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Roles and responsibilities in an Agile center of excellence

A successful Agile transformation takes time and perseverance. Here's how an Agile center of excellence helps to adopt changes and adjust work processes.

Organizations that adopt Agile practices soon realize that it takes perseverance to ensure changes are truly adopted and attitudes toward change remain positive. This isn't a complex transformation, but it requires significant changes in mindsets and behavior for management and development staff.

An Agile center of excellence (CoE) helps support internal Agile transformation efforts by providing distinct roles and responsibilities to ensure everyone understands and adopts organizational and process changes. Agile CoEs provide useful guidance, support, education and, above all, leadership to employees as they work through the Agile transformation.

This article explains how to establish and foster an Agile CoE and take progressive steps toward a successful Agile transformation.

What is an Agile center of excellence?

An Agile CoE is a group of people within an organization whose responsibility is to enable a successful transformation to Agile. This group advances and supports an organization's effective adoption of Agile mindsets, processes and techniques.

In Agile CoEs, advocates are more than enthusiastic persuaders; they are the go-to resource for all things about Agile: why, when, where and how.

An Agile CoE creates the best practices for change within the organization. This group gathers information, shares training and education, and provides answers and leadership to keep employees on the same page with the change to Agile. They ensure that teams use Agile in similar ways.

An Agile CoE creates a single source of truth and decision-making about the Agile transition. A single point of contact for training and assistance helps keep the Agile transformation message consistent and accurate. Employees better understand which processes to follow when they are disputed or altered. With an Agile CoE, employees and managers don't need to add Agile training, tool searches and process changes to their workloads; they go to the CoE for techniques, templates, training and even tool recommendations.

Effective Agile CoEs also build collaboration between employee groups, identify new opportunities for Agile, uncover challenges, and make decisions for leadership, management or employees who struggle in the Agile transformation process.

What are the main roles and responsibilities in an Agile CoE?

There are three main roles within an Agile CoE:

  1. CoE lead. The CoE lead drives the Agile transformation by acting as the leader or visionary and making decisions. Among this person's responsibilities are to reset processes, create process requirements and evaluate the adoption of Agile practices. The CoE lead also provides strategic planning for Agile adoption. Typically, the CoE lead is an executive or leadership position and is in touch with all sectors of the organization.
  2. Leadership coach. The Agile CoE leadership coach provides guidance. This role reviews adopted Agile processes by development teams and managers and helps keep managers and other leaders up to speed on what the teams are doing for Agile transformation. The leadership coach also manages and resolves employee conflicts around Agile issues and guides employees with innovative ideas that require upper management's approval.
  3. Agile coach. On the Agile CoE team, the Agile coach provides training and support and promotes Agile artifacts and ceremonies within teams. This person helps development team members with questions, difficulties and active suggestions to implement Agile techniques and performs Agile maturity assessments and process audits.

Many software development organizations create Agile CoEs to build a team that manages employee training, answers questions, and provides decisions and support to keep the Agile transformation moving forward. If there is no group accountable to manage the Agile transformation, many teams change habits briefly and then quickly return to pre-Agile ways of working.

The following list describes the services and support that Agile CoE teams provide:

  • Present lead-by-example approaches to using Agile.
  • Lead efforts to recommend changes to processes.
  • Participate in Agile meetings and discussions to help transfer knowledge and get the most from each activity.
  • Coach development teams through difficult discussions and changes in work habits.
  • Provide Agile-focused training.
  • Answer core questions about the Agile transformation: why, how, when, where and who.
  • Recommend tools to support Agile processes.
  • Measure and evaluate the progress of the Agile transformation.
  • Measure and report on effects to the business -- for example, revenue, delivery times or customer experience metrics.

The advantage of a CoE is the support it provides for employees and managers. An Agile transformation can go astray easily when employees and managers have different objectives or different definitions of Agile.

What are the characteristics of the Agile CoE?

The five main characteristics of an Agile CoE are the following:

  1. Standardized processes across teams. All teams use the same tools and work processes.
  2. Optimized use of assets, including tools, employees and managers. Use of valid tools helps implement Agile successfully. Agile CoEs also use employee and manager knowledge to influence and encourage others to follow the Agile processes.
  3. Measurable performance and corrections through continuous improvement efforts. It's critical to track the Agile transformation's progress and take decisive steps when processes or procedures need correction.
  4. Guidance and governance to move the Agile transformation forward. Lead by example, offer active support and make decisions when process changes are disputed or ignored.
  5. Subject matter experts (SMEs) to manage questions, training and complications. Educate, train, and show employees and managers the benefits of Agile processes by actively practicing and supporting the Agile changes.
When organizations undertake an Agile transformation without an Agile CoE, there is typically dissension and disagreement.

Should your organization create an Agile CoE?

An Agile CoE creates a single source of information, truth, training and decision-making to disseminate throughout the organization. This helps employees, managers and leadership get the most value from adopting Agile and increases the likelihood of a successful Agile transition.

An Agile CoE is not mandatory; organizations can implement Agile without one. However, without a CoE as a single source of truth, training and support for Agile, those responsibilities must live somewhere else -- perhaps multiple places, possibly ad hoc and depending on intent. Do you put a manager in charge or a Scrum master? Do you add some of the workload to an existing set of employees on a development team?

When organizations undertake an Agile transformation without an Agile CoE, there is typically dissension and disagreement on why Agile is needed and how it's implemented. Over time, each team implements the Agile version they prefer, and work habits tend to gradually return to old, pre-Agile habits.

One option is to select a high-performing development team and have them implement Agile first, like a pilot launch. Provide them with external training, guidance and a qualified Scrum master. Let them work out the kinks and come up with the best practices for your organization's Agile transformation. With that one team, find out what works, where struggles with process changes occur and implement ways to solve them. When you're satisfied with the results, push the changes onto the remaining development teams.

Once that Agile transformation is rolling, your pioneering group of Agile SMEs then becomes the original development team. Keep in mind, however, that supporting other teams' questions, struggles and training takes time away from that original group's project work. Plan accordingly.

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