3 Important Takeaways for Pioneering CIOs on the State of Agile

CIOs, CTOs, and Digital Trailblazers – we have a problem.

While many organizations have adopted agile methodologies, there’s a gap between what leaders expect from these practices and what they deliver. This year’s State of Agile report (the 17th of their annual reports) shows the gap is widening and points to some of the underlying issues for technology leaders and Digital Trailblazers to address.

Agile CIO

The gap stems from the different needs and expectations between those practicing agile (in IT, these include product owners, developers, and engineers), those providing agile guidance (including agile coaches, scrum masters, project managers, and program managers), and business leaders (including CIO/CTO, product managers, business stakeholders, and other business executives.)  

The survey is skewed, with 57% of respondents coming from agile guidance roles and only 10% from business leadership roles. You would expect agile supporters to tilt the results toward more enthusiasm, but the survey hints at several underlying issues, especially in larger organizations. CIOs should read into this as a clear signal – we have to do better, especially for CIOs embracing agile methodologies to drive digial transformation.

This post is for pioneering CIOs and Digital Trailblazers who view agile as a core digital transformation organizational competency. If your view is that agile is only a program management methodology or a process best left for dev teams, then there are some practical ways to support continuous improvements in execution and productivity. Just don’t expect transformational results.    

But for the Digital Trailblazers, below are three takeaways from this survey with my recommendations.

1. Leading agile transformation? Recruit business leader participation

CIOs should take a top-of-stadium-down view of how leadership and teams drive digital transformation. If you surveyed business leaders and employees, what processes underpin the transformation? Will they say agile is one of the key foundational ones, and how many leaders participate in agile practices and culture change?

Digital Trailblazer by Isaac Sacolick

“Product management, agile development, DevOps, and proactive data governance are digital transformation’s building blocks,” I wrote in my book, Digital Trailblazer. What’s key to all these practices is that transformation is driven by business, data, and technology collaboration.

The State of Agile reports that only 32% say business leaders are actively leading and participating in company-wide agile transformations, and 20% say agile transformation is led by the office of the CIO/CTO only. This suggests that at least 48% of respondents don’t believe there’s sufficient business leader participation for agile practices to be a transformation driver.

Recommendations: Bringing business leaders onto the agile transformation bus requires more than a one-time ask – it requires ongoing learning and engagement. I’ve previously written about ways to develop relationships with business stakeholders and five steps for explaining agile planning to them. I also have an entry-level class, Everyone Can Be Agile, designed to help business leaders quickly learn about agile methodologies.

2. What’s not working with agile? Ask your team

Some CIOs/CTOs, especially those with application development backgrounds, are strong, enthusiastic sponsors of agile programs. Others who may have started their careers in IT operations or practiced more traditional project management methodologies are learning through observation. So when there are execution gaps, unhappy stakeholders, or questions about productivity, will CIOs/CTOs have enough agile experience to aid their coaches and scrum masters?

The survey points to several areas where agile coaches and scrum masters need help:

  • 71% of last year’s survey respondents (2022) were either very or somewhat satisfied with agile, but satisfaction dropped to 59% in this year’s (2023) survey.
  • Only 52% report that enterprise agile works very or somewhat well. That number drops to 43% in large companies where “scaling agile” is most needed, and 30% of large-company respondents say enterprise agile is not working well.
  • The top two reasons the business isn’t adopting agile are resistance to change (47%) and insufficient leadership participation (41%).

Some context: 26% of respondents report using SAFe and 19% Scrum@Scale, while 22% don’t follow an enterprise-level framework and 12% created their own.

What’s most important is to understand your organization’s context and where your agile guides are struggling. Coaches may point to gaps – the framework says to do X, but the teams aren’t adopting it. My question would be, is the framework working for you, or are you working for it? I applaud the 12% who recognize that agile standards are organization-specific and that its people drive cultures/mindsets. Without active leadership, growing an organization-wide agile culture and developing experimental mindsets don’t happen.

Recommendations:  Many frameworks emphasize rituals, but in my experience, it’s more important to understand and address the behaviors that can hurt or promote agile cultures and mindsets. I also believe that Digital Trailblazers should learn from agile best practices and then adopt agile ways of working that work for their organizational goals. Agile principles are best established in different layers, from enterprise self-organizing standards down to agile team empowerment.

3. Write a vision statement for agile transformation

The survey also shows a disconnect between goals in adopting agile compared to what it may be delivering in many organizations.

According to the survey, organizations chose agile practices to deliver incremental customer and business value (41%), accelerate time to market (41%), and drive digital transformation (34%). However, respondents who are happy with agile practices report that agile delivers increased collaboration (59%) and better alignment to business needs (57%). In contrast, only 18% of the happy group said agile enables faster response to competitive threats, and 14% say it improves user experiences.

The issue here is that agile is driven by three different personas – practitioners, guides, and business leaders – each with different levels of understanding and goals. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to drive customer and business benefits when executives aren’t involved in the transformation. And when agile guides drive agile adoption without executive feedback, they’ll report on benefits most visible to them, such as collaboration.

Another related data point from the survey is how teams evaluate the success of software development and delivery, with 17% unsure of what metrics are in place and only 29% conducting end-user or customer surveys.

All transformations are investments, so leaders and teams must define objectives, success criteria, and metrics when they seek continuous improvements.

Recommendations: When embarking on an agile transformation, I always begin the process by facilitating the writing of a vision statement that lists the transformation’s customers, value propositions, why the transformation is important, and its success criteria. For metrics, I recommend starting with digital KPIs that measure velocity, including time to value, time to data, and time to decision, and considering my most important agile KPI. Also, it’s important to develop agile feedback loops that should include customer surveys.    

Review this year’s State of Agile as it has other data points on agile tools, AI adoption, and applying agile practices in customer service, marketing, and other departments. 

Isaac Sacolick
Join us for a future session of Coffee with Digital Trailblazers, where we discuss topics for aspiring transformation leaders. If you enjoy my thought leadership, please sign up for the Driving Digital Newsletter and read all about my transformation stories in Digital Trailblazer.

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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld, CIO.com, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.