suddenly become Agile butterflies because you’re now doing standups instead of meetings. There will be resistance to change because ultimately its build into the human psyche to do that.
They shared an analogy about flies in a jar. When a fly first gets trapped in a jar, it does everything it can to get out until a few minutes later it realises there is no way out and just sits there. When the jar lid is opened, the fly doesn’t just rush out, you have to agitate the jar, knock it to move the fly. It’s learned helplessness. It’s the same with change – people become ‘frozen’ during change, waiting for the next instructions on what to do.
DriveIn these situations, it’s useful to understand more about motivation – what motivates people and how you can use this understanding in situations like this. There’s another book recommendation here called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
From that book we learn that there are three internal motivators for us humans:

  1. Autonomy – ability to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery – the ability to learn and create
  3. Purpose – to better ourselves and the world around us

During times of change – all three of these are threatened.
The lesson from NatWest? People are not stupid, be clear about the purpose of the transformation. If it’s about efficiency (and they recommend that any transformation like this should not just be about efficiency alone) make it clear. Efficiency for many people means jobs will likely be cut, so don’t make this an elephant in the room.
In their Agile transformation, they found that they often took three steps forward and a couple back – the people stuff takes a long time, certainly minimising the impact of resistance and learnt helplessness.
Here’s some of the practical things they did:

  • Be clear about the roles and what the expectations are about those roles – they introduced new ones such as Agile Coaches for example
  • Give information clearly
  • Make the move to servant leadership
  • Utilise communities of practice
  • Share successes loudly
  • Provide the guard rails
  • Use roadmaps

From a PMO point of view – there is definitely a role in providing support and services across a lot of these. In the early days there is the initial set up which is all about creating the right environment – there is the ongoing communication and the different mediums to provide that. Communities of practice were a big deal to NatWest, people learn better together and within their own community, no easy feat (we write about it here)
In terms of the framework NatWest was working within – it is SAFe. You can take a look at Scaled Agile here.

Failure Two

Bigger is Definitely Not Better

You’re probably already aware of the Kubler-Ross Model that many Change practitioners use to demonstrate what people go through when faced with a period of change.
“The bigger the change, the deeper the dive into chaos” and certainly with NatWest’s large programme of change, there were a lot of emotional scars.

The lesson here was to start small – a small change, a small slice of value, a single process. And make sure you look at the risk profile to make sure it’s the right place to start.
The problem with many transformations is taking the whole organisation with you – where do you start? It’s often not about making a wholesale change – it’s about making some changes and doing that with multi-disciplinary teams from different departments across the organisation.
That’s the next lesson – scale vertically. This means, for example, take a particular product line and work through the transformation with ALL the teams, middle managers, senior execs involved in that vertical. You’ll be looking at all the parts – the delivery processes, risk, funding, resourcing, procurement – all of the different parts.
Another lesson – dropping Agile coaches in across the business departments didn’t work. They found that each one had a different approach based on different experiences which didn’t help and confusion reigned. In hindsight, training in multi-disciplinary teams would have been a better step forward.
From a PMO point of view -there is much work to do in the education and learning side – different approaches and mediums – workshops and virtual, helping people connect and share with others, facilitating learning constantly and of course throughout a pandemic. There’s also a coordinating role here – bringing together multi-disciplinary teams together is no easy job – administrative skills are definitely needed to keep things well organised.

Failure Three

You are Unique, Embrace It

This one focuses on the uniqueness of the organisation and how the business culture has a bearing on making a transformation work.
NatWest needed a framework that could be adapted to their own unique culture – so that’s the practices and techniques that could be adopted and a blend of prescriptive elements and enough autonomy for teams within their own contexts. They in effect created a Minimum Viable Framework.
One of the ways to achieve that balance between prescriptive and autonomy is with guardrails. Guardrails are defined in different ways, some say they’re like rules or boundaries – others, that they are promises or principles – they’re there to stop people going off course.
You would have guardrails around certain areas like funding, resourcing, governance, even behaviours. The idea is that over time there will be less guardrails – or they disappear completely through flexing, learning and building trust. A good way to understand where guardrails might be needed is to think about where decisions get made within the organisation, by whom and how – it’s normally here that the rails are needed. The end goal is to be able to move decision-making down a level, striving for that autonomy, enabling teams to make those decisions.
There’s certainly work here for the PMO – not only in terms of helping to set those guardrails and how that works with people across the organisation, there’s also a role in terms of continuous improvement within guardrails and how the changes will help to lead to autonomy. Guardrails are part of the environment being created to help people make the transition to business agility and this certainly feels like work that the PMO is created to do.
A big part of any transformation is about bringing the people with you. In NatWest’s experience, that means focusing on those internal motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose. They spent a lot of time and effort enabling people to learn and to create events that played to those internal motivators. As mentioned previously, they used the community themselves to deliver those events, creating a calendar of events, playbooks and communities of practice. They ensured that what needed to be celebrated, got celebrated – and they changed what needed to be changed. The lesson here is – never underestimate the amount of effort required, which sounds like a role for the PMO – events management?

In Summary


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