Moving a giant: The tale of an Agile Transformation in one of Germany’s largest telecommunication corporations

Over a span of almost two years, a team of consultants supported the Agile transformation in a service area of Germany’s largest telecommunications company. This service area works on a project basis and was challenged by the long lead time of projects leading to unreliability issues and a high workload for employees. To resolve these challenges, a reorganization and Agile transformation was initiated with the goal of increasing predictability and employee satisfaction of the technical teams.

The client’s ask

To combat the long lead time of projects, the leadership of the service area decided to independently reorganize the service area structure for a more effective flow of work. Unfortunately, this reorganization did not have the desired effect on the predictability of projects. As a result, BlinkLane was asked to analyze the challenges and propose a solution.

  • An Agile Delivery Framework was proposed that would initiate an incremental delivery of the projects in the same cadence across five Agile Release Trains (ARTs).
  • Lean Portfolio Management was introduced to structure, prioritize and limit project requests from stakeholders within and outside the service area.
  • Product Managers would be coached in leadership qualities necessary for an Agile organization.

The anticipated results by the end of 2022 are increased predictability across the entire service area through more effective project delivery and higher employee satisfaction (due to reduced pressure and workload).

Process

The Agile transformation was driven by two BlinkLane consultants in collaboration with the service area Lead, Product Managers, Release Train Engineers (RTEs) and two Portfolio Managers at the client.

TO START

BlinkLane conducted a problem analysis to gain more insights into the described challenges the service area was facing. As a result of the analysis, the key challenges of lead time, predictability, and employee dissatisfaction were confirmed as key drivers of the transformation. BlinkLane proposed a 3-step approach to the Transformation.

STEP 1

The first step was Lean Portfolio Management. Lean Portfolio Management was established in collaboration with the portfolio managers. Initiatives from inside and outside the service area are now submitted through the portfolio Kanban and are discussed on a regular basis with the product managers from the different ARTs. During these regular meetings, the priority of the requested initiatives is established. In the weeks leading up to the service area-wide quarterly Planning Event, the initiatives are broken down into Epics to fit into the delivery timeframe of a quarter. Epics are pulled by teams (in the ARTs) and further broken down into User Stories to be delivered in a Sprint of three weeks.

STEP 2

The second step was the roll-out of the tailored Agile Delivery Framework to the five Agile Release Trains (ARTs). Three roll-out stages were defined that would drive the transformation and launch of the ARTs: Awareness & Ramp-Up; 1st Experience & Learning and lastly Improve & Sustain. Following these three stages allowed the roll-out of the various ARTs to be effectively coordinated in a simultaneous fashion while dedicating most Consulting and Coaching support capacity to the ARTs in the Awareness & Ramp-Up phase. ARTs in later phases of the roll-out were supported mostly by their RTEs and Agile Coaches.

STEP 3

The last step was the leadership coaching of the product managers to help them adopt the leadership capabilities required in an Agile environment.

Some of the key challenges that occurred in the transformation included the limitation of work, Epic ownership, and the management of dependencies. These challenges were found to be largely due to the organizational culture which is dominated by heavy dependencies with vendors and a pressure cooker environment where the willingness to concede to the low priority of an initiative is low. The mentality that we found to be prominent in the culture of this organization is that “as long as we start everything, everybody will be happy.”

Results

  1. As of October 2022, five Agile Release Trains (ARTs) were successfully launched and the Agile Delivery Framework was implemented. This has positively impacted the transparency and workflow distribution of the service area. As the teams are making capacity estimation techniques part of their day-to-day work, the limitation of work is also internalizing more.
  2. Lean Portfolio Management has been fully integrated and is actively applied in prioritizing and structuring project requests from within and outside the service area.
  3. Lastly, product managers and Release Train Engineers (RTEs) have gained sufficient insight and experience to continue driving the transformation. With a focus on continuous improvement initiatives.

Did we reach our initial goals?

An increased predictability of the project delivery was one of the key drivers of this project. To this date, the predictability and lead time on the team level have significantly improved while no significant change has been found for the end-to-end delivery of entire projects (across the entire service area). This is largely due to the large number of dependencies that exist between the teams, ARTs and external vendors. It is to this day a challenge to manage dependencies as other service areas and external vendors do not apply Agile ways-of-working and therefore structure and deliver their project components in a different cadence as the service area that was transformed.

Another goal of the transformation was to increase employee satisfaction, by reducing the experienced workload. In the bi-yearly survey that evaluates employee satisfaction, no improvement was found. A potential cause of this may be the front-runner position of this service area in the Agile Transformation of the organization. Reducing the workload to enhance predictability is currently not rewarded within the organization as most employees and management have not yet adopted an Agile mindset. Another reason for the unchanged employee satisfaction could be the “valley of despair” which is a natural phase that people experience during a Transformation. In this phase of change, the realization sets in that to change, one must change the way they are doing things. This often leads to frustration and anxiety.

Biggest learnings

As they say so nicely, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and it could not be more true in this case. Our transformation plan was straightforward but relied heavily on the people in teams to reject any requests that go beyond their capacity. Due to the lack of an Agile mindset outside the service area (where requests come from), this was not possible and teams were unable to abandon old patterns.

Another learning was the importance of Basic Agile training to set a foundation for a common understanding. In this transformation, no budget was available for such trainings, which led to various interpretations and understanding of what an “Agile organization” means. Attempting to scale an Agile way of working without having conveyed the value proposition and principles created immense challenges in sustaining the change. It also highlighted the importance of investing in the mindset change as early as implementing any Agile rituals and processes.