Often in an agile transformation, people believe that new IT systems will somewhen arrive as a message in a bottle. They underestimate the leverage effect of these systems.

Why Agile Transformations Fail — Reason #2

Verena Zoehrer
Sep 17, 2020 · 6 min read

This article is part of a 13-piece blog series published by Verena Zoehrer, innovation consultant at viable — innovation consulting and rapid prototyping.

The first blog article, on “Why agile transformations fail?” unveiled the importance of a cultural change as one of the key drivers for an agile development. If values, beliefs, and behaviors throughout the organization are not aligned with agile values and principles, it can cause the transformation to fail. However, there are 12 additional mistakes many companies make in the process of an agile transformation, limiting the possibility of a high impact change. One of these, which might be surprising for some of you, is underestimating the influence of information technology tools.

Reason #2: “Implement new IT-systems? We can do that later…”

There are many different information technology tools designed to enable communication, increase transparency and the level of collaboration, and, finally, support an efficient information exchange. In addition, IT tools are said to help scaling the change process because the more people are affected, the higher the complexity. Nevertheless, these tools do not only come with benefits, but also with a high level of responsibility to frame and manage them. It requires the full support and participation of both, executives and leaders, in addition to their willingness of allocating resources into educating the workforce. If people do not know how to utilize the provided tool for the purpose it is intended for, even the best tool will not add any value. Nevertheless, I’ve talked to 19 people, working in 9 different industries as agile coaches, executives, consultants and employees on operational level. They found that a successful implementation of IT tools powerful enough to support an agile transformation also requires, again, an agile culture. A culture that embraces knowledge and information sharing, encourages collaboration and brings together different perspectives.

  • “We have already started to introduce SharePoint during the change process, simply to have a common platform where I can quickly create a working environment for teams or circles, distribute information and pass on tasks. (…) They definitely support; purely the image of being organized. It needs a software tool to support this development of the organization. Also a SharePoint, simply having a platform where I can exchange ideas and information is very important.”
  • “Yes, just back to transparent working. We use WebProof for transparency and for fast communication we use Slack, which is very important for us internally. It is wonderfully informal, to the point and everyone who needs to know is informed immediately, it is one of the most important tools for synchronization in the team and communication.”
  • “Especially if it’s a team that doesn’t always work at the same place IT tools surely play a big role.“
  • “We introduced Slack, for example, and someone took care of it in a great way from end to end. As a result: the management communicated from day 1 to day 2 via Slack. That means it was clear I don’t need to look into my e-mails anymore because the others are all in the same tool. This is a huge advantage. It was also explained how this tool works. There was the possibility to do a training. (…) This introduction has worked because somebody thought about how we can do this and then he observed the channels for a while and actively moderated and helped to create useful things.”
  • “We have used Atlassian Jira and Confluence and this whole tool case since the beginning, and they support agile work of course. So this making transparent what you’re doing, having clear priorities, somehow having a central place where you can look things up. That’s an important thing now when it comes to tools for agile working. But not only in agile working, also in the agile development. In terms of communication, we switched to Slack at some point in the process, why? Because e-mail is very bad for communication where you want to discuss something or vote. E-mail is good for saying something, so that’s a certain issue now, while Slack is good for having discussions around a project or something. This was very important at the early steps. Second is that what goes along with being agile is also that you collaboratively work together on things. That’s where we actually used Jira, where we work together on a project.”
  • “I think IT tools are extremely important because they allow a different kind of collaboration. But the frame must be given. For example transparency: I can somehow make documents public and work on them together, and that will work great if this value of transparency is anchored in the company. But if I know that knowledge is power I can have any IT tools that allow transparency, this is only implemented to a certain extent, because the attitude behind is different.”
  • “Yes, definitely (they support the transformation). Scaling up was very difficult at the beginning because we had no tools.“
  • “Being agile means that you have to change fast, and if you have to change fast and you don’t have the infrastructure like architecture, applications, how they connect, how things work together, if you cannot change that fast then the whole thing get stuck there. This is on infrastructure level. The second area of IT is enabling communication. Having tools where you can work in distributed teams, where you can easily communicate changes to the whole bank, you don ́t need to bring 50,000 people together in one place but you can have a Teams channel or an intranet, or can make a broadcast where everybody can dial in and listen. So it is important for enabling communication.“
  • “We also included things like Wikipages where everybody has access, because we want to make it more transparent, reducing the barriers and knowledge silos. It is crucial to have this support from IT.”

However, when looking at practitioners, most of them underestimate the benefits IT tools can bring to an agile transformation and, therefore, postpone the implementation to a later date. As a result, scaling is limited. Another very common mistake is that IT tools are only implemented partially, but not throughout the majority of departments, business areas or teams. This can have a significant impact on the transformational outcome because the relevant organization lacks the readiness to deal with the agile level of communication and learning.

Academia research suggests that although a higher spending on IT tools does not necessarily lead to a higher level of agility, it increases IT capability. On the first blink, this argument does not seem supportive, but thinking further, there is a positive correlation between IT capability and organizational agility. In other words, information technology is an enabler of a firm’s agility. This applies in particular for companies that have reached a certain size. The bigger the company, the more complicated the business processes, the higher the level of complexity, the slower the organization. This is why investing in IT tools is so important, especially in the early stages of the transformation. One could even say that IT tools are the lubricant for agility. They help to simplify these processes, allow faster communication and support collaboration to include everyone involved. Another relation which was disclosed by academics is that the higher the rate of uncertainty, the greater the need for tools supporting a common language within the organization. This makes information technology tools, that are managed and monitored, a valuable must-have to support an agile transformation. They help to facilitate fast communication and a collective mind by making knowledge and information visible and accessible for everyone.

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Huang, P. Y., Ouyang, T. H., Pan, S. L., & Chou, T. C. (2012). The role of IT in achieving operational agility: A case study of Haier, China. International Journal of Information Management, 32(3), 294–298.

Lu, Y., & K.(Ram) Ramamurthy. (2011). Understanding the link between information technology capability and organizational agility: An empirical examination. MIS quarterly, 931–954.

Pavlou, P. A., & El Sawy, O. A. (2006). From IT leveraging competence to competitive advantage in turbulent environments: The case of new product development. Information systems research, 17(3), 198–227.

Wendler, R. (2014). Development of the organizational agility maturity model. In 2014 Federated Conference on Computer Science and Information Systems (pp. 1197–1206). IEEE.