Selling agile to senior managers

Melanie Franklin, APMG accredited consultant and Director of AgileChangeManagement Limited, provides advice on how to broach the topic of agile with senior members of management.

For decades the world of project management has been dominated by traditional, sequential, “waterfall” approaches. Now, increasing numbers of individuals and organisations are turning to agile methods and frameworks to manage projects more effectively.

No longer confined to product development and IT & software development projects, agile approaches have become popular with a wide variety of organisations that need to be more flexible and responsive as the pace of change continues to increase. It can be difficult – and indeed frustrating – trying to encourage senior management to adopt a new way of working, whether it’s simply an overarching resistance to change, or concerns about myths sometimes attributed to agile.

The following points, in no particular order of importance, can help when discussing agile with the senior management team.

The devil is the detail

Avoid going into depth about what agile is and how agile works. This can create the impression that an agile approach is complex and specialist i.e. not easy to adopt. Leave out the detailed language and complex terminology. Create a high level story that addresses the key issues as seen at senior management level and not at the user level.

Don’t position agile as the only solution.

Business has seen lots of different approaches come and go, things like business process engineering, for example. For the sake of credibility, it’s more helpful and more persuasive to explain that agile is a way of working that can align with other approaches.

What can agile do for me?

Take a leaf from any good salesperson’s book – everything you say has to connect to the interests and concerns of those you are selling to. Be empathetic. Senior managers will want to know how this approach can help them achieve strategic objectives, how it will ease their management concerns and, from an overarching point of view, alignment with corporate objectives. 

Align agile to corporate objectives

Senior management’s key concerns can be boiled down as follows – how does agile help here?

1. Cost reduction

Agile approaches can lower the cost of initiatives. In more traditional approaches, there is a lot of up front, detailed planning that needs to be paid for before anything is produced. Also, if these plans need to be reworked as circumstances change, there is an additional overhead. Agile approaches involve the incremental development of the final deliverable, therefore the risk of building the ‘wrong’ thing is reduced – an overall cost saving.

2. Revenue increase

Agile approaches usually see a return on investment earlier in the lifecycle as more features and functions are made available to customers. Early delivery can also generate higher levels of customer satisfaction because customers are getting what they need earlier. In turn, customers are able to give early feedback helping to shape later iterations and increasing customer satisfaction. In a product lifecycle, earlier to market can give a competitive edge in sales and revenue.

3. Adding value

More than anything else, agile approaches emphasise business value. In other models, the manager is responsible for ensuring their team is doing valuable work. In an agile environment it is the responsibility of every team member. Everyone in the team is encouraged to challenge his or her work, to ensure that it is genuinely solving a problem or adding a feature or function that is needed and that will add value to the process.

Agile teams can self-manage – to a degree

One of the biggest challenges in leadership at the moment is how to effectively lead those who know more about their work than their managers. Agile teams are managed on the principle of self-direction and empowerment. The manager defines the scope of their work and clarifies the output from their work but is not expected to define how that work is carried out. The team will self-manage and only involve the manager if they hit a problem that needs the requisite management authority. Agile helps to develop a network of ‘local’ leaders that increases the overall capability of the organisation.

An agile approach increases the capability of the organisation

Effective agile teams rely on members having a breadth of skills and being willing to pitch in and help their colleagues on tasks that are not their areas of expertise. In this way, deadlines are met and early and regular delivery to customers can take place. Members of these multi-disciplinary teams can cross-train each other, which increases the capability of their organisation over time; a great side effect of moving to an agile approach.


Edited for web by Jordan Platt.