Creating Alignment for Agile Transformation with Canvases

From the Lean Canvas to the Business Model Canvas, there are many variations on "1 page plans" to help organizations solve business problems. This post will show you how to use canvases to manage your Agile Transformation.
February 25, 2014
Jason is the author of Lean Change Management and founder of the Lean Change Management Association and Spark the Change Toronto
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There are almost 40 million Google search results about the phrase “why does Agile fail?”  There is a wide variety of perspectives about what the causes are.

Some of the causes cited in various articles include:

  • Agile is pushed from the top-down and the people don’t understand why
  • The organization adopts “agile-in-name-only” which means they use agile terms to describe their existing processes
  • Failure to change mindset and/or culture
  • Failure to adopt technical practices

To me, these causes seem like symptoms as a result of lack of alignment. An organizational change triggered by the introduction of Agile is disruptive. Some departments stand to gain something, while others stand to lose something. That’s a topic for a different day, but my is that Agile transformation has little to do with Agile and everything to do with organizational change.

There’s no shortage of theories about the importance of organizational alignment. Here is a process I use in Lean Change Management to create alignment.

Culture Change Starts with a Clear Strategy

Culture eats your strategy for breakfast? Maybe, but culture needs something to spark its evolution. Start with a canvas. Which canvas you use is up to you. The objective of creating a canvas is to be able to use it as a tool that provokes a conversation with, and feedback from, the people affected by the change. You can call it a Transformation Canvas, Change Canvas, Strategy Canvas…it doesn’t really matter as long as it makes sense to YOU and the people in your organization.

lean change canvas

An example of a Strategy Canvas

For the purposes of this post, I’ll call this a Strategy Canvas.  At a  client I’m currently working with, we’re referring to this as the “VP Canvas“. We named it the VP Canvas because when we’re talking to people in the organization about the change, they’ll know what we’re talking about versus using generic ‘change canvas’, or ‘transformation canvas’, or ‘lean canvas’, or what-have-you.

This canvas should answer these questions for everyone in the organization:

  • what change are we making?
  • why are we making this change?
  • who is affected by the change and what will they need to change?
  • how will we measure success?
  • how will we measure progress?
  • what’s our high-level plan?

I Call Shenanigans!

shenanigansOnce your Strategy Canvas is complete, validate it with with people affected by the change. The objective here is to see how people will react to the strategy. We’re referring to this process as calling shenanigans on the canvas! Why? Because the first team we reviewed it with created that meme so we’ve stuck with it.  The other reason is because it’s ok to have fun at work!

If your organization doesn’t like to have fun, you can call this process “the enabling of strategic synergies between all affected parties“. If that doesn’t sound good enough, you can use this buzzword generator.

Kidding aside, review the canvas with the people affected by the change and ask these questions:

  • what words and phrases stuck out for you?
  • what was interesting to you?
  • what did you find worrisome about the canvas?
  • what is supporting this change?
  • what is working against this change?
  • how can your team contribute to this vision?
  • what changes would you recommend?
  • what help would you need to contribute to this vision?

From the discussion that ensues, create a team canvas. Again, pick a name that makes sense to your organization and be consistent with it. Canvases are simple planning tools, the conversation that creates the data on the canvas is the most important part.

team change canvas

An Example of a Team Canvas

Explore Similarities and Differences

Once you’ve done the exercise of reviewing the Strategy Canvas with all your teams, and have called shenanigans on it, take  the data from all the team canvases back to the executives who created the Strategy Canvas.  Use that feedback to make adjustments to the Strategy Canvas. That’s the tricky part and it implies you, as the change agent, have already convinced the executives to buy into a feedback-driven change process.

Feedback-driven planning

Adjust Change Plan Based on Feedback

I like to use Lean Coffee and retrospectives as primary feedback tools for understanding how teams feel about the Strategy Canvas. Also keep in mind that alignment isn’t going to happen after one-session and teams will be skeptical.

After the Strategy Canvas has gone through an iteration or two, review it in more depth every month or quarter. Pick whichever frequency makes sense in your organization. That constant feedback is what contributes to alignment.

Sometimes you’ll pick a change that simply won’t work and that’s ok, as long as the teams are aligned with the strategy. Let the executives worry about the why (strategy) and let the teams and people worry about the what and how (execution).

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like how Agile teams deliver software!

Make it Visible

When this process is complete, put the canvases up on a wall. Take other people for tours and show them this wall.  Have your change team stand-up meetings in front of this wall. Encourage people to post questions about everything on this wall. The image below is a work in progress. Given this organization has 40,000+ employees, we’re currently working on keeping the physical wall and duplicate it electronically.

big visible wall

Big Visible Wall

How This Approach Creates Alignment

  • The Strategy Canvas explains the reasons behind the change in plan english, not corporate buzzword speak. Well, unless you populate the canvas with generic buzzwords.  Don’t worry, the shenanigans reported by the teams will make you aware of that!
  • Reviewing the Strategy Canvas with teams provokes the open and honest dialogue necessary for creating urgency for change. More importantly, the feedback about the Strategy Canvas from staff helps executives understand what’s really going on in the organization.
  • The process of facilitating a change program this way proves to people that the change team is a support group, not a process pushing machine!
  • Through this process, you’ll identify early adopters. Those early adopters will become part of your change agent network
  • You’ll quickly learn that different teams need different help. That is very difficult to predict upfront, so rolling out a standard set of Agile practices is probably not a good idea. It won’t help the teams, and worse, it won’t create any alignment because teams will perceive a bunch of processes are being handed down from the top.

Lean Change Management isn’t a process or method to follow.  It’s a collection of innovative practices to help you manage change and transformation. You, as a change agent, can use the Lean Change Management model to build your own change process. As long as you are creating a feedback-driven approach to change, you’ll be able to create organizational alignment by focusing on involving the people affected by the change in the design of the change itself.

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  1. April Jefferson

    Your information in this post is very valuable. I thank you for it. It was a great supplement to the information Gerry Kirk introduced me to from you at OnStar and the conversation you had with our entire team. I am now doing this at U of M Medical School but for one team. One of things we were not able to do at OnStar was create a canvas for each team. This is a step I am not skipping and believe that including this will make coaching even easier because they own the change and as you stated it is not being pushed on them. Will be happy to share more if you are interested on my journey with them.

    • Jason Little

      You’re welcome April! I’d love to hear how you’re using the canvases!

      Thanks for your point on creating team canvases, I’ve found it helps teams understand the purpose of the change which reduces the feeling that the change is being pushed on them.



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