Don’t Waste Your Time on “Agile Transformations”

I have been active in the Agile movement for more than six years and I am growing increasingly disappointed with the direction in which it is evolving.

One thing that bothers me in particular is the community’s, and many of its leaders’ infatuation with corporations. If you go to conferences, read blogs etc. it seems the biggest challenge the Agile movement faces now is how to penetrate and change the corporate world. It seems thought leaders of Agile want to create an “Agile Corporation” — a corporation that would somehow still be nimble, innovative and humane, while simultaneously employing thousands and continuing to deliver large, complex products. This concept seems to be the ultimate desire for some, if not most Agile gurus, consultants and trainers, which they hope can be achieved by cleverly transforming existing corporations. “Agile Transformations” and “Agile Transitions” have been talked & written about for years. Recently “Scaling” is a hot topic, but “scaling” is actually understood as: “scaling in a corporation”.

However, my observations as a consultant, trainer and manager have led me inevitably to conclusion that such transformation is simply not possible, nor is it even desirable. Agile simply does not fit the corporate machine. And it is clear that the problem is the corporate machine, not Agile.

Corporations are inherently dysfunctional. That is to say, it is very difficult to build a corporation that would not be wasteful and stupid. And it is very difficult to build a large organization that would not, over time, degenerate into a corporation once its founders are gone and the ownership is dispersed (HP is a great example).

The corporate dysfunction has many aspects. A very important one is disengagement — impersonality, alienation, detachment of people involved. It is visible on both “ends” of the corporate beast. Anonymous shareholders usually think only of stock price and (the wiser of them) dividends. Employees think primarily of their paycheck and “job security”. What links them together is money alone. No wonder the corporations’ true mission can therefore only be profit — usually short term profit being more valued. No wonder it is rare for anyone there to really, personally care about their products or services, let alone, to care about large missions or the role it plays in society.

It is so also because corporations are a creation from a different time period; they are a remnant of the industrial age. It is also the time when most of them were formed (did you know that 3/4 of the European large companies were founded during La Belle Epoque — a relatively short period peaking in 1900). In that era our civilization still operated primitive machines that needed ongoing human operation to produce. There were hardly any “knowledge workers” in the modern sense of the term except maybe a few of the scientists and entrepreneurs. And on top of this the civilization operated under an illusion of limitless resources, sure that nature would easily absorb all the waste we produce (awareness of environmental damage didn’t arrive until 1970ies). At the same time there were masses that wanted, needed, demanded products that were just being introduced, modern inventions radically reshaping the households and workplaces .

In those conditions companies were built to provide repeatable good and services at a large scale using available machinery, optimizing output, with little or no regard for side effects. This is what corporations are pretty good at to this day: repeatability, predictability & stability on a large scale.

Agile, on the other hand, is about change, adaptability and innovation. It emphasizes the use of small teams and their self-organization. It is built to produce innovation by demanding a creative response to changing requirements — to the dynamic world we face now. This is possible only when there is room for freedom and independence. Agile rejects detailed upfront plans and is incompatible with rigid, multi-level hierarchies that leave little freedom for the workers at the bottom. Agile, therefore, is utterly incompatible with the corporate machine.

It is worth noting that the corporate structure (hierarchical, rigid, procedural, politicized and profit-focused) matched the conditions of the era in which it was formed and perfected. To achieve their goals — repeatable goods etc. — the corporations had to coerce people into compliance with procedures, had to stifle unapproved innovation and do everything else they could to maintain predictable repeatability. The reward for this was growth — always up — for both the company and the entire society.

The part of the social contract was that the corporations offered their employees stability, predictability and growth in their lives too. This is where the concept of the “40 hour work week” and “job security” emerged along with other initiatives like worker housing. The early corporate world was a more modern, less oppressive form of serfdom. In a sense that was progress.

It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that the corporate mechanism is no match for the current world, for the current horizons of the people and for the challenges humanity now faces. We can not continue on this path of predictable, stable “growth”, because it is now clear, that it can not be sustained. Humanity desperately needs innovations to solve looming global challenges (energy, food, clean water, environment etc.) of the decades ahead. Corporations are not capable of delivering solutions, because being innovative would undercut their current business models and interrupt the revenue streams. Being solely driven by profits and being run by disengaged people, corporations are incapable of undergoing the necessary paradigm shift. This means they are becoming increasingly irrelevant; their age of prevalence is starting to come to an end.

You may not be able to see it now. Yet. They still dominate the markets, and they provide a majority of the goods and services that we use. However, people are becoming more disillusioned about corporate products and are starting to look for alternatives. Take note of the movements for more natural, healthy food, for fair trade and also for locally crafted products. These movements are small, but they were not even present 30 years ago.

Same shift is slowly taking place with people’s career choices. As it is now evident that having a corporate job means being a serf the most intelligent, most gifted people just go elsewhere. They leave the corporate world — or even never join it — and go to startups and small companies that have a genuine mission, that really want to improve the world — even if only in a small way — where everyone makes a difference, where everyone’s voice and contribution counts. This is where most of true innovation happens, this is where the future is shaped — not in the corporate labs.

Corporations have killed the electric car — a startup brought it back to the market with style. Corporations were not able to sustain the space effort — startups try to get us going again. Corporations waste much of the food they produce (not to mention poisoning it with chemicals and GMOs) — it is startups that work on better solutions. Corporations can’t fix our energy problems — startups are inventing new ways of doing so. And if we look within our own industry, we can see that it was built by startups and they continue to be the main source of innovation.

How does all this relate to the Agile movement? Well, for startups Agile is the natural way to work — in fact it is the only way of work that increases their chances of success. No one there hires project managers or wastes their time on heavy bureaucracy of the likes of PRINCE2. So it is clear that startups are the breeding ground for not only new products and services, but also new organizational models.

The vision of an “Agile Corporation” is small teams linked into larger units that are bound together by a shared vision / mission, all the while remaining autonomous. In order for this model to work, the company must have a very flat management structure, based on trust, with a product that is highly decoupled, allowing for a high degree of autonomy, for teams working on different areas.

This is more or less how the two most commonly used examples of larger fully Agile companies work: Google and Spotify. What three things do they have in common?

  1. Both did not exist 20 years ago (in fact, Spotify didn’t exist even 6 years ago) — so both are essentially still startups.
  2. Founders of both companies are to this day actively involved in them.
  3. Both were designed from day one to be different — not only different because of their innovative, disruptive product, but also in terms of the culture, structures and way of work.

There are no examples of large companies (200+ developers) that would not meet at least two of the criteria above, whose claims of being Agile would have any merit. Google is a great example of how an “Agile corporation” might look like. Formally it is a corporation (Google Inc.), but its culture is anything but [1] corporate in the traditional sense (and the sense I use in this article). Yet is so precisely because from the very early days its founders consciously wanted it to be different and they are still involved in making sure it stays so.

This seems to be the only recipe for “scaling Agile” — build a new company to be agile, humane, respectful right from the start, then evolve it as it grows in a way that preserves those principles. The “Agile Transformation” recipe on the other hand doesn’t seem to be working.

After more than 12 years since the Manifesto was published, we have hordes of “certified” agile practitioners and hundreds of highly paid coaches and consultants busy with “agile transitions” — and still no major change in the corporate world. I guess by now you can see why their efforts are largely in vain, as the best they can achieve is limited productivity improvement. They are tackling the cultures, norms and structures of companies that were evolved for different purposes in a different era and that are utterly incapable of a change that would negate their primary values — profit, stability, predictability.

My conclusion is therefore that essentially “Agile Transformations” are a waste of time and energy — and a waste of life for the Agilists involved. It is so not solely because corporations are inherently dysfunctional and therefore incompatible with Agile, but also because it seems they are as a concept obsolete and about to be replaced with a new model.

It is therefore a much better approach to build new companies better right from their conception and try to evolve them as they grow in a way that would prevent them from degenerating into corporations. In other words, the vision of an “Agile Company” can only be achieved by founding a startup — or joining a startup — and helping evolve it.

Which is exactly what I urge all Agilists, who are passionate about Agile to do. Abandon traditional corporations, leave them behind to let them rot, let them wither and die, don’t waste your precious time on them; make a difference where it really matters: in startups. Or — alternatively — help ensuring places like Google or Spotify — and others with such roots — stay agile.

Read the next article, where I discuss a possible alternative to “Agile Transformations”.

[1] Based on what I was told by Google employees that I know or have spoken to. I wasn’t fortunate enough myself to be a Googler.

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