Agile Transformations Take Too Long – A Cautionary Tale

Agile Transformations Take Too Long – A Cautionary Tale

As humans, we are extremely short-term focused. We have a need for immediate gratification. We expect things to happen now, or better yet, yesterday.

Being led by humans, corporations tend to be just as myopic as the individuals that lead them. And sometimes, things just cannot be done as quick as people would like.

The culture change that is required for a true Agile Transformations of an organization takes time. Most leaders don’t feel that they have the time, and judging by the average tenure of leaders, they probably don’t.

While the average CEO lasts 8 years, it is the CIO who typically sponsors the Agile Transformation. And the CIO tenure is about half that of the CEO, or 4.3 years.

How does that impact an organization that is attempting an Agile Transformation? While one might argue that an Agile Transformation is never complete, most experts believe that the transformation of the culture of an organization takes 3 to 5 years. Most organizations won’t give it that long.

Sorry, Your Agile Transformations Is Taking Too Long

I recently witnessed a CIO that was brought into an organization specifically for her transformation experience. She steadily began to lead the organization through a transformation from Waterfall to Agile and Scrum. She moved as quickly as the organization would allow and gradually helped 200 of her team members form 23 teams and deliver on 2-week sprints. She also led the mindset change within her management team, while promoting agile to her peers and her leadership team.

During this time, she endured 2 major organizational changes including the firing of her boss not once but twice. After 3 years of work, she had made a significant dent. Twenty three new Scrum teams had been stood up. Volunteers took on training and certification and stepped into the role of Scrum Master. Communities of practice were set up and meeting regularly on Architecture, Scrum Mastery, Testing and Agile Leadership. Stable teams were funded and aligned. Empowered Scrum Product Owners from the business prioritized product backlogs and made decisions.

Thankfully all the teams were stood up when the leader was unceremoniously released. Time for some fresh leadership apparently, now that the organization was 2.5 years into the Agile Transformation.

Fortunately, the teams are pretty stable and all using Scrum and delivering on 2-week sprints. They certainly haven’t all matured and they had plenty of growth toward high performance. But the fruit of the transformation had already begun to show. The context and environment the teams were working in had improved dramatically.

What is the moral of this story?

Organizations are Too Myopic for Agile Transformation

Organizations and the leaders in them tend to have a myopic view. They want near instant results. They cannot wait to plant seeds and make long term investments.

Steve Denning spends several chapters of his recent book, The Age of Agile, discussing the conflict between Agile Principles and current corporate leadership techniques that focus on short term profits at the expense of long term health. He cites leadership pressure to maximize shareholder value, manipulate earnings through stock buybacks, and other actions that directly hurt customers and corporate sustainability. Denning says:

The sad fact is that Agile management is at odds with much of what is practiced in public corporations and taught in business schools, even today. Generations of managers have built whole careers on different assumptions. If Agile management is to prosper in a sustainable way, leaders not only need to learn about Agile goals, principles, and practices. They also need to be aware of the beliefs, assumptions, and processes that they will have to unlearn.

Denning, Stephen. The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done

Here are a few other short sighted attempts to goose short term performance at the sacrifice of long term corporate health and performance:

  • Outsourcing – Outsourcing work is a convenient way to quickly show paper cost savings. Another client of mine recently outsourced their level 1 support desk to a low bidder. Within a month of the change, internal and external customers were clamoring. Scrum teams focused on new development and critical projects were being pulled off their prioritized work in order to stem the tide, provide knowledge transfer, and in some cases do the work that the low bidder was supposed to be handling. Someone in some other part of the organizations claimed a cost savings, which ignored the true cost of this work which included employee frustration and burnout, technical debt, and loss of critical knowledge.
  • Offshoring – Similar to outsourcing, many organizations send important work to offshore vendors in pursuit of low hourly labor rates. Low offshore hourly rates are inaccurate because they ignore inconvenient realities like the cost of management, delay, handoffs, defects and maintenance.
  • Annual Budgets and Project Funding – Most organizations try to optimize around an annual budget cycle, even though that runs counter to small batches and the ability to respond to change vs. follow a plan. I have a client who recently learned that a long-planned project that is scheduled to run for 9-months was approved, in July of this year. Because of their annual budget cycle, the project has to be completed before the end of December or they lose the funds. Which means that the team is struggling to ramp up to complete 9 months of work in less than 6 months. If that isn’t a great recipe for technical debt, I don’t know what is.

How Can an Agile Leader Help the Agile Transformation Stick?

Will this particular Agile Transformation continue beyond this leader? This question is not a trivial one. In fact, Agile experts have seen this pattern for an agile transformation occur so many times that they named this pattern “Exit”:

Exit – An Agile journey that is led primarily by one visionary loses energy when that visionary leaves.

Dinwiddie, George with Susan DiFabio, Oluf Nissen, Rich Valde and Dan Neumann, Patterns of Agile Journeys

The Patterns book goes on to list some of thing things a leader may do to counteract this Agile anti-pattern. Thankfully, all were done in the case of the CIO mentioned above.

  • She had formed a small team of volunteers to take care of the day-to-day details of the change journey.
  • She had conversations with middle managers and helped them adopt new mindsets and in some cases, find new roles.
  • She helped teams by forming a Protective Bubble to counteract the hostile, Pre-Existing Culture.
  • She brought in Outside Experts to help people see a brighter future
  • She created Internal Coaches to bring some of the internal people to a new level of competence

The one constant in all organizations is change. If you aren’t experience change, you probably aren’t growing. We will have to wait and see whether or not this particular Agile Transformation will “stick”.

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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