Are agile transformations really failing or are you thinking about them wrong


Agile transformations get a lot of negative attention, and you won’t see a shortage of titles similar to “why agile transformations are failing”. But if you think that, I’m going to suggest you are thinking about agile transformations wrong.

In this post I’m covering some of the common reasons why you might think agile transformations in general _or yours!_ are failing. I’m also proposing better perspectives. Some that will help you activate empathy for the people going through the transformation and that will allow you to be an effective catalyst for change, no matter at what stage the transformation is now.

Read on!

Why you think agile transformations are failing

If we say something is failing, we probably are comparing to what we consider success.

This problem is present not only in agile transformations but in normal human life. You usually dream big about the perfect career, the perfect relationships, the perfect diet.

Then, you get bogged down because things don’t seem to be going in the right direction. As you keep looking ahead, you might feel a little bit of despair when considering the gap between your current reality and your expectations. The agile change started and you’re not where you wanted to be yet.

With that gap in mind, you start interpreting things you see, symptoms, as a confirmation that agile transformations are failing.

So let’s take a look at some uncomfortable common symptoms that make agile coaches and the people going through the agile transformation think it’s not working.

1 – People bring the same coaching topics over and over

You know when people keep struggling with how to prioritize and how to not just react and work on everything at once? Daily standups seem still confusing and after 6 months folks still ask “who should be present?”. Release planning is awkward. Managers never know if they are being too light touch or too high touch with their teams.

This is normal. To the level a behavior of technique or idea is new to people, the harder it will be to implement and truly live it. It’s not because everybody left the last workshop about user stories happy that now they can all teach the whole organization and write user stories with their eyes closed.

It takes time to integrate knowledge, to truly make use of it and to make it effective in how they all actually work together. If I say something now to you and a colleague, each of you will understand it slightly differently. Well, sometimes the difference in understanding is even bigger.

Plus, understanding something intellectually doesn’t make it immediately new knowledge to the level of mastery. Just think of sports, or music instruments or math. It takes conscious practice for you to really understand new ways of thinking and feel comfortable with it.

Think exponential: marginal gains at first, solid gains later.

xy axis of comfort in knowledge versus time in practice

Having people asking similar things over and over again and addressing similar topics is not a sign that agile transformations will fail. It is a normal course of action which can lead into the next symptom, if misinterpreted.

2 – The change does not seem to go “fast” enough

What is fast for an agile transformation? Six months? Six years?

Most organizations who decide to adopt agile are usually new to this in their entirety. They are usually big. People work distributed across countries. How on earth can we think a year or two and they’ll all be satisfied with the changes?

You know that [link to change] agile change can struggle and fail and you know the key is to decentralize and go small. While agile transformations deployed over the whole organization are quite a big change, you can definitely people to target one thing at a time. Speed of delivery. Benefit realizations in a value stream. Professional roles and accountabilities and team autonomy. It’s definitely in the scope of the agile coaching!

But it’s hard to predict when the cultural part of the change is done. Anyone can make sure that by the end of the year the organization releases something at every month. You install tools, you train people on the tools, you calendar block the process. But people might still feel awkward if that differs massively from what they used to do in their day-to-day practices.

For that reason, do not compare the speed of company ABC or team XYZ with your environment in adopting agile practices. Every team and organization are unique. Their pace is the right pace. At least if the change is supposed to last.

Finally, if you fear that a slow change will make employees so dissatisfied that they will leave disgruntled, I have two things to tell you:

  • First, I’ll let you know I an many others have left many companies in our lifetime where everybody was very happy, nobody was disgruntled, the pace of things seemed fast and we still considered the pace of learning not fast enough for us. Individuals have their own expectations.
  • Second, I remember many more senior employees in organizations going through agile transformations who would say “I’m not even worried. This is not the first big changed I’ve lived through in this company”. Yes, instead of disgruntled, they are just a bit skeptic and trying to make sense of the change.

In any case, you can’t control other people’s will, especially not hundreds or thousands of people.

Know that agile transformations are not failing just because of the pace of the change and an organizational exodus is rather unlikely.

3 – People don’t seem to know what they are doing

This one can seem a corollary of the two others, but I think it deserve its own topic.

When people are attempting seemingly disparate things or when you ask questions and the answers are far from solid, it may seem that the agile transformation is about to crumble. But here is the thing: nobody can truly know what they are doing if they’re doing something new.

Yes, most people in the agile space are trying different ways of thinking for the first time. They can’t have a confident smile and a solid explanation for things. They are all discovering. In fact, the whole point of experimenting is delving into the unknown to test assumptions.

And that, my friend, is a prime spot for the agile coach to support people in their journey. People only need to know where they want to go and what they think  is supposed to happen. And then off they go to test it. They will know the reality once they’ve done it, whatever that is, probably more than a couple of times.

Maya Angelou "when you know better do better"

Successful agile change will have guardrails so that people can experiment freely because no one can guarantee how agile planning looks like for company ABC or team alpha. Or how releases should work. Or how priorities get ordered.

General guidelines should exist, knowledgeable people like the agile coaches should know a few rituals or techniques to help people if they draw a blank, leaders should be clear about their expectations. But if you sit in all these group sessions of different teams in the same company you will probably have rather different experiences.

And that is totally normal.

4 – People are not following your lead

I’ve heard this complaint from agile coaches and scrum masters that get upset when their ideas keep being discounted after a while.

I am of the opinion that if you are coaching your client right that time will always come!

Yes, you are an expert in agile as an agile coach. Yes, you could help people design their agile processes and you probably have great ideas.

But people have better buy-in into their own ideas. It’s fascinating how people can come alive when they want to experiment on something. They become immediately invested and resourceful. Your job as an agile coach is to help people autonomously design their future in their organization.

And that brings us to the realization people resist what does not resonate with them. I’ve been there, the pushy coach that believes releasable items are ready every day. And I implemented that in my own company. But for some of my clients, a frequent release, as in delivering into the hands of the client, happens once a quarter. And so long as they can live happily with the consequences of that decision, this is all fine. Especially when they did not use to be able to predict when things could be released at all a few months back!

Consider one more thing: there needs to be room for more ideas taking hold, to allow for healthy variation across departments and teams. The bigger the organization, the more variation you need to accept.

Venturing a bit on “advice land’ here: while you can have your own opinions, don’t project your thoughts of what your teams and departments should be doing. Ask them what they want to do and are prepared to do. And help them get there.

Agile transformations are not failing when people ignore the coach. It is usually a sign that your value is starting to diminish in that coaching relationship. And that is quite normal and is not a sign you are a bad coach or that they are a bad “unagile” client.

A healthier way to think about agile transformations

If all of the above were symptoms that you might have been interpreting negatively, how can you come into agile transformations from a place of positivity and help?

I’m going to offer you four perspectives that put you in a place of empathy, effectiveness, and humility. Because after all, while agile coaches are a big help for agile change taking place, it’s the people in the organization that actually make it live or die in their habits and rituals.

Let’s take a look at each of these perspectives.

1 – Think about the meaning of the word

You know me. Some dictionary talk is always beneficial.

Consider the word transformations more as metamorphosis than magic.

While transformations of any kind imply dramatic change, metamorphosis introduces the concept of time. Dramatic change over time.

You come in everyday, of course those meetings still look somewhat messy. Of course, you are very inside, and very few people can see the change from within. You can’t read the label from inside the pickle jar!

But if you notice that when you take a vacation or you move from team A to team B, then back to team A, things already changed a lot? I encourage you to listen and look for that in your everyday approaches. And taking some distance whenever needed to gain perspective on the change taking place. Slowly. Over time.

Not only this re-centers you as a coach, but you can objectively catalogue the change. And then be able to play it back for other people that might not have been noticing how far they’ve come.

2 – Remember it’s all about learning

Agile places importance in experimenting to learn. Then asses. Both intellectual and experiential approaches are needed.

So far, I hear everybody, many coaches included, talk about fail fast or fail forward. Suppose some bits of agile transformations are failing. Isn’t it supposed to be celebrated and played back so that people can understand what is happening and decide how to move forward?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with taking a less good turn in agile change and discovering that approaches and practices need to be recalibrated. It is part of the whole experience, as teams and their organizations design their own processes and rituals. Is the current release process ineffective? Guess what? You can change that!

So, if anything, how can you as an agile coach help the organization keep failing forward in their agile transformation?

3 – Look back and honor progress

This is the most well-kept secret of performance. I use this in my company, in my career, with the people I coach for performance and every single team I coach.

Yes, you probably hear about this one. But do you see it really done? Are you reminding people and honoring their past? And what does that even mean?

It means that while you should design the desired future for a team, an organization, you always measure things looking back. Let me state that again: you dream looking forward, you measure looking back. The secret for keeping motivation and proper perspective as far as progress is to make sure that you understand the ground you’ve already covered. It shows you are not inert. It speaks of all the things already put in place.

If you just keep looking at the gap ahead it feels as if you’ve stalled. You need to look ahead, of course, and see if the desired future still makes sense. But if you want to truly keep moving forward you have to measure backwards.

future flying cars, 5th element movie

Many sci-fi movies said we’d be flying on small vehicles in cities, tele-transporting, and whatnot. While they were all wrong, when you compare today with the 1950’s you see all the technology and culture changes that took place. Progress, while not flying cars, has been made.

And that brings us to the final perspective I want to offer you.

4 – Accept there is no finish line

Agile transformations aren’t really failing because they are never done.

A lot of the companies that might have halted or slowed their pace in agile approaches are in fact just digesting and processing progress made so far. Reassessing the future. I haven’t’ seen a single company that says they’re going back to magic numbers in project plans, or saying they do not want to focus on their customers, or deciding that teams should have no voice about how they work.

They might, however, be done with the canned agile of generic consulting firms, or be departing from long-standing agile practices that have been good for a while, but as we know, what gets you here won’t get you there.

Remember it’s all about the desired future, which can change. But even if that desired future stays the same, the ways to getting there can also change. Organizations that want to become more adaptive might become Teal organizations. But they also might just be seeking a ton of efficiency out of their resources, with the slimmest amount of employees possible.

Agile, adaptive organizations are future-proofing themselves. That need never ends.

How do you see agile transformations failing

I hope this post was helpful.

We covered the misconception that agile transformations are failing, which is basically a manifestation of a cognitive bias: catastrophizing. We looked into 4 symptoms that you could reframe and disassociate from failure. And then I brought to you 4 other perspectives to keep pushing forward your thinking on how to be  positive, effective, empathetic agile coach.

This article could very well talk about any change, big or small, that you might be experiencing. Guess what? Organizations are made of people just like you. Hence, these tactics can be used to understand and push change forward no matter your current environment.

I’d like to let you go with a few questions to think further.

  • Do you see agile transformations as failing?
  • If they are still failing, what can be done?
  • If they are not failing, what can be a next step?

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