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Why Agile Transformations Fail

I remember having a conversation with a project manager around Agile and a comment was made that a lot of companies seem to be failing at “doing Agile”. So I inquired, what does failing mean? As in Agile doesn’t work for them? Is company culture resisting the change? We have all heard about companies that decide to go agile and struggle for years in its adoption. I’ve seen it firsthand. 

Why Agile Transformations Fail

Let’s be honest, change is really difficult. Every change comes with the “valley of death”. It’s disruptive and it takes time before some of the benefits are realized. Here’s my shortlist of things to consider while going through an agile transformation.

1) Change needs to start with the Business side

I’ve experienced where agile transformation is strictly an IT effort. Agile teams need input from the business in the form of a Product Owner (PO). POs are there to prioritize and define the work that goes to the teams and manage stakeholder expectations. Otherwise, that falls to the teams. Frustration tends to ensue when you let teams decide prioritizations. Think of driving a car to a destination. Your agile team is what keeps the car running: filling up the gas, changing the oil, rotating the tires, etc. Someone has to tell the car where to go.

2) Make sure you have your “why”

Change is hard. In that “valley of death” where progress slows and frustrations build as teams form and people begin to feel their way through the change, stay focused on the why. If everything you’re doing leads to the why, then keep doing it.

3) Leadership training and mindset shift

In waterfall environments, some leadership and managers tend to manage vs. lead. Shifting to Agile and wanting teams to be self-managing can be a struggle for those who fall into micro-managing a team instead of leading. Training needs to address what agile managers do and how they can be servant leaders and support their teams to deliver business capabilities. I saw one agile team where the manager would continue to direct and task work to team members behind the scenes. Again, it’s about whether we should be managing vs. leading.

4) Figure out how to scale

In my mind, agile transformation is about two things. The first is standing up teams and getting them to iterate through the work, grooming, planning, demo, and retros. The second part is how to scale. How do you coordinate the interdependent work between teams? There are consulting companies that have designed a prescribed process around scaling (SAFe, LeSS, DAD, etc.). Anything that prevents your organization from doing either of those two things is a blocker. As an organization, if you’re not looking to scale across teams, transformation will stall or simply won’t work. 

To close, organizational change happens two ways. The first is internal change. Your organization is taking advantage of a competitive advantage, creating innovation, or realizing a shift in the market. While that change is disruptive, it’s welcomed. Garmin falls into that category. Due to the rise of smartphones’ GPS capabilities, no one buys Garmin navigation devices. Garmin pivoted and focused on wearable technologies. They are still around.

The second is external change. This is change that is forced upon an organization, competition, market/technology changes, etc. Blockbuster is a great example of this. Technology and competition changes in the form of Netflix completely changed the landscape of the video rental industry. They and the entire industry were gone overnight. 

So those who are resisting agile transformation, just remember that your competition is already either doing agile or ready to start. Don’t fall behind and become the next Blockbuster.

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