Agile transformation has become a buzzword in the business world. Companies are eager to jump on the bandwagon and adopt Agile methodologies. The belief is that Agile transformation will increase productivity, efficiency, and speed, simplifying everything and making it faster. While this can be the case when done right, if the sole motivation for Agile transformation is focused on these outcomes and the company has a delusional idea about how difficult it will be to achieve them, things will go south. It's always a lot bumpier than anticipated.
This post is part of a series about the most common Agile transformation pains, as I've witnessed them in the organizations around me. This series focuses on the top-down hindrances.
Speed, efficiency, transparency
What's incorrect about the motivation mentioned above? Don't efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, flexibility, and speed embody the characteristics that the Agile culture promises?
In my view, the reason it falls short is that it lacks a crucial and integral aspect of Agile methodology, which is the concept of failing fast and promptly identifying and showcasing obstacles and challenges impeding progress. A true willingness to find problems sooner and improve collaboration must also be an integral and true part of the motivation.
The misconception I mentioned is problematic because it creates unrealistic expectations for what agile can achieve. Agile is not a quick fix for organizational problems. It's rather a fundamental shift in the way a company operates. It is a way of working that requires collaboration and a willingness to adapt. Everyone, including the senior management, must be willing to collaborate with teams to improve the environment for Agile work. The whole motivation stems from the belief that problems are caused by the disorganization of teams and wrong organizational structures.
Transformation project - its end is just the beginning
Regrettably, Agile transformation is often viewed by management teams as a silver bullet solution to a company's organizational issues. They mistakenly perceive it as a short, one-time investment that will provide immediate and long-lasting benefits. This misconception can lead to an overly simplified approach to Agile transformation, which does not consider the ongoing effort required to sustain it. Agile transformation requires continuous effort and commitment from both management and the teams involved.
Many managers mistakenly believe that adopting Agile is as simple as calling it a transformation project, allocating a budget, giving the project a fancy name, hiring consultants, and conducting a bunch of trainings. They think that these actions alone will suffice to achieve the transformation and their job is done. People just pat themselves on the back for renaming project managers as scrum masters and officially closing the transformation project. And then they sit back while the teams self-organize and Scrum Masters magically remove all obstacles. But that's not how it works.
Organizations often face structural and systematic problems that impede their agility. Every company has some - just their depth varies. These issues can manifest in various ways, including overly complicated organizational and decision-making hierarchies, dependence on inflexible technologies, convoluted deployment procedures, and rigid approval processes, just to name a few typical ones.
For example, a company that releases software updates twice a year with numerous dependencies, code freezes, centralized testing, and lengthy development-testing-acceptance loops will likely encounter significant obstacles when adopting Agile methodologies. The legacy processes and technology stack may be quite incompatible with Agile workflows, making it a challenge to achieve the desired level of flexibility and speed.These inherent problems won't magically vanish during an Agile transformation - they'll just become painfully obvious and urgent. The good news is that teams will finally feel comfortable talking about them and trying to tackle them head-on. Problems will be found everywhere.
Beware of creating a Potemkin village
The flipside is that if this is not expected to happen, the whole transformation won't work. One must be willing to hear the bad news and be ready to make proactive decisions.
After years of simply accepting the problems, teams will suddenly start shouting from the rooftops about these issues, and senior management needs to step up and work with them to make the workplace more agile-friendly. If they don't, teams will remain stuck in a rigid environment. Everyone will just call himself with a new title, such as product owner or Agile coach. This reorganization is likely to be seen as another waste of money and a failure, with many concluding that Agile doesn't work. A Potemkin village.
All levels of an organization need to be ready to face these challenges and work together to find solutions. A decision to adopt Agile is just the first step. Even the managers must be ready to roll up their sleeves and get involved in identifying and solving problems that arise during the transformation. It's a team effort, and everyone needs to play an active role. The more complex the business structure is, the longer the whole transformation will likely take. This is an ongoing process that is unlikely to ever come to a complete end. But the deciding factor is if there's actually a will to start and keep undergoing an uncomfortable change.
One surprising fact about Agile transformation is that it might lead to more bureaucracy if not implemented correctly. For example, suppose a company adopts Agile without addressing underlying issues such as convoluted decision-making processes or rigid approval procedures. In that case, it may inadvertently create more bureaucracy by adding more layers to the process. This is because Agile requires constant communication and collaboration, and if these processes are not streamlined, it can result in even more delays and inefficiencies.
True motivation: A sense of security
In my experience, failed attempts at agile transformation often stem from a common underlying issue: a lack of trust. This can manifest in various ways, such as a tendency to monitor and control teams closely. After one such transformation I've seen teams being required to share their sprint commitments, burn-down charts, and velocities, and then having to explain themselves when they don't meet those metrics. This happened at the senior management level.
Such reporting activity created a false sense of security by prioritizing the appearance of stunning charts and numbers on paper rather than the actual value of the work being done. The focus was on keeping commitments rather than questioning the sense of those commitments and the overall plans. Needless to say, what was missing was a critical examination of the actual business value of the effort invested and the value of the things developed. So it was quite obvious what the true initial motivation for Agile adoption had been.
Do you really want to go Agile?
In conclusion, Agile transformation can be a powerful tool for organizations looking to improve their productivity, efficiency, and speed. However, it is essential to approach it with realistic expectations and a willingness to address underlying structural and cultural issues. Agile transformation is not a quick fix or a one-time investment but requires continuous effort and commitment from all levels of the organization. Managers must be ready to roll up their sleeves and work with their teams to identify and solve problems that arise during the transformation.
Furthermore, it is crucial to approach the transformation focusing on business value and not just metrics and appearance. So, before embarking on the journey of Agile transformation, think twice and ensure you are willing to fully commit to the process. Going Agile is about being able to react more fluidly to changing business circumstances, isn't it? If there's little willingness to address the underlying issues that hinder progress, what's the point of identifying them in the first place? That by definition hinders the fluidity from happening.
If fundamentally changing an organization, including its core cultural, technical, and process aspects for the better, isn't the honest motivation, then maybe it will be more comfortable to maintain the status quo and save the embarrassment that an attempt to perform an Agile transition would inevitably bring.