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Ingo Kallenbach

Agile transformation (part 5) - setting up a pilot project

Setting up a pilot project is often a successful alternative within an agile transformation. Often the chosen time of the pilot is the most important step for a successful transformation. If the pilot is successful, the organization gains a concrete example to follow. However, if the project fails or the expectations are not fulfilled, there is a danger that the entire initiative of an agile transformation will be torn apart by its critics. Ultimately, no one really likes change if it doesn't work.

A pilot project is not the only way to initiate change. Transformations in the "top-down" process, scattered across the entire company, or the currently popular outsourcing of a part of the company ("digital factory") as well as the "bottom-up" version by means of agile networks, represent transformation possibilities, which - in addition to the pilot project approach - can mean worthwhile alternatives in organisations depending on the situation of the company.

When does a pilot project make sense?

Harvard professor John Kotter - the most experienced change management expert in the world - explains that hierarchical structures and organizational processes that have been used for decades to manage and develop companies are no longer able to succeed in an ever faster developing world (2015).

Traditional hierarchies and conventional project management methods can certainly continue to successfully meet a company's repetitive and predictable requirements, but they are no longer in a position to recognize the most important dangers and opportunities early enough (keyword Disruption), to formulate creative strategic initiatives appropriately and to implement them quickly.

The solution may be to set up a second operating system to implement a strategy based on adaptive, network-like structures and agile processes. The pilot approach is well suited for such a constellation.






Milestones of the pilot project

When implementing a pilot project, the following aspects can be considered:

Project selection

The selection of the area is based on the work task and the extent of VUCA they face. The main criteria for selection are predictability and repetition. The less predictable the environment or the market and the more diverse (non repetitive) the work processes, the more suitable the area is for the pilot approach.

Team composition

The pilot project must be led by a leadership coalition that stands 100% behind the change. Together, they have developed a positive vision of the future. Make sure that you fill the team with members who are enthusiastic about the new direction and have enough stamina to survive even the hardest of times. The pilot cannot be successful if the team members do not believe in it. A single negative voice can be detrimental to the atmosphere for the desired changes (toxic effect).

Duration of the project

A short project would help skeptics to say that agilisation works in small projects. If the project is too big, people would have to wait too long to assess the adoption status. Therefore it is recommended to choose a duration of 18 to max. 24 months. During this time, regular learning loops and retrospectives are important, as they are already planned in agile processes. This applies both to the pilot himself and to those units in the company that are to be subsequently transformed.


Employees should be supported by appropriate training and intelligent formats (such as work hacks), which are primarily aimed at the right mindset. A positive attitude towards and in the pilot project is essential. At the same time, useful tools ("toolset") and the necessary skills ("skillset") are developed and trained. This focus is achieved by internal and external agile coaches.

Rapid success

Skeptics have little patience, so proof must be quick. Therefore, the first, short-term gains ("low hanging fruits") should be clearly and unambiguously linked to the vision. The bar should not be set too high at the beginning. Celebrating profits, pausing and looking back on what has already been achieved will strengthen the transformation and lead to more employees believing that the vision of the future is meaningful and achievable and thus support the transformation. Success creates success.


From our own experience we assume that communication accounts for 30-40% of the success of the transformation. However, communication often represents a critical point in many transformation processes, since suitable resources cannot always be used. This contrasts with the enormous importance of information in the rest of the company, so that it becomes transparent what is currently happening in the pilot project. The information should be provided promptly in order to contain the corridor radio and not to provide a breeding ground for skeptics. If the appropriate messages are delivered by a valued and widely recognized colleague, the belief in the meaning and success of the transformation in the company begins to spread and creates an ever-increasing support base. In addition, collaborative networks should be established via the internal "social media" channels and formats such as "Working Out Loud" should support interdisciplinary networking.


By setting up a pilot project, an agile transformation within the company can be started. The decisive factors are a leadership coalition that stands behind the pilot, a suitable team composition, the continuous training of the members as well as the celebration and communication of the successes throughout the company, so that the transformation finds a good breeding ground throughout the entire organisation.

If you would like to find out more about "healthy organisation", agility or our workshops, please contact us or find out more about our services in this area.


Next month, in the sixth article of the series "Agile Transformation", I will discuss methods and instruments that are important in a transformation.

More blog posts from the series "Agile Transformation":

Agile transformation (part 1) - classic vs. agil

Agile transformation (part 2) - analysis of the status quo

Agile transformation (part 3) - three relevant premises

Agile transformation (part 4) - designing a roadmap

Agile transformation (part 6) - methods and instruments

Agile transformation (part 7) - step on it!

Agile transformation (part 8) - questions and answers