Agile transformation is an oxymoron

Why is agile transformation an oxymoron? The phrase contradicts itself and is an incorrect use of the English language. If you look up the definition of agile in the dictionary, it will describe the word agile as an adjective that means “able to move quickly, or “quick smart and clever”. An adjective’s purpose is to describe something such agile software development, “software development that enables you to move quickly”. The word Transformation is a noun and means “the act or process of changing completely”. I think we can agree that quick and easy complete change contradicts itself.

Beyond the grammar problem, this term represents a bigger problem in the software industry. The word agile has become a magnet for anyone with hours to bill, or products to sell. The Manifesto for agile software development and its four values and 12 principles was created to change the way we think about software development; the original signers believed if organizations applied these values and principles they would, in fact, empower developers to build valuable software faster. Instead of honoring its original intent, tool companies and consultants took the word agile and made it a brand, and marketed the hell out it.

Agile transformation is not a thing; it is a way for companies to sell agile training, agile certifications, agile tools, agile consulting, agile coaches, agile transformation coaches, agile strategy, agile methods, agile developers, testers, analysts and anything they can put the agile brand on. The Manifesto for agile software development has been lost. In an article in CIO magazine named “ 7-agile-certifications-to –take-your career to next level”, the article begins with “The agile methodology has changed the face of software development and project management”. Even, the author of this article incorrectly describes the Manifesto as a methodology.

To adopt agile software development requires adopting the principles and values.

Those principles and values permeate everything you do and say; it is a mindset or a way of thinking. Moreover, it’s a whole package. To achieve its benefits — which in product development include happy customers, quality product, solid teams, and faster results — you cannot cherry-pick which of its values and principles you like; you have to embrace all of them.

Just as individuals have a “mindset” so does, an organization have a cultural mindset. Made up of:

Cultural Values: The lens by which all decisions are viewed “people are our most valuable assets.”

Cultural Beliefs: What are accepted beliefs about different types of situations “Planning is done by managers” “To get ahead you must be available seven days a week.”

Cultural Principles: Principles are system wide and are an essential truth, they guide choices, decisions, and actions

You cannot adopt an agile method, like SCRUM and realize all the benefits without adopting the principles and values in the manifesto. The adoption requires the whole organization to adopt them, and this is the real transformation. Adopting the mindset is the real transformation, it means changing or adopting new cultural beliefs, cultural values, and principles.

But you could never sell a “agile transformation” if you told executives what it requires. Instead, they sold a method like SCRUM or SAFE and mostly ignore the principles and values. The culture or thinking doesn’t change. Instead, they modify whatever agile method they bought, for example, we adopted SCRUM, but we do not have stable teams, we do a retrospective every other iteration, relative estimation in man days, we have cross-functional teams, developers do development, testers do testing, etc.

When the “agile transformation” is complete everyone writes blog posts and articles about the success. Changes have taken place; the organization has adopted a new method, new roles and changed internal processes to support it. What did not happen, was the adoption of the Manifesto’s principles and values. Without honoring those, this method will end up in the method graveyard with all the other ones. To paraphrase The WHO from a line in their song Won’t get fooled again, “Don’t get fooled again, Don’t get fooled again, No, no Yaaaaaaaaaa, the new method, same as the old method.”