Top 4 tips to make your agile transformation work

Feb 14, 2018 · 6 min read

Regardless of the underlying Agile methods being adopted, be it, Scrum, LeSS, SAFe, DAD, Nexus or a custom variant, a lot of agile transformations are nothing more than a costly Cargo Cult exercise.

Cargo Cult — following the rituals of something without understanding the underlying mechanisms and ideas.

Why is this happening? I have a hypothesis that might answer that question, and it this. That the success of the organisation’s transformation is always proportional to the amount of time spent pushing and staying beyond its current comfort zone.

In his article Deep change — Good change — Bad change, Peter Van; a corporate think tank in leadership transformation and business re-invention; makes a beautiful reference to how nature has an innate desire to resolve tensions.

Nature strives for equilibrium. It wants to end all tensions, all differences. A state of “non-equilibrium” (purists would say — degrees removed from equilibrium to topple things out of their perfect state) generates movement.

This inspired insight collates how transformation happens, and in the same breath, offers some reasons why organisational transformation is not actually happening and is not yielding its potential impact. Like nature, organisations favour being comfortable with their current way of operating.

Today, we see companies that are going through agile transformations, which create tensions but allow those tensions to be resolved in ways that return these firms to their status quo. This ends up with a change that is nothing more than a futile renaming exercise. For example, what was a business requirements document is nothing more then the same document shoehorned into the User Story format.

Real Change

If we want real change in a company, it is paramount that we start the change by putting support in place to allow the firm and its people to adapt over time to these tensions created by the change. As mother nature teaches us, it is only natural for the ecosystem to adapt in ways that seek to restore the gap created, and by default, the system will take the path of less resistance.

In organisations, the pull to the status quo is strong and more comfortable, forcing the tension to be rolled back rather than adapting to the new the path of growth and change. This is what makes difficult fighting against a natural response.

Let’s take an example of a team that only does development and then hands over the product to a testing team.

Agile Team Current Capability

If we increase the range of capabilities for the development team to include testing, some devops and show and tells;

Agile Team New Capability

This new demand on the team creates the desired tension.

Agile Team Tensions Created by New Capability

The natural tendency of the team will be to retract to its status quo, which in this case would be doing development only. In a bid to explain this reflex action, let us visit a number of reasons that cause it:

  1. Development is known to the team and so, there is a higher degree of comfort working there than on testing or Devops.
  2. There is lack of understanding from those outside the team that productivity in the short term will decrease and the team will increasingly feel the increased pressure to deliver. This also fuels the intrinsic motivation to return to development only.
  3. The team will be experiencing significant uncertainty in executing the newly assigned roles and giving estimates of how long the work will take to be completed, further increasing pressure on the relationship between the team and its stakeholders.
  4. There is lack of a readily available budget and assigned time that the team could invest in learning the skills necessary to carry out their new roles effectively or even seek expert support.
Natural Tension Relieving Pressure

These are only a sample of the natural forces working to return to the old way of working. We are going to want to put in place support structures if we are to make the change stick and allow the organisation to move forward, let’s look at some of them.

Structural Tension Relieving Supports

The current status quo is reinforced by the existing organisational structures and culture. The culture you have is a direct result of the underlying structures. If you want to have a different culture, change the structure. If you want your change to have any chance of sticking, change the structure. Examples of these structures include: reporting lines, rewards policy, physical work environment and communication platforms especially between executives or the management and the teams.

In our experience, a lot of C-level executives — generally the management — are always under so much pressure that they lack time to be fully involved in or knowledgeable of the transformation; they rely on second hand powerpoint updates. Well, that does not work so well for agile transformations. Change, education and transformation should start at the top of the chain, and without this kind of commitment, the organisation will ultimately retract to its old ways. As such, it’s critical that everyone should get coached on how to deal with uncertainty, agile transformations and systems thinking.

Technical experts and transformation coaches (especially those who help you design the transformation approach) can greatly reduce the time a team takes to adapt to the new demands and resolve the tension. This also requires some investment and patience, because it will most likely lead to a temporary reduction in productivity. People who make the plan don’t fight the plan.

Your transformation communication strategy is also very important. The PayPal agile adoption has one of the best communication strategies we’ve seen so far. No matter which of their offices you went to across the globe, you not only knew a transformation was happening, but also what the current status was and who your local contacts were. Along with that, the senior stakeholders did an in-person roadshow to every office and held Q&A sessions with the staff.

Top 4 tips to make your agile transformation work

  1. Change the actual structures of the organisation to reenforce the new desired tensions
  2. Give it time
  3. Give it time
  4. Give it time

Here are 3 bonus tips that are also worth trying.

  1. Involve the teams in the change plan — those who make the plan support the plan
  2. Educate the management and stakeholders — not on agile methods, but on useful topics like Systems thinking, any of the works of Brené Brown , build trust and get them to watch this fantastic talk by Yves Morieux on reducing the rules at work.
  3. Setup a formal feedback loop DIRECTLY between the teams and the most senior executives. This will ensure those at the top know whats really going on.

Ask yourself, where are you pushing the boundaries of comfort? Try challenging your approach to governance and how you perform finance allocation; if you’re at the executive level, get yourself and your peers trained.

Are you are really in discomfort, or you are just playing the cargo-culting, emperor’s clothes transformation illusion game?

Do you agree? Do you disagree? Either way, I would love to hear from you, please comment and I will respond. It would make my day if you would share this post.

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