Breaking Free From the Agile Transformation

Exploring Intersections of Process and People

Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers

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“Pete and Sarah were remarkably hands-on when we unboxed our brand new Agile Transformation.”

The message of a forthcoming pervasive Agile Transformation may not be well received by employees. Lessons learned indicate that more agility is not what to expect — despite the name. However, more often, there are opportunities for anyone in our organization to influence the outcome of these change projects.

After more than 50 employee interviews, the consultants delivered over 200 slides with agile ways-of-working that they had expressly adapted to our company’s context. Considering the latter, we were surprised that the slides were marked “©2016.” To be honest, we failed to identify any examples of customer interactions, local autonomy, or feedback loops in these slides. What does this mean?

  • Is there a lack of trust that we know how best to do our job? Perhaps.
  • Is our room for maneuver unnecessarily boxed in? Possibly.
  • Can we influence the emerging situation in a significant and positive way? By all means!

A reductionist might say that if the plan is clear and the employees have the right mindset, then the expected outcome of the transformation is more or less guaranteed. However, the complex-adaptive nature of human cooperation makes how, when, and with whom you interact more crucial for the outcome than what mindset you were told to have and what plan you were told to follow. The links are more important than the vertices. That is, you may have been unnecessarily boxed in, but the box is only as rigid and constraining as you choose to interpret it.

Opportunities emerge depending on how you approach this seemingly prescriptive box:

¹⁄ Thinking in the corners of the box. The prescribed process states that each team should have a product owner, a scrum master, and a security champion. Moreover, one person can’t hold more than one role. Despite having over 200 slides, the process doesn’t indicate how our BI team of two should accommodate both guidelines. Edge cases manifest when an operating parameter approaches its limits. Deep down in the box, there can be corners where two or more parameters coincide in odd cases. The formal process normally describes only the base case, and we are the ones who shape the practices of edge and corner cases as they emerge.

²⁄ Thinking across various boxes. The prescribed process states that all teams that work together must conduct sync meetings twice a week. In one of these team-of-teams, each team sent a delegate who reported their current status code — red, amber, or green. Another team-of-teams employed open spaces during this meeting time slot. Neither project status meetings nor open space gatherings violated the 200+ slides written process. A team that participated in both of these events shared the success of the open spaces, in which they discovered unknown unknowns and strengthened the informal network. Soon, the entire company had moved from project status meetings to open space gatherings. In practice, applying a written process involving many humans allows for an infinite number of different implementations. What actually becomes the prevailing practice at our company is largely governed by seeing what methods others employ and judging how well they benefit our company.

³⁄ Thinking outside the box. The prescribed process states that all teams should have one Innovation Iteration in their quarterly plan. Even though many teams believed that innovation doesn’t appear in that way, they still pretended to follow the process, resulting in activities with outcomes of zero value. However, inspired by Shape Up, one team replaced their Innovation Iteration with a Cool-down. This meant that team members, after working hard on deliveries for most of the quarter, were free to work on whatever they wanted until the next quarter started. The employer received more value, and the employees appreciated being able to control their efforts toward, for example, quality improvements and exploration. It is a win–win when valuable workarounds override overgeneralized bureaucracy.

To summarize, the seemingly boxed in Agile Transformation you are facing might not be as rigid as you first perceived it. What is written in the ways-of-working slides may not prevent you from filling the corners with sound practices, sharing experiences of successful interpretations with your colleagues, and replacing unfortunate bureaucracy with value-creating workarounds.

Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf. You can also read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated on Medium.

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Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers

🌱 Twenty Years of Agile Coaching and Leadership • Monotasking and Pomodoro books (700.000 copies sold)