Lean Thinking

28 November 2017

The Agile Transformation. Myth Or Reality?

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We have all heard about organisations that have successfully made the transition to an agile way of working. Some of us may even know someone who knows someone who says they worked at one once. But much like sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot or the Tasmanian Tiger, most of these claims evaporate under even basic scrutiny. Now, I know there are agile organisations out there. Organisations that have been born in the agile age and have been built from the ground up with agile principles in mind. I'm not talking about those organisations.

I'm talking about the old, legacy organisations. The ones with decades of process and culture to remake. The ones we are always being told (mostly in press releases or flashy conference presentations) are transforming themselves into new, agile organisations. Shedding the baggage of the past and embracing the bright, agile future. But scratch the surface and how many have actually managed to transform themselves? "But transformation is hard", I hear you say. "It takes time and many organisations just haven't had time to complete the job. What you ask isn't fair". And indeed, transformation is hard so let's relax the criteria a bit - how many organisations have actually managed to establish even the start of a real agile culture?

Heaps you might say. Look at the figures. There are thousands of companies practising scrum or less or safe. But that isn't what I'm talking about either. You can do scrum or less or safe or whatever and still not be the slightest bit agile. If all you do is cut up your projects into 2 week sprints or 4 month PIs, you aren't really being agile. If you have a pipeline of pre-approved projects with fixed scope, date and budget, all decided during the annual planning cycle that you just happen to deliver through scrum teams, you aren't agile.

I'm not talking about agile process here. Agile process does not make you agile. What I am talking about is agile culture. How many organisations have built even the start of a sustainable, agile culture?

So what does an agile culture look like? What are we looking for? I'm looking for a culture that is based around learning. One that learns from mistakes rather than punishing people. One that is focussed on improving the way they do things rather than adhering to a process. One that plans high level business objectives and budgets, then lets empowered teams get on with the job of achieving them, rather than planning projects in minute detail. A culture based on respect and trust rather than fear. One that celebrates differing opinions rather than enforcing conformity. One that puts customer value first rather than internal politics. One that focusses on collaboration rather than building silos.

Many have tried. Many have built a great culture around a passionate leader. But how many have managed to sustain that culture once the leader has left? How many continue to grow and improve? How many are just left with a set of ossified and stale practices that become as inflexible as the ones they replaced? The dying embers of an agile transformation that burned out when the passionate leader moved on.

I don't want transient success. I want to see something that is built to last. A real change in culture that lives in the organisation itself, not in the mind of a single leader. Something that will outlast any one person. I don't want bare survival either. A once vibrant agile transformation now struggling to survive isn't good enough. I want to see something that continues to grow, that reacts to the loss of its leader by evolving, changing, and adapting.

So...does anyone know of an organisation like that? Has anyone been a part of an organisation like that? The more I look for organisations that show real agile transformation, the more I am disappointed. I am starting to feel that the future of agility (and the future in general) does not lie with transforming old, legacy companies. The more I look, the more I feel that the future is in helping new, small organisations to become new, large organisations. Helping them scale without bogging down in traditional process (or decending into disorganised chaos).

Maybe our focus as an industry should not be on helping old organisations transform, but on helping new organisations grow. Be parents - guiding and mentoring organisations as they grow and mature, rather than therapists, helping old organisations change themselves and lose bad habits.

And to be honest, even if people have seen real agile transformations, they must be few and far between. Is it really worth putting all that effort into something that is likely to end up as a few scrum teams struggling to survive, cutting up 18 month projects onto 2 weeks sprints?

Should we be devoting such time and energy to something with such a low success rate? Should we do the agile thing and focus on the tasks that deliver the most value rather than keep pushing on with our initial plan? Should we, as an industry inspect and adapt? Change our plans to match reality rather than try to force reality to match our plans?

What do you think? Persevere? Or Pivot?

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