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Agile Program Management, Enterprise Agile Planning

Selling Agile to Executives: 8 Ways to Get Buy-in

Level up from Agile commitment to Agile engagement

Published By Steve Wolfe

Effectively selling Agile to executives is more than just getting the go-ahead for an Agile transformation. Because Agile includes a culture shift and a mindset change, as well as funding, you need executives to truly buy in to the approach. 

If you’ve gotten approval from leadership to embark on an Agile transformation, you may be gaining momentum from Agile teams embracing new ways of working and benefits like faster delivery, better quality, and improved morale. 

The only problem may be that you’re getting little engagement from senior management, and they hold the keys to driving positive and enduring change in the organization.  

Senior leaders are a significant driver in the success rate of an Agile transformation.  

You need them on board, and fully. But how? Consider these eight tips to get senior leaders behind your Agile transformation and help them fully engage. 

Understand their Perspective 

To buy in to Agile, leaders need to understand what’s in it for them. Start by understanding how the approach can benefit senior leaders, and focus on selling Agile to executives with benefits in mind. 

With Agile, leaders are elevated from the details.  

Their time can be spent more frequently and fully on the work that matters most in their roles — leadership and strategy – and the payoff is significant. Agile enables empowered and motivated teams that are connected to effective strategy, deliver at speed, and ultimately drive business growth. 

Read Next: Agile Transformation: 10 Lessons Learned (so far) on our Agile Journey 

Identify and Train Key Business Owners 

Leading a value stream requires servant leadership, which prioritizes guidance over direction and mentoring over managing. 

Identify the functional leaders who will be willing to lead the mindset change and focus on training them through coaching. Focus on selling Agile to executives by showing them how they can succeed with the approach. 

Read Next: The Agile Manager’s Handbook  

Form an Agile Leadership Team 

Think about a handful of skills or functions that will be needed to make your Agile approach work, and identify a leader with each of those skills or from each of those functional areas. This team will focus on the change management part of the transformation. 

The Agile leadership team should meet regularly, maybe an hour a week, to talk about the change and how it’s going. You can weave coaching into those discussions in a hands-on way. Work to engage them in the transformation, as they are responsible for leading the change.  

Once your transformation has visibility and early momentum, it’s easier to weave in additional Agile theory and practices.  

Make it Actionable 

How do you eat an elephant? The same way you approach explaining an Agile transformation to an executive: One bite at a time. 

Don’t try selling Agile to executives all at once. Instead, sell Agile in stages. 

Work with your Agile leadership team to develop a thoughtful roadmap of where you want to go, and incorporate incremental Agile changes along the way. Agile transformation is most successful when you don’t try to do too much too fast. 

Show Them Quick Wins 

Executives are results-oriented and accountable to a Board of Directors who also may need to be convinced that Agile is the best direction. 

Start by finding a part of the organization that is able and willing to change quickly. Or identify a specific, critical initiative that is a pain point for the business – such as the misalignment of product teams or sales and marketing teams — and can be undertaken quickly.  

Apply Agile techniques to one area that is primed and ready for change, and you can show top leaders that the approach is working.  

Once you have one or two quick wins to show – e.g., real value produced quickly and when needed — selling Agile to executives is easier. When leaders see quantifiable results, along with engaged and more productive teams, they are often ready to more fully believe in the value of Agile. 

Implement Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) 

Many organizations struggle to connect teams with strategy. OKRs are tools that can be used to guide teams, encouraging alignment and focusing on outcomes, rather than outputs. Leaders can use OKRs to show teams the desired outcomes and inspire them to action. 

Agile measurement tools like this help both leaders and teams to stay aligned and focused on outcomes, while ensuring accountability. 

Read Next: Everything You Need to Know About OKRs  

Balance Agile Theory with Hands-on Work 

Many executive leaders don’t need to learn all the theory behind Agile. They are interested in practical actions that get results. 

Rather than holding a lengthy education session based on Agile theory, offer just enough background information when selling Agile to executives. Allow them to get hands on quickly, with activities like value stream design, setting strategy or OKRs, and actively owning risk items. 

Weave in training in stages, tied to the initiatives that are using Agile approaches. After starting with just enough theory to get practical, you might bring in leaders again later for a short class to learn more theory that will go along with where you’re heading next. 

Read Next: Managing Risks with ROAM in Agile 

Adopt Agile Governance Ceremonies 

Traditional corporate governance focuses on a top-down approach with leaders delegating demands to their teams. Agile requires a mindset shift, and executives need to instead focus on guiding teams to help them deliver, working with teams and engaging with stakeholders.  

Agile leaders use Agile governance ceremonies to help teams connect their work to strategic needs, and much more.  

These touch points are a way for leaders to clear impediments, as well as engage proactively with stakeholders and customers to gain insights into what value is really needed. Two examples are steering meetings and quarterly planning (AKA Big Room or Program Increment [PI] Planning).  

Quarterly planning enables leaders and teams to collaborate with various stakeholders and benefit from understanding many perspectives as they develop their respective plans. Steering meetings are held on a regular cadence throughout the quarter to assess progress – not as a status check, but to inspect and adapt the plan, as well as surface and mitigate risks. 

When leaders understand that this meeting cadence will allow them deeper insight — and as a result, better decision making and teams that more engaged and productive — they will be more likely to get on board. 

Read Next: Program Increment Planning (PI Planning) 

Putting it all Together 

Leaders and teams are often excited about an Agile transformation, but the transformation will only be successful when you’re also selling Agile to executives. Start implementing these steps to educate senior leaders about the benefits of embracing Agile and help transform your organization. 

Get a first-hand account of an Agile transformation from an executive who has been there. Read the takeaways from Planview Chief Product Officer Louise Allen in “Agile Transformation: 10 Lessons Learned (so far) on our Agile Journey” as she recaps year one of Planview’s own Agile transformation. 

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Written by Steve Wolfe Enterprise Agile Coach & Evangelist

Steve Wolfe serves as an Enterprise Agile Coach at Planview. Steve's unique blend of experience and expertise in marketing, business operations, software development, and product management has enabled the successful adoption of Agile practices at a number of leading companies spanning multiple disciplines and value streams.