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The critical role of leadership and change management with agile transformations

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Hrishikesh Karekar

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When someone says they are amidst a 200,000-person agile transformation effort, you ask for their advice, so we did!

Today’s guest, Hrishikesh Karekar is an Agile Leader at Capgemini India, author, and serial Medium contributor. Hrishikesh is here to share how leaders can enable successful agile transformations.

Hrishikesh and Bill Raymond talk about the critical success factors that drive success change, including:

✅ Building successful agile transformation teams

✅ Creating and communicating a flexible roadmap

✅ Defining and aligning KPIs that reflect the goals of the business

✅ Advice for executives starting their agile transformation journey

Transcript

(transcripts are auto-generated, so please excuse the brevity) Hrishikesh Karekar: Focusing on those problems is crucial for the success. If your goal is to just implement SCRUM or SAFe or any other framework, then you’re not achieving value. If the software engineering techniques are bad, no amount of framework, whether it is SCRUM or SAFe, however good they are, aren’t going to help you.

Bill Raymond: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. Today, I’m joined by Hrishikesh Kareka, agile leader at Capgemini India, enterprise Agile Coach and author of Perspectives on Agility. Hi Hrishikesh, how are you today?

Hrishikesh Kareka: Thanks. I’m very good. How are you doing?

Bill Raymond: I’m doing great, thank you. Today, we’re going to talk about the critical role of change management with agile transformation. Before we get started, could you introduce yourself and provide some background on your career and your life?

Introduce yourself

Hrishikesh Kareka: Sure. I have been working in IT since more than 20 years now in various roles, and close to a decade on agile transformations, mainly large scaletransformations. I’ve had the opportunity to work first-hand with SCRUM SAFe, Kanban and Disciplined Agile, especially at scale.

Capgemini role

Bill Raymond: You work at Capgemini. Can you talk a little bit about your role there as well?

Surely.

Hrishikesh Kareka: At Capgemini, we partner with our customers to transform and manage their business. By leveraging our deep technology and industry experience. At Capgemini, I lead the overall larger initiative as part of the India Capabilities Group and work closely with our internal stakeholders and customers.

Bill Raymond: I remember you shared with me some of the numbers that you’re dealing with there. Can you share some of the number of people that you’re working with in order to go through this agile transformation?

Hrishikesh Kareka: So Capgemini India is a very large organization. In India itself, we have close to 200,000 employees. So as part of my role, I work with all of the business units to help transform them to be agile.

Bill Raymond: Yeah. It’s really agile at scale. Isn’t it?

Hrishikesh Kareka: Truly.

Bill Raymond: I know that you work for Capgemini, but today, you’re going to be sharing your learned experience and you’re not necessarily representing Capgemini in this podcast. Is that correct?

Hrishikesh Kareka: Yes, absolutely.

What is a good agile transformation?

Bill Raymond: What in your mind, is a good agile transformation? What does that do for an organization?

Hrishikesh Kareka: Okay. So defining the what for, transformation is critically important. The agile transformation is a means to an end, not the end itself. A good agile transformation brings to surface many problems, An organization has a lot of systemic problems, so the transformation would surface that. The organization needs to move forward on those problems.

Hrishikesh Kareka: It does not mean that you would go from zero to a hundred very quickly or overnight, but definitely, a transformation that is successful sees the progress moving forward. For example, lead time could be one of the challenges you aim to solve. The root cause could be that your products don’t have a modern architecture or your teams are not scaled enough.

Hrishikesh Karekar: Focusing on those problems is crucial for the success. If your goal is to just implement SCRUM or SAFe or any other framework, then you’re not achieving value. If the software engineering techniques are bad, no amount of framework, whether it is SCRUM or SAFe, however good they are, aren’t going to help you.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Last, but not the least, we have to always remember that transformation should create value and not overhead. And that is where most of them struggle.

Hrishikesh Kareka: So my key thing is, we have to always observe, in a good transformation, we create more value than we create rift.

Bill Raymond: Now of course, we were talking about the fact that if you just implement the framework, you’re not really getting value and you’re not doing agile transformation. There’s a lot more that comes along with that.

Challenges with change management

Bill Raymond: From what you just said, that there is going to be quite a bit of change management involved. So what are some of the challenges with the change management process as you’re going through these agile transformations?

Figure out the "why"

Hrishikesh Kareka: So there are several challenges. I think one of the most important one is the people angle. I think that angle is missing. Everybody just assumes that agile is about a new process or a new framework. The first thing to understand is why we think agile is our solution.

Hrishikesh Kareka: The organization has many problems, not necessarily agile, but to solve all of them, right? So really figuring out why we are doing what we are doing is really crucial, because when we start to force agile on people, that is when they start to push back, that is when we don’t have buy-in, and that is one of the big reasons for all of these change initiatives to fail.

Where is the buy-in?

Hrishikesh Kareka: We are so caught up in the frameworks and the tools, the SAFe and the JIRA and the SCRUM, that we really forget that it is a big change initiative, and any change is hard for people. So they need to understand it, they need to believe in it, they need to see on the ground that this is a change that is going to help them. Only then it’ll be successful.

Hrishikesh Kareka: And that is, I think, one of the key things to first figure out, what is it? What is the buy-in strategy for my people? Why are my people going to buy this change? And I think that is key.

Peer pressure

Hrishikesh Kareka: The second thing is, peer pressure doing it just because everybody else is doing it. Agile is the new "in" thing, right?

Hrishikesh Kareka: So competition is doing it, or I’m a large enterprise, one of my other business units started to do it, so I don’t need to be left behind and so on. So that is again, a very problematic thing and a root cause of many failures. You have started your entire journey just because somebody else is doing it.

Pace of change

Hrishikesh Kareka: The third thing I would say is, the pace of change. So many people are just rushing into the change. The key stakeholders, especially the management, have already made up their mind. We need to be agile in two quarters, four quarters, right? By the end of this year, we need to be agile. And what that definition of agile means. is often very problematic. It could just mean that we start to do SCRUM. And that does not bring agility. And then we start to force people to get organized as SCRUM teams or Kanban teams for that matter, and just try to force change on them. And the teams maybe don’t want to shift at that pace. It is not that the teams are pushing back for no reason. Maybe there are real challenges on the ground that need to be solved first, before a team can go agile. In one of the transformations that I led, it was many years ago, even before we introduced agile, we started to talk about integrated processes, integrated development approaches.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Now that really helped to create the background to move into something like SCRUM. Because first, people knew to understand how do I write user stories, right? They can do that even when they have a waterfall process. They need to understand product management better. So there are many things that you need to do than just implementing the process and you need to get people ready for that.

Hrishikesh Kareka: So doing it at the right pace is very essential, and not just saying that, okay, at the end of the year, we will be agile. Then you end up with things like somebody declares on a PowerPoint, we are agile and behind the scenes, all you have done is written a new ways of working that says everybody now does SCRUM, but on the ground, situation is more or less the same.

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Your focus is on providing executive leadership in agile transformation. So how do you successfully navigate this change from the perspective of a leader driving the transformation?

Hrishikesh Kareka: From the perspective of a leader driving a transformation, I would say there are a few important things.

Build a strong transformation team

Hrishikesh Kareka: The first one is building a strong transformation team. It is important that they understand the business. Of course, they should understand agile transformation, agile practices, coaching, and all of that, but they also need to understand your business.

So you need to build a team with the right mix. One that brings the business knowledge, that brings the agile knowledge and so on, right? Because everybody will bring their unique perspectives. It could be domain, it could be technology and it could be of course, agile. Because then you will have the right conversations around the table, and you are not just having very purely theoretical agile discussions that often go on.

Another thing around this aspect, right around building a transformation team is, it needs to have the right mix of people that you bring from outside, who bring that industry perspective, best practices from other areas and something that you can use, but also internal knowledge.

Hrishikesh Kareka: So internal consultants. People who have been project managers,business people, you need to get some of them on board as well as part of the transformation team to be actually leaders in that change.

Hrishikesh Kareka: That really, I think, creates a good transformation team that helps you succeed. So that’s the first one.

Flexible roadmap

Hrishikesh Kareka: The second one is having a very flexible roadmap. So a roadmap is essential, right? there’s a difference between a plan and a roadmap, right?

Hrishikesh Kareka: As we talked earlier, a linear plan does not help. You need to have a vision where you want to go, and then you need to have a roadmap where you understand that it is going to change.

Hrishikesh Kareka: So first and foremost, communicating that roadmap to all the stakeholders is crucial. And when I message stakeholders, it’s not just the senior management, but to everybody who is involved in the change.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Agile is a big change and this communication can have different flavors or different approaches, but essentially, it must reach everyone. Only then, you can have them actively engaged.

Align your KPIs

Hrishikesh Kareka: And the third important thing, is aligning the KPIs, or whatever you want to call it, the performance measures of the transformation team to the goals of the business.

Hrishikesh Kareka: The goal of the transformation team cannot be to implement agile. The goal of the transformation team has to be around business KPIs. We are here to solve business problems. It could be lead time, it could be throughput, it could be customer satisfaction.

Hrishikesh Kareka: We have to always remember, agile is a means to an end, and that is where the KPIs are very crucial, and a leader should play a big role in ensuring that. That the KPIs of the team, of the transformation team are aligned to the business KPIs. Then you create the right environment for everyone to succeed.

And of course, around the KPIs or the measures, I always advise people to be bold. Many times we see people are shy, that okay, we don’t know how long it’ll take, and so on, but I think transformations really impact business and business is changing at a fast pace. So of course, the transformations also cannot go on forever. We need to put concrete timelines, understanding that it is a complex world, but we need to put a plan, and we need to put a bold plan.

Bill Raymond: Now, when we talk about this agile transformation team, I think I’d like to go through each one of these a little bit with you, the transformation team, the roadmap and the KPIs.

Bill Raymond: And I also want to talk a little bit about your statement about being bold there in just a moment as well.

Bill Raymond: But back to the transformation team, are there many of these in an organization? Because very often, we will see a business unit or a department within an organization saying, we’re going to do agile. But if we get up to the senior leadership role in an organization, this is usually coming from the CEO, the CFO, the COO, and they’re looking to transform the entire organization.

Where are the transformation teams?

Bill Raymond: So do we see multiple transformation teams focusing on each of the different areas of the business, or is this sort of a executive-level team at the top, kind of managing the status?

Hrishikesh Kareka: So I have seen different flavors. In very large enterprises, the big banks of the world where you have hundreds of thousands of employees and things like that. There the organizations already are siloed in a way, right? You would have them organized in different business units, et cetera, and then you see those flavors of each having their own transformation teams with their own agendas, and so on.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Of course, many times there is a synergy across all of them. But still, given the nature of the business, many of them operate quite independently. It helps, and that is what I’ve seen succeed, if there is a small group, which is working to align all of them. I would not say "central group," because it does not work. Centralization has its own challenges, because then everybody just starts to follow what the central team is saying or dictating.

The need to be decentralized

Hrishikesh Kareka: So while we need to be decentralized in the whole transformation approach, there needs to be a common thread that brings alignment, brings synergies, helps pass on the learnings to each other, the failures,especially the learnings from failures.

So I often refer to it as, you know, the hub-and-spoke model. That you have a central hub, that is an enabler, right? and then there are the transformation teams in each of the individual business units, or areas which are doing more local work. So both of these flavors are there, and the better synergy you are able to create between them, the more successful you will be.

Bill Raymond: Yeah, and I agree with you there. I’ve actually seen this happen a few different ways myself. I had one particular company in mind that I used to work with that had a team that was considered, they called themselves, I don’t think this is the exact title, but it was a "center of excellence" for agile. And they were kind of considered "the corporate team," and what they shared was a lot of the best practices that you’d see in industry, they provided training and things like that. But what we saw was that there weren’t any coordinated agile transformation teams in the business units. They just said, well, we’ll just take what that other team is saying and try to do it.

Bill Raymond: And what they end up doing is taking some of the things that are standard, like, we’ll do sprints that are two to four weeks, we’ll do iterative design and development, even if we’re in HR or Marketing. But they kind of take these ideas and roll with it. But what we get lost there is the trying to figure out what’s the new value you’re going to provide?

Bill Raymond: What are some of the things that we need to streamline? How do we change in this ever changing world? And a lot of those conversations get lost in the background. And that’s where I see your point of having these individual transformation teams at a lower level in the organization, where they’re really focusing on what are the changes that we’re going to make?

Bill Raymond: And the corporate level entity, changed actually in this company, and they provided the funding, if people needed coaches, they could help find some coaches that worked for them. And they also provided some just general base training along the way, but they stop going from, here’s the best practices to, how can we help your transformation team?

Decisions to centralize or de-centralize

Hrishikesh Kareka: Yes, and on this aspect, one of the points which SAFe talks about, you need to decide what other decisions you will centralize and what other decisions you will decentralize.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Where you have economies of scale, where you have long term decisions and decisions which impact a lot of people. Yes, you may want to centralize some of them and do that. Of course, you will do it in a more democratic way by getting people on board. And other things, which are more local decisions, you would want the local transformation teams to execute, because then they feel empowered. Otherwise they are just copying what has been told to them.

The Flexible Roadmap vs a Project Plan

Bill Raymond: When we’re talking about agile transformation, we’re really thinking holistically about how we are going to change our organization, change the way we work, change the way we think, and also have this much more focused team approach, that it is sometimes hard to get your arms around all of that.

Bill Raymond: And so the immediate, and we talked about this earlier with building a project plan, the immediate thought is, well, we need to have some sort of beginning and end to all of this.

Bill Raymond: When you say roadmap, that’s kind of what the picture looks like in my head. Could you maybe share what that roadmap might look like and how it differs from a project plan?

I’ll give you an example of, um, uh, of a agile transformation in the IT department of a large enterprise that I was helping. So this department almost had more than 2000 people, and they have been doing traditional practices for a long time. Of course, given the popularity of agile in pockets, some of the teams are doing what they thought was SCRUM and so on.

But more or less, the organization’s central processes, policies, et cetera, revolved around waterfall or traditional approaches. Now, the CIO of that particular organization wanted to transform and said, okay, let’s start with the transformation and what will be achieved at the end of a year?

Hrishikesh Kareka: That was the question he had, right? Of course, he understands that agile is a long journey, but what do we put as a goal for end of the year? So the way we put it as, okay, what we will achieve by the end of this year is, we will make sure that everybody understands agile. We will make sure that everybody understands what is the impact of this change on me, on my project or my product, and I will figure out, or that particular project will figure out what is the gap that they need to bridge, right? What is it that they need to do to really truly become agile? And of course, we will start with pilots or experiments in some areas already. So we identified a couple of critical, projects, which were like the flagship projects. So yes, by the end of this year, we should have already started our journey in these areas, and these teams should already be operating in an agile way. So that was the kind of roadmap, at a very high level, at a CIO level, that was explained.

Hrishikesh Kareka: And then when we started working on it,the detailed plan was okay, given the scale of the organization and because we wanted to make sure that everybody uses the same language, et cetera, the first three months, or few months are going to go into a lot of training, and so on.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Now, we initially envisaged that it would take about three to four months to really cover everybody with e-learning and a combination of e-learning, classroom courses, et cetera.

Hrishikesh Kareka: But what we realized was that the excitement in a lot of the workforce was there, people saw that this is a good thing, and at least with the trainings, they had no problem. So even at the end of two months, we were quite ahead, on that goal, on that intermediate goal. And when we had started, we had planned certain units or certain sub areas, which we thought would be the ideal candidates. But at the end of the trainings, there were other players who were more excited, who we never thought could be excited as much, but now wanted to be the leaders. Wanted to be the early adopters. And that is the flexibility.

Hrishikesh Kareka: We decided to shift gears to do the agile transformation first with these players who are more excited about it. And rather than sticking to our plan, saying that, okay, just because we already told the CIO that this is the area that we are going to focus on first, we will just continue with that. Because we did see that in those areas, the excitement was a bit lesser compared to these players whom we did not expect.

Hrishikesh Kareka: So that is basically listening to the field, right? And that is the flexible roadmap. You need to keep on observing what is happening, listen to the field and keep on adapting your roadmap. Again, your overall goal will not change. The CIO does want to see things started and yes, things did start, and because we picked up the right players, the success was better.

Bill Raymond: Wow. That’s a really good example there. I mean, you shifted quite a bit, but you’re still meeting the objectives. And I’m sure by then, as the more excited teams learn, then there’s some kind of lead by example that happens, and other teams will start to see the value in it as it moves forward.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Yes.

KPIs and objectives

Bill Raymond: Let’s talk a little bit about these KPIs and objectives as well. when it’s coming from a corporate level and you’re talking about doing agile at scale in an organization, what are some of the ways that you drive KPIs and objectives, so that everyone gets a view into what it is they need to be doing in their business?

Bill Raymond: Or do you just say, every business unit builds their own KPIs and their own objectives for their transformation?

Hrishikesh Kareka: I think every organization has their strategic goals.

Hrishikesh Kareka: So for example, one of the product companies that I worked closely with, their products used to take about a couple of years to do the implementation. These are large products, working with the tier one customers in North America, Europe and so on, and the implementation actually takes about a couple of years.

Hrishikesh Kareka: The strategic goal of this company was to get this time down to eight months because that has a direct impact on the company’s revenues, things like revenue realization, right?

Hrishikesh Kareka: You are getting paid after a couple of years. Now, if you implement the project in a year, you get paid earlier. You are making the customer happy, much more happy, right? And so the customer satisfaction goes up. So there are several business KPIs which were at the organizational level, and then they cascade to the, to the unit level.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Now the units also have similar goals, right? some units are able tomake that journey much faster and some units much slower, depends on the complexity of their product.

Hrishikesh Kareka: So everybodyhas business KPIs that eventually are derived from your strategic goals. Whether you call it OKRs or you can call it whatever names you want, but ultimately, all business units need to align to the strategic objective of the enterprise. when you’re talking about. setting these KPIs and objectives, you said, be bold, when you were originally talking about this. Could you share what you mean by being bold with your transformation?

Hrishikesh Kareka: Sure. put yourself in the shoes of an executive who needs to run a company and somebody tells him or her that, I don’t know when this will be done. It’s a very difficult answer to take, right? Knowing that yes, we know reality is there and things are difficult and so on. But what people like, is you put your best estimate forward and then you give your best shot at it. And if reality will hit us, we will not make it, of course, we need to coach the executive for that, but we need to put a bold plan.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Here, I always like the example of Elon Musk. NASA, did not even attempt or maybe attempted and failed, to build a re-usable rocket. Elon Musk declared that, "I will build a reusable rocket." And it took him some time to do it, but he already declared, " This is my aim and this is what I’m going to do."

Hrishikesh Kareka: There was no precedent. So putting that big step forward, I’m saying I will do it. And then understanding that yes, reality is there, complexity is there and we will work through it, is another thing. But making that bold move to say, yes, this is what I think is the logical, place where we will be in a year, and being a bit aggressive or bold about it, is I think the way to be. In my view, it has got me good results. Of course, I would not say everything that I have claimed I have done, but you aim for the best.

That’s great advice. And that’s I think where it also goes back to the flexible roadmap concepts that you mentioned before. You know, try to take that bold step. If things aren’t going the way that we hoped, then we can readjust, right?.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Absolutely. And coaching the executives or the leaders that you’re working with on the flexibility part is crucial. Many times, people also build linear plans and then they commit on those linear plans. Even in their heads, it is a linear plan. They think, if I say yes to something, I will need to achieve it. And that is the fear which holds them back.

Hrishikesh Kareka: But if you are yourself very convinced that this is a flexible roadmap, and you convince the executives also that yes, this is a flexible roadmap, then I think there is no challenge with being bold.

Bill Raymond: Yeah, that makes complete sense. And I’m guessing that is also part of just how you keep executives aligned with the transformation effort. Would that be right?

Hrishikesh Kareka: Yes. you need to show real business benefits. And if you solve real business challenges, they will keep coming back to you.

Advice for executives on agile transformation

Bill Raymond: I’m curious, as we get towards the end of the podcast here,we’ve been talking about corporate executive-level, leadership-level changes across an organization. What advice might you give to an executive that’s thinking about going through this agile transformation effort?

Hrishikesh Kareka: To executives, I would say, it takes some time, which will not be a lot, to learn what agile is first time. Many executives have built a very wrong notion of agile, that is primarily limited to SCRUM and sprints. Agile has a lot to offer beyond that. So I think that is my first key message to them. Figure out for yourself, all of you are smart people. Figure out for yourself, take out that time, there are tons of YouTube videos. You are smart enough to figure out which are the good ones, which are the bad ones, and figure out what agile is for yourself. Because then you can come back and challenge the transformation teams by asking the right questions and making sure that their definition of what success is aligns with your definition.

And you really bring business goals and business KPIs into the picture. So that is what I do with the leaders I coach, that self-learning and seeing agile beyond this SCRUM and sprints is crucial.

when I first started to learn agile on one of the larger efforts that I was on many years ago, I was still a little confused by agile and people were talking about things like sprints and retrospectives, but I couldn’t understand why that was important and what that meant. And I couldn’t understand the value that it was bringing. And yeah, just popped open a book and started reading it over the weekend and I started to really get a better understanding. So that’s great advice.

Contact Hrishikesh

Bill Raymond: Hrishikesh, if anyone wants to reach out to you, how might they do that?

Hrishikesh Kareka: They can reach out to me on Medium. So I’m very active on Medium, I’m writing there, and also LinkedIn. So I think these are the two social media or platforms I would say, where I’m most easily reachable and active.

Bill Raymond: Your Medium articles are fantastic, and we found you through one of your article, which is, " Is Your Agile Transformation Ship Stuck in Troubled Political Waters?" And that was a good example of how an executive might be able to just find a piece of content that would be useful to them. Because these are change management efforts, these are not simple things that we go through. And so to have content like that, I really appreciate the work that you do there. And also of course. You have the book, "Perspectives on Agility." You also mentioned SAFe a few times and SCRUM a few times. So if you’re interested in learning more about that, I’ll also provide some links on the podcast.

Bill Raymond: So Hrishikesh’s LinkedIn, Medium, "Perspectives on Agility" book and SAFe and SCRUM resources will be in the agileinaction.com website. And you can also find that on the app that you’re listening to this podcast in right now. Thank you so much for your time Hrishikesh, I really appreciate it.

Hrishikesh Kareka: Thank you for having me.

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