Why Agile Transformations Fail

So many companies struggle with their move to agility — why is that?

Matthias Orgler
Feb 26 · 6 min read

Chances are you know or are part of a company whose agile transformation got stuck half-way and failed to deliver the big promises of agility. At this point you may doubt whether agility really works at all. You’re not alone — it seems the majority of companies starting an agile transformation never reach the goal of agility. Yet there are those few who truly become agile and reap insane benefits. What do these successful companies do differently?

In this article I want to point out three big problems with how most companies approach an agile transformation. While it may not be an exhaustive list, these are certainly pivotal aspects I experienced. If you can avoid these three problems, you drastically increase your chances of reaping the full benefits of agility.

PROBLEM 1: PUSH FROM ABOVE

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

In the early days agility was a grass-roots movement: the frontline engineers at the bottom of the hierarchy knew a better way of working and tried to convince their managers (who mostly wouldn’t listen; I was there as an engineer and it was next to impossible to convince a manager of agility). That’s the complete opposite of today, where managers tend to push agility from above and many employees feel the urge to resist.

While it is good that nowadays management sees the benefits of agility, it is bad that the people historically benefitting most from this approach now reject it and feel threatened. The solution is neither to push agility from above nor to leave it solely to workers.

The successful strategy is a combination of grass-roots and management level initiatives. Work from the top and bottom of the hierarchy towards the middle — because middle management is usually the hardest to persuade to change. In any case, don’t just impose “agility” onto your employees!

I have failed with the mere bottom-up approach to transformation and I have seen the top-down approach fail multiple times. My successful agile transformations of companies included the top management as much as the teams doing the actual work from day one. While this might not sound too surprising, I noted many transformations approached the team level in a very old-fashioned way: They thought teams had to be taught the new roles and frameworks, new processes and structures— teams just had to do whatever management or external coaches and consultants came up with. But this is a dangerous misunderstanding of agility!

In practice consider giving employees permission to own their work: let THEM come up with processes and structures to best deliver their work instead of throwing theoretical processes and structures at them. If this sounds frightening to you, you should check your Menschenbild before you proceed towards agility.

Management’s job is to SUPPORT employees in defining their processes and structures. Management is a service role for your employees, so that they can do their best work and coordinate well with all others. To some this sounds like a drastic change of the management role — but this servant leadership should’ve been the role of management all along. And because this often frightens managers, many companies end up with problem 3 described below.

So instead of pushing frameworks, structures and processes onto your teams, instead give them the freedom to define their own way of working. Support and encourage them to do things how THEY feel it’s best.

PROBLEM 2: FOCUS ON PROCESSES AND FRAMEWORKS

Photo by Axel Vazquez on Unsplash

And this leads to Problem number 2: There seems to be an abnormal obsession with frameworks like SAFe, Scrum, Kanban and the likes. While these are certainly great tools, they’re not what makes you agile — just like the brush a painter uses does not make a masterpiece.

Instead of focusing on frameworks, roles and processes, successful agile companies focus on Menschenbild, values and mindset. I know, I know: these things sound so intangible, while frameworks and processes are “hard facts”. Most companies are used to implementing new processes, so it’s only natural that they obsess so much with agile frameworks. It’s just that this will not make them agile.

To increase the chance of a successful transformation, consider ignoring frameworks altogether — at least for the start. While most frameworks are awesome professional tools, they do nothing for you, if you don’t learn to be agile before. It’s that old quote you heard from your agile coach: “You don’t DO agile, you have to BE agile”.

I have been part of transformations where others decided which frameworks, roles and rules to push onto the teams. Trainers just had to “roll it out” to all international branches. Needless to say, I have never seen any of these transformations reach the full potential of agility. I have also lead agile transformations with the different approach I described above: focusing on Menschenbild, values and mindset…and it has been a difference like night and day! Not only did we see less resistance in the teams, but we saw so much human potential unfold before our eyes. It felt like we had awoken sleeping geniuses all across the company, who then became the positive drivers of the transformation. As soon as management could commit to that leap of faith of letting people do the work as they see fit (which often involves changing their very own Menschenbild), those same managers were awed by the improvements of their company.

So start with checking and (if necessary) rectifying your Menschenbild (aka how you view other humans). This is a big first step for some companies, but without it, all the other agile magic will not work.

PROBLEM 3: PROTECTING MANAGEMENT

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

You can’t have your cake and eat it at the same time. Yet some companies think agility would just be a thing to be introduced into parts of the company. Especially management tends to want everybody below them to become agile, while they themselves will hardly change. It does not work that way with agility.

It is paramount to understand that agility drastically changes the role of management — more than any other role in the company. And I understand that this is scary for managers: they question their value, the fear to lose their job. But agility, while it drastically changes the managers role, usually doesn’t cost jobs. Managers are still needed and valuable, they just have to fill a completely different job description now.

How exactly the management role changes is food for another article. But let me assure you, that no agile transformation was ever successful, if management was not prepared to change radically itself.

Don’t protect management from the changes agility brings. Include them in the transformation. If management truly understands its role in an agile context, your chances of success skyrocket.

FINAL WORDS

You learned about three major problems preventing true agility. All of them are rooted in a false understanding of what agile is. You might want to reevaluate, whether you relay want agility in the first place. If you’re sure you want to go on that journey, then understand that it is about Menschenbild, values and a complete change of the management role more than it is about frameworks.

Hopefully I could clarify your picture of what agility is and how to start a successful agile transformation. If you have questions, leave a comment or just send me a message — I’m always happy to help.

This article originally appeared on my blog at www.matthiasorgler.com/blog

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Matthias Orgler

Written by

Agile Coach, Business Innovator, Software Engineer, Musician

Agile Insider

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

Matthias Orgler

Written by

Agile Coach, Business Innovator, Software Engineer, Musician

Agile Insider

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

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