Agile transformation — a sad fable

Once upon a time there was a man named Bill. Bill was a successful senior manager who was now in charge of a very large department and many people. Bill had a substantial budget to deliver lots of strategic change projects, which made him very proud, because at HugeCorp, managers were judged by their budgets — the amount of money they could spend.

At the start of the year, Bill had promised his bosses and stakeholders that he would deliver a programme of changes that would result in over £9 million of benefit over the next 4 years. He had made this promise because he had hired a group of agile coaches and told them to run an Agile Ways of Working (AWOW) programme in order to deliver the strategic change faster.

The agile coaches started working with their assigned project teams to find out about how they currently worked. It didn’t take long before they all found similar problems.

The ‘teams’ they were assigned to were scattered across the country and rarely met each other. The only approved communication tools were locked down so that files could not easily be shared, internet bandwidth did not allow video-conferencing so meetings were audio-only. Many people, being invisible to the group, spent meetings doing other work — you could often hear the click-click of the keyboard during these meetings; a sure sign someone wasn’t listening.

Each ‘team’ comprised a project manager and a number of analysts, often just people seconded from business units, with no analysis skills and no decision-making authority. Needless to say, making decisions took time, as each was preceded by lots of analysis and documentation, followed by much discussion, reviewing and rewriting.

Bill also had no IT people within his department. All the development and testing work he needed done had to be requested of various IT development teams, each of which was in charge of their own applications or systems. Often, Bill’s requests had to be handled by multiple IT teams, each of which had many such requests from other departments. While one department allocated Bill’s request a priority 3 on their list, another said it couldn’t be done for months as they had more urgent work to do.

But Bill wasn’t worried. Bill fully expected his agile coaches to transform the way his teams worked so that they could deliver all his work on time and get him the promotion he so desired.

And then the agile coaches came to him and reported that he needed to upgrade the communication software and the network. But Bill had no authority over that and the IT guys said they had no budget for that.

The agile coaches said he needed to restructure his organisation to bring business people and developers together in one team so that they didn’t have to rely on others. But Bill had no authority over that either; he couldn’t restructure the entire division! IT was a separate group function after all and had their own reporting line all the way up to the CEO. It just wasn’t possible.

They asked him to at least switch people between teams so that those who were in the same building were on the same team. Bill said he’d think about that, although he couldn’t understand why they should because remote working was the norm at HugeCorp and on any given day, a lot of people would be working from home anyway.

The agile coaches reported that teams were working on multiple projects at once and hence each of them was progressing slower as a result. They told Bill he needed to limit each team to just one project — the most important one — at a time, to ensure that everyone was only working on the most important thing and got it done as fast as possible. But Bill knew that, if he did that, it would give the wrong impression. His peers and bosses would think he wasn’t capable. And some people wouldn’t always be busy, and that would give the wrong impression too. No, Bill couldn’t reduce the amount of work he assigned to the teams.

The agile coaches got together and shared their experiences with each other.

“What are we to do?” they asked each other.

“We will do what we have always done,” said one. “We will change the way they work. We will introduce Jira and Confluence. We will teach them how to write user stories and BDD scenarios. We will facilitate quarterly big-room planning sessions and daily Scrum meetings. We will put lots of sticky notes up on glass walls and whiteboards all over the building, and it will look magnificent.”

“But… that won’t really make them agile and it won’t necessarily get the programme delivered any faster,” said another.

“Perhaps not, but hopefully it will change the way the organisation thinks about change delivery, and one day perhaps they will see how transformations are just that — transformational, and if the organisation genuinely wants to transform its capability, it needs to transform its culture, people’s roles and job descriptions, who and how they recruit, how they measure and reward performance, how they fund change delivery and how they structure the organisation to minimise dependencies and delays.”

And so the agile coaches continued to do the best they could under trying conditions in an organisation where few leaders really understood what agile was all about and hence ignored it, being too busy with their daily routines and fire-fighting.

And Bill? No, at the end of the year his big, important programme did not deliver the £9 million benefit he’d promised. In fact not one of his projects was delivered on time.

Bill told his bosses that his AWOW programme was a failure, that agile didn’t work at HugeCorp. His request to re-assign the AWOW budget for the following year to his big, important programme instead so he could hire more managers and analysts was granted.

One by one, the agile coaches left when their contracts ended, disappointed not to have been able to do more. The AWOW programme was quietly terminated and the word agile was rarely mentioned again amongst Bill’s peers.

This sad tale is an amalgamation of my personal experiences with not one but a few real-world organisations. There are two lessons to be drawn from this tale:

1. Everyone is trying to do his or her best with the incentives and resources they have been given. Bill is no exception. His motives were good, but he didn’t really understand what he was asking for, nor did he have the authority to make the changes necessary for success.

2. Agile transformation is not about the way people work. Introducing agile practices merely shines a light on what is stopping the organisation from genuinely transforming for the better. And transformational change is hard. It takes time and money yes, but also a clear strategy based on real business goals not just a desire to “be agile”, the understanding and support of the executive and the willingness to make cultural and structural changes across the organisation.

My next post will be a happy fable :-)



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Chris Davies

Team Coach | Leadership Coach | Agile Coach | ORSC Practitioner. I write about teams, leadership, organisations and agile.