Stop Your “Agile” Transformation! Right. Now.

Are you thinking about implementing Holacracy? Don’t do it!
Are you planning to copy the “Spotify model”? Hold it right there!
Are you busy introducing SAFe, LeSS, or Nexus? Forget it!
Do you want a liquid, self-managed, or podular organization? Wait!
And get that Teal stuff out of your head. For the moment, at least.

Allow me to explain before you shoot me.

Continuous Adaptation

This is Barbapapa. In the first episode of this old French children’s cartoon, Barbapapa was captured and put in a cage so that people could see how weird he looked. An enormous pink blob was a perfect fit for a freak show, after all. However, in this first episode, Barbapapa discovered that he could change form! He then easily squeezed through the bars of his cage to escape. How cool is that?

This is Odo. Odo was a member of the Dominion, a frightening superpower species in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Dominion wanted all other species to adore them, or else they blew them up. You could say, the United States in space. Anyway, the fascinating thing was that they could change form! And this made Odo, one of the nicer specimens of this race, an excellent security chief on Deep Space Nine.

And this is the T1000. He was a very dangerous fellow in the second (and best) Terminator movie. Sometimes, he was harder than steel; other times, he flowed or dripped like a liquid. He couldn’t be harmed with ice nor fire, bullets nor lasers. And he could transform himself to look like any other person, which was quite unsettling. Actually, one alternative fact says that he is now Donald Trump.

Barbapapa, Odo, and the T1000 have one thing in common: they are all shapeshifters.

Shapeshifters are the ultimate form of agility.
They adapt to their environment, every day.

Control and Self-organization

Here is a question for you:

What has enabled companies such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, and Google to achieve global market dominance in just a few years? Some people attribute the successes to strong, visionary leaders with an almost dictatorial approach to the topics they find important, such as design, strategy, or experimentation. Others claim that it is their creative, self-organized, and self-managed teams that build the most successful products.

I say it’s a dynamic mix of both.

In the 21st century, successful organizations are hard and soft. Fast and slow. Solid and liquid. Organized and self-organized.

Sometimes, Barbapapa was a pyramid; sometimes, he was a ball. Sometimes, Odo disguised himself as a piece of furniture; other times, he had transformed into an animal. Sometimes, the T1000 punctured through flesh with fingers like steel; other times, he snuck up on his victims by dripping from a ceiling. For shapeshifters, it all depends on context and the needs in the moment.

Agile Transformations

Now compare that to the “agile” transformations that we see almost everywhere on the planet (and that are usually failing). Managers and workers have figured out that the pyramid is often not a useful form. They have realized that being hard, solid, and top-down organized is not a good way to survive in today’s increasingly fast-paced world.

But how do they address the problem?

Managers start “agile” transformation programs that turn all the hard, solid, organized squares into soft, liquid, self-organized circles. They change the pyramid into a ball. And with the help of nicely drawn frameworks and expensive consultants, they justify their transformation by pointing at some other companies that have achieved successes in ball-like structures. “Look! Spotify, Valve, Zappos, and Morning Star do it too! We all should be more like them!”

In traditional companies, traditional managers organize traditional transformations.

Imagine Barbapapa changing from one big square into ten small circles with the help of a consultant. Imagine the fearsome galaxy-ruling Dominion attempting to change form using Holacracy’s governance protocols. Or imagine the T1000 collapsing into millions of gleaming droplets that, from then on, will be completely self-managed. Well, good luck to them and their shapeshifting skills!

The next time a situation calls for a strong and solid form, such as a super-fast piercing finger, all the self-organized parts will require a formal coach, a framework published in a book, case studies of successful structures operating like a pyramid, and a two-year change program called “New Control”. That’s what will happen when managers do the transformations.

Fast System Redesign

Form follows function.
All good designers know this.

When you design a system, you must know the goal of the system. But the goals of organizations change all the time. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google keep evolving. Last year’s function is not the same as next year’s function. And thus, last year’s form cannot be the same as next year’s form. Because form must follow function.

When it comes to system design, you begin with the end in mind. For organizations, the end is not being a pool of circles. The end is being a shapeshifter that can change form at any time. The organizational transformation that companies need is not the change from a dictatorial pyramid into a hundred self-organized balls. The transformation that they need is one allowing the company to shift between organization and self-organization. Between management and self-management. Between pyramids and balls. Have the right form, in the right place, at the right time. Most often, they will end up with a hybrid structure of various forms, with some parts controlled and some parts self-organized. And they need to make those changes with fast system redesign.

Intuitively, everyone understands this.

We want the benefits from control and from self-organization.

That’s why all methods and frameworks fail.

Methods and Frameworks

Holacracy tells you to change into a self-organized structure of circles within circles, from top to bottom, and it is only controlled in areas that aren’t highly relevant for growth and survival, such as role names and meeting protocols. This is why no organization has ever achieved massive growth or market dominance by adopting Holacracy. You get the benefits from self-organization, but no benefits from control. Apple and Amazon would not have been possible with Holacracy. The idea of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk as a Lead Link seeking consent in a governance circle is quite absurd.

The “Spotify model” suggests leaning toward self-organization without going all the way. But the model is unclear about how and when to maintain control. The combination of some control and lots of self-organization did allow Spotify to achieve massive growth and market dominance. Their products also offer many bugs and annoying GUIs. Do not follow their lead when you’re into banking, healthcare, or self-driving cars. The things you gain won’t outweigh the things you will lose. Spotify has a great form, for their business.

The Scaled Agile Framework is smart. It acknowledges that there are benefits to both control and self-organization. It offers detailed pictures showing you good practices for both. But SAFe is like a movie still that shows Odo midway a transformation from a wooden stick to a living dog. The result is a static form that is half a stick and half a dog. This offers you no benefits at all. Unless a barking stick that can fetch itself is exactly what you were looking for.

And then there are some more nuanced models, such as Teal and Management 3.0. The Teal concept shows us that there are organizations with a great form that is a perfect fit in their context with empowered people who were able to create it. But each case study is different, and good luck finding your own form. Management 3.0 offers a collection of concrete practices that may be useful for shapeshifters, but it has always courageously refused to bind them together as one framework, for precisely the reasons mentioned above.

Start Shapeshifting

That’s why you should halt your “agile” transformation.

You’re probably not becoming a shapeshifter. You don’t want to lose the benefits of control while achieving the benefits of self-organization. And you definitely don’t want to end up with somebody else’s idea of a compromise in the middle, where you probably end up with the benefits of neither.

Barbapapa did not learn shapeshifting by just looking at a drawing. He could learn about a specific form by looking at a drawing. But his shapeshifting talent was not in the drawing. Likewise, Odo didn’t roll out a change program for each of his transformations. And the T1000 didn’t consult experts. He killed them.

You want to be a shapeshifter.
But static frameworks won’t help you.
You need something dynamic that keeps teasing, nudging, and pulling on your structure.

I have an idea how to teach organizations the talent of shapeshifting. It involves games; it involves habits; it involves nudges. And it involves micro-scaling hundreds of topics and thousands of practices.

My still half-baked idea does not invalidate frameworks, and it does not compete with agile coaches. On the contrary, the idea values frameworks for what they are: inspiring pictures of possible forms for those with shapeshifting abilities. And coaches and consultants are needed to help organizations learn the art of continuous shapeshifting rather than assisting them with each change from one form to another.

Interested? SIGN UP up for the Agility Scales project.

Let’s go beyond circles, squads, and agile trains. Don’t try to be just “agile” with a bunch of self-organizing teams. You would be doing only half of what’s necessary. You only achieve true agility at scale by becoming a shapeshifter.