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The Best Way to Create an Agile Centre of Excellence (Agile CoE)

December 12, 2021
14 minute read
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Many larger organizations create an Agile centre of excellence as part of their organizational development journey. This group of people becomes responsible for advancing agility throughout the organization. The idea of an Agile centre of excellence comes from many other similar practices historically: a quality centre of excellence, a lean centre of excellence, or a leadership centre of excellence. These groups are charged with educating the organization about the current best practices of the topic for which they are responsible, and, over time, ensuring that the culture of the organization and mindset of individuals shift to embrace the values and philosophy behind the topic.

An Agile centre of excellence is also a way for an organization to take ownership of their transformation and reduce their dependence on external consultants doing training, coaching and so forth.

In most cases the members of an Agile centre of Excellence start with idealism and energy. However, they often end feeling cynicism and burnout. Unfortunately, the way that most organizations establish an Agile centre of Excellence is flawed, ineffective and unsustainable.

What is an Agile CoE, and why does it exist?

An Agile centre of excellence is a group of people in an organization responsible for advancing the adoption of Agile culture, mindset, frameworks, processes, skills, roles, techniques, and tools to support the organization to achieve its strategic goals and serve its customers more effectively. Organizations create an Agile CoE in order to create accountability and ownership for the transformation. The Agile CoE also becomes a well-known learning resource for everyone in the organization. In some cases, the Agile centre of excellence is also responsible for audit enforcement of approved frameworks, methods and techniques. Some very large organizations will have multiple Agile centres of excellence – one in each major branch, department or line of business.

The members of the Agile centre of excellence are involved in several activities to varying degrees depending on their own skills and the needs of the organization:

  • using Agile approaches for their own body of work to lead by example,
  • deciding on/recommending changes to organizational structure and policies,
  • creating a sense of urgency for change,
  • coaching teams and leaders,
  • providing educational resources across the organization,
  • communicating successes,
  • consolidating and disseminating learning from experience in the organization,
  • developing/customizing fit-for-purpose frameworks, processes, policies and tools,
  • evaluating and recommending collaboration and coordination tools,
  • measuring the progress of the transformation, and
  • measuring the impact of the transformation on the business.

The best Agile centres of excellence are powerful forces for change in an organization. The members are committed, enthusiastic people who have strong formal and informal relationships throughout the organization. They constantly learn, they are hands-on and are always prioritizing transformation over the status quo. They work consistently and persistently to help the organization make many small changes, and drive huge cultural changes over long periods of time. And, they adopt agility as their own mindset and way of working.

Agile Centre of Excellence Patterns

There are three main patterns for the establishment and makeup of an Agile centre of excellence. Each pattern has advantages and disadvantages. However, for bottom-line results, there is one clear winner among the three patterns.

  1. The Managed Agile Centre of Excellence

    Typically, this is a group of people who are Agile experts selected by senior management. These people are existing staff or lower-level managers who show potential as coaches, and are often “accidentally” experienced. Sometimes, the organization will hire a small number of full-time people who are experienced Agile coaches to populate the managed Agile CoE.

    This group is often made up of a combination of “enterprise” Agile coaches and “team” Agile coaches. Enterprise coaches are focused on leadership and organizational change while team coaches are focused on process, techniques and structure for teams and departments.

    This group often has a more senior person who is the lead of the Agile CoE. That lead is often a mid- or senior-level manager, possibly at the VP level, but without a budget other then for staff costs of the other members of the Agile CoE who are direct reports. Sometimes the Scrum Masters and non-Agile CoE coaches dotted-line report into the members of the Agile CoE in very large organizations.

    This pattern of Agile CoE is by far the most common, and also the least effective in actually making change happen in an organization. Although this typical approach may bring short-term benefits, and be relatively easy to establish, it is not a sustainable way of creating agility in an organization.

    There are three key reasons for these sub-optimal results:

    1. the members of the Agile CoE in this form rarely have accountability for the performance results of the organization,
    2. this style of Agile CoE often finds it impossible to break free from existing organizational culture and bureaucracy due to their “managed” status, and, finally,
    3. the managed Agile centre of excellence often has no authority to implement crucial organizational changes.

    Members of a managed Agile centre of excellence will almost always see the transformation plans delayed and delayed again. They will see progress be extremely painful and slow, and many cases of back-sliding when their support is focused elsewhere. They will experience high degrees of personal and political resistance to change. Only the most driven, battle-tested people should be put onto a managed Agile centre of excellence.

  2. The Self-Organizing Agile Centre of Excellence

    People in the organization naturally find each other as Agile enthusiasts and, with support from executive management, are officially recognized as an Agile Centre of Excellence. This official transition requires formalizing membership that was previously informal. The members draft their own charter for their work, and the organization acknowledges this charter, possibly with minor adjustments. Finally, the organization allocates funding for members’ salaries; possibly part-time, possibly full-time.

    The organization puts out a call for volunteers to join the Agile CoE if it is ever “under strength”. This call for volunteers should share the charter of the Agile CoE and make it clear that this is an opportunity to influence the progress of the transformation, but that members of the group will have to make a substantial time commitment (50% or more), and will have to have a basic level of experience, training and certification with agility.

    The internal structure of a self-organizing Agile centre of excellence often reflects the structure of the predominant Agile methods being used by the participants. If Scrum, then there will be a volunteer Scrum Master and Product Owner for the group. If OpenAgile, then process facilitation and growth facilitation. If Kanban, then a service delivery manager and a service request manager. However, there will be no reporting relationships within the Agile CoE in this pattern.

    This self-organizing Agile centre of excellence is better than a “managed” CoE because of the high degree of motivation and because it embodies the spirit of self-organization so essential to agility. However, in a very large organization there are strong pressures to make the Agile CoE more formal and it is difficult for a self-organizing CoE to stay self-organizing.

    The members of a self-organizing Agile centre of excellence will experience many of the same problems as a managed CoE: delays, slow progress, back-sliding, and resistance. However, due to the high level of personal commitment of members of such a group, and their comfort with a grass-roots approach to change, these people will often last longer and make somewhat better progress than those in a managed CoE.

  3. The Transformation Team – the Ideal Agile Centre of Excellence

    The best Agile centre of excellence setup is to make the transformation a responsibility of the existing executive or senior leadership team (SLT), which is already responsible for organizational culture, business strategy, operations and any restructurings. In this pattern, there is no separate group of people who make up the Agile CoE. Instead, this becomes an additional responsibility for the entire executive body. This is now a Transformation Team, not just a center of excellence.

    The Agile transformation is only one of the many items that the Transformation Team deals with… ALL the work of the SLT is managed using the Agile process framework and techniques. In other words, the SLT leads the transformation by being Agile themselves. Obviously, most executives already find themselves overwhelmed with responsibility so there is a strong temptation to delegate the Agile CoE responsibilities (thus the other two more common patterns). This temptation should be resisted if the executives truly believe in the importance of agility for the organization.

    To be clear: agility is not the responsibility of just one separate group or department; it is the responsibility of everyone. This universal responsibility can only be created in an organization by having the most senior decision-makers take full ownership of agility themselves.

    The members of this Transformation Team establish a regular cadence to meet – and this may already exist with the SLT – and to run these meetings in an Agile fashion.

    Key practices of the Transformation Team include:

    1. incremental value delivery (org change, policies, data analysis, decisions)
    2. organizational work visualization (e.g. a Transformation Team Kanban board), and
    3. communicating (healthy) urgency to the rest of the organization.

    The members of the Transformation Team, acting as the Agile CoE, are cross-functional and each member hasdecision-making authority for their functional area. This cross-functionality and decision-making authority is also crucial for the success of an Agile centre of excellence. Without this, any changes are limited in scope and extremely hard-won. With executives forming the Transformation Team, these barriers mostly disappear.

    An external coach/facilitator can be hired on a temporary basis to “lead” this team with Agile expertise, but they are not a decision-maker, and the Transformation Team will eventually do without this person. This external person should be able to provide a strong educational program that will accomplish the following:

    • first and foremost, quickly alleviate the stress levels of the members of the SLT by providing concrete processes, practices and tools for them,
    • create quick bottom-line wins for the overall organizational transformation by getting the Transformation Team to adopt some important decisions and behaviours for the entire organization or key parts of it, and
    • gradually develop an awareness of the culture and mindset that the SLT is responsible for creating across the organization with their own example leading the way.

A key member of the Transformation Team for the purposes of Agile transformation is the highest-serving executive assistant – this person is highly-connected and an excellent communicator and problem-solver – he or she supports the Transformation Team and becomes it’s process facilitator after the external coach leaves.

Eventually, some members of the Transformation Team may also become internal Agile coaches. These people may remain as part of the SLT or dedicate themselves to coaching the organization and only participate with the SLT on matters relating to Agility. Likewise, some less senior people who are acting as coaches within the organization may eventually join the Transformation Team through promotion to positions such as Vice-President of Enterprise Agility. For these key positions, it is much better to promote from within than to bring in external hires.

Comparing the Agile Centre of Excellence Patterns

The three patterns all have advantages. Every organization must evaluate the trade-offs between the options. In my experience with over twenty years of working with Agile transformations, there is really no question as to which approach is most effective. However, sometimes effectiveness isn’t the only consideration.

Please note that each organization is unique and these comparisons are generalizations that may not apply to your organization’s specific situation.

Style

Managed

Self-Organizing

Transformation Team

Benefits

Easy to start

Motivated participants

Powerful

Influence

Low

(uphill battle to serve)

High

(energy and reputation)

Medium

(respect, possibly fear or cynicism)

Accountability

Low

(to manager for assigned work)

Medium

(mutually accountable and to peers)

High

(board of directors / owners)

Authority

Medium

(limited granted authority)

Low

(tolerated by management)

High

(budgetary, policy and structural)

Skin in the Game

Low

(just a job)

Medium

(reputation and psychological sunk cost)

High

(reputation and compensation)

Results

Poor

Fair

Strong

 

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