How to Talk to Executives about Agile | TechWell

How to Talk to Executives about Agile

Executive buttoning his suit coat

In the agile community, executives tend to get a bad name. They are accused of not understanding agile and the benefits it will bring their companies. They are labeled as short-sighted and unwilling to change. And while those labels may be true for some, I have found that many executives resist agile transformations primarily due to financial motivations rather than a lack of understanding.

In my consulting practice, my team must get sick of my constant reminders to follow the money when consulting with executives. I want them to look beyond the surface-level reasons for resistance and try to identify financial structures and compensation programs. Such constraints may impede an organization's ability to change and are not easily visible.

While many executives talk about agile transformations, my experience has proven that executives only care about one thing: results. And results are what they should care about! Companies need people who care about things like cash flow and covering payroll. These critical business concerns are not taught in Scrum classes.

Speaking to executives requires you to speak the language of business. I advise my consultants to stop educating their executives about how agile works and instead focus on the benefits that agile can provide.

When making a request of executives, I recommend clarifying how the request will either:

  • Increase revenue
  • Decrease costs
  • Reduce risk

If an agilist cannot identify how their recommendation will help one of these business concerns, then they are not ready to present their idea to an executive.

While many agilists tend to treat executives as the problem, most executives are in leadership roles for a reason. They tend to be ambitious and have a track record of achieving results. In my experience, there are three primary drivers that motivate executives.

First, executives are motivated by advancement. They are hyper-aware of their place in their organization and have a plan for their next role. Second, they tend to be incentivized by bonuses. If the changes proposed by agile conflict with a leader’s bonus, no one should be surprised when a leader resists. Finally, executives tend to be owners in their companies and therefore care about providing value to their shareholders. They will care about financial profitability, with a focus on measurements like EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization) and gross profit. They are not likely to be concerned about agile concepts like velocity and cycle time.

“Following the money” may seem like a simple concept, but it necessitates developing empathy for executives and the things they care about. Rather than demonizing executives, I recommend developing empathy to better understand their world and what motivates them.

Only by first understanding an executive can you envision solutions to solve their problems. And if agile truly is a solution that will solve an executive’s problem, then it will not be difficult to convince them.

Steven Granese is presenting the session Follow the Money: How to Talk to Executives about Agile at the Agile + DevOps West 2019 conference, June 2–7 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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