Agile transformation as we know it is a very bad story.

Agile transformation is a bad story and here is why

My random thoughts on challenges faced by an agile coach working with software development organizations, week #28, 2019

Yuri Malishenko
Jul 12, 2019 · 6 min read

I blog on thoughts and challenges that I face in the capacity of an agile coach for a big corporate organization and this is a part of the series. Find the first post on the topic here where I also explain my motivation behind this series. The entire series is available from this publication called ‘Random Agile Thoughts’.

This week’s post is sharing my thoughts about why agile transformation is genuinely a bad story.

Random agile thought #8 — Why agile transformation makes a bad story and how narrative analysis helps us prove that.

This week my colleague Sidsel was sharing her wisdom of storytelling and she gave a few key considerations regarding the things like what defines a good story, how one could analyze a story and how you could approach introducing a conflict as a core element of a compelling story. The session was very inspiring. In particular, I liked the so called Actantial Model, a narrative analysis schema developed by a semiotics scientist Algirdas Julien Greimas (read more in wikipedia).

Let’s pretend you know what a story is and why storytelling is such a powerful tool. And let me give you a quick overview of the Actantial Model as I bet you did not check the links above.

Actantial Model is built around 6 classes — Sender, Object, Receiver, Helper, Subject and Opponent. There are three axes: desire, transmission and power. Each plays a certain role. A well balanced model of the six classes among the three axes defines a good story. Subject desires Object. Sender sets Subject out for the adventure. Receiver benefits from Subject’s attainment of Object. Helper well, helps. Opponent prevents. Easy.

The model is comprised of 6 classes (actants, hence the name):

  1. Subject — the main character of the story.
  2. Object — something that Subject desires to have.
  3. Sender — the entity that sets Subject out for the story journey.
  4. Receiver — beneficiaries of Subject’s attaining Object.
  5. Helper — the entity that helps Subject.
  6. Opponent — the entity that prevents Subject from attaining Object.

There are three axes:

  1. Desire — the relationship between Subject and Object.
  2. Power — influence of Helper and Opponent on Subject.
  3. Transmission — the direction of the story from the beginning to its end. From setting out and until the conclusion via Object as the main reason.

The model is pretty simple. It helps you structure characters, their motivation and connection to each other and while the model is just a way to describe the essence of the story, in a way you could use it to identify whether a story is a good one or not.

Now Sidsel told us that a good story is a clear story in the first place. The one that does not confuse listeners. In terms of the Actantial Model it would mean that characters take their strong and clear position along classes and would not show up in various places. Remember this point.

Now that you know what this model is about and how it helps analyze pretty much any type of narrative, let me show you how I used it to have a look at a narrative behind an agile transformation as we know it today and how I found it to be a very bad story.

Agile transformation is a multi-faceted narrative and it depends on who tells the story. Let’s see how the story is told by agile coaches. Their narrative model could look something like this:

If we take an agile coach perspective, then the narrative model could look something like this.

In general, agile coaches desire happiness. Happiness for everyone, pretty much. They fight fluffy vague old culture and they summon fluffy vague ideas of a new culture to come to their aid. They want help people come to that happiness by supporting their growth along the way. They want others to desire the same and work hard toward achieving that goal.

Let’s have a look at regular employees, the teams perspective now:

The narrative model taken from teams perspective.

What happens here is that teams desire more focus and less stress, to put it simple. They are plagued by too much stuff falling on their heads and the necessity to joggle between too many priorities at the same time. They wish they were just given a chance to work, to work on something that makes the most sense for everyone. And spend less time in meetings. And they need a better life to work balance so they are not stressed every time they need to push something to production, it must not require overtime and a huge loss of nerve cells. They are set out for agile transformation by their management, they seek for their management help. If they were given what they desired, they could just help the entire organization benefit from that. Quite often they see that their management stands in the way sending confusing signals and unfortunately, quite often they experience agile coach as a distractor rather than a help. In extreme cases I would like to believe, but still.

We will take the perspective of the management next to have a comprehensive overview of a generic agile transformation narrative:

What does the management perspective give us? The narrative model could be something like this one.

The management clearly desires KPIs. They are probably the most pragmatic ones out of the three groups we are considering here. After all, their performance is gauged and awarded (or punished) based on their achievement of KPI targets. They are set out by the top management they report to and they believe that all will benefit from what they do. They seek help of agile coaches and their main opponent as they see it are other managers (from other departments). Have your heard of corporate wars? It is real, trust me.

Now let’s try and combine the three narratives into one, to see the big picture so to speak:

When we combine narratives, we can make interesting observations.

What happens now? First thing that catches the eye is that suddenly we have conflicting Objects. Quite often KPIs have nothing to do with general happiness and might not work toward a better focus. And definitely chasing arbitrary KPIs can be quite stressful.

The other thing we see is that suddenly same characters appear across the classes of Helper, Subject and Opponent: agile coaches and management. And that is very very bad for a story consistency. You cannot help and prevent at the same time. But that does happen in the reality of agile transformations — it is just a matter of perspective. Especially regarding these corporate wars — managers from different departments fighting against each other, not collaborating for the common good. Collaboration is rarely on KPIs list.

As you can see, generally speaking agile transformation is a very bad story. It is unclear. It has blurred characters. Almost like a Game of Thrones. But unlike GoT it is our reality.

How do we tell a better story? I do not know. The narrative model like the one I used above is yet another tool to help us empathize. Maybe empathy is the key? Maybe we need to take agile transformation less fragmented and be able to empathise for the other characters of the story? I wish I knew the answer. Maybe you know?

I hope you found these ideas valuable and if so, do not forget to support me by a few 👏👏👏.

Your reflections?

Thanks for reading this piece. I am an agile coach, product owner and a vision thinker living in Copenhagen, Denmark. I blog on visual thinking and share my random agile thoughts, if you want to read more. You can get in touch with me via my Instagram account or on Twitter and do not forget to visit my web page. All the best!

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Random Agile Thoughts

My observations from working as an agile coach

Yuri Malishenko

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Visual thinker, agile coach, product owner.

Random Agile Thoughts

My observations from working as an agile coach

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