Transformation “energy”

One interesting observation I made several times during “agile transformation initiatives” is that they seem to be activated by a sort of “organisational energy” that drives the change. This lasts for a certain amount of time, but then it usually fades and is eventually gone.

Here is how it works prototypically:

Phase 1: “Recognise Incompetence”

In this phase, there is “this organisation is a mess, we need to change something. We need to change…”. But nothing happens.

Phase 2: ”Ahhh! Agile!”

In this phase, the organisation gets acquainted with the concept of agility: many people start learning about it, and there are some “pilot projects” being run. These projects typically show good results and encourage the organisation to try more. Still, nothing significant happens: while several people are interested in some form of change and the “how” starts taking shape, there is not enough “energy” to start any broader-scale initiative. This “energy” has several different aspects:

  • The understanding in the organisation that agility might help
  • A consensus that we should take that route
  • How to do it exactly
  • A belief we’re gaining a deeper understanding of what agility is. This understanding is often quite superficial, though. This is where fake agility is born…
  • An understanding that the benefits might be greater than the costs and the risk

Still, not enough people have bought into the concept anyway, so there is no real way to proceed further. But the energy builds up: “We need to change, we need to change, …”

Phase 3: “Let’s go”

This is the point where, finally, there are enough people at the right management levels who agree we should do it. The threshold has been topped, now the organisation has started to be “serious” with agility: larger-scale developments are turned to agile, new roles are being implemented and agility is being discussed in most organisational meetings.

The result is a considerable learning phase, that, eventually, shows signs of working in practice. Whether there are actual business improvements actually depends, but management usually perceives signs of a better functioning organisation: happier people, increased transparency, positive customer feedback, …

There is still a lot of work to do, and most managers admit it openly. But then the organisation might then move to phase 4…

Phase 4: “Ohhh, we’re done”

This is the phase where management, having now an organisation performing better according to some observable parameters, decide that they are done with the change and can go back to “business as usual”, to “production”.

This seems to be a classic bias in the Western world: change is something we do occasionally, and when we’re done with it, life goes back to operations. We know from Lean that it is definitely the wrong mindset: if we want a modern adaptive organisation, change and improvement must belong to our DNA and happen all the time and continuously. But in many companies, it is seen as a temporary one-off activity.

I’d argue that every agile transformation (well, in fact, every type of organisation development activity) should have two goals to pursue in parallel: 1. The change itself and 2. Build in the company the competence to sustain continuous improvement and keep evolving. And while it’s pretty hard to reach the first goal, the second seems to be way more complicated for most companies! This leads to several dire consequences that I might discuss in a future post.

Conclusion: some tips for leaders involved in an agile transformation…

So what should you do there? Here are some ideas…

1. Phases 2 and 3 are where the learning happens. This is where the organisation, as in the people, is open to new ideas. Use it the best you can! This means:

  • Choose quality education and educational content: while there is a lot of material about “agile” out there in the wild, a lot of it is trash. I know it’s hard to discriminate what is what, but challenge your sources, validate what you read and hear with other sources, and use scientific thinking. I’ve seen an incredible amount of bad content in renowned publications!
  • Educate, educate, educate: the more people, the better
  • Challenge your organisation: a part of acting differently is thinking differently
  • As a leader, you need to learn more and better than anybody else: your decisions have a broader systemic impact on the organisation! In particular, you need to understand what structural change is needed to achieve sound agility and not just a facelift!

2. Especially in phase 3, keep the energy alive! Show that this is important and that the organisation should care. Even better: YOU should care. A lot!

3. During phase 2 and, especially, phase 3: build the change competence of your organisation! A two-day Scrum Master course can be a great start, but growing change agents and establishing them in the organisation is way harder than that! Not just training but mentoring and coaching the people is fundamental. As well as building change in the organisation, not around it!

And let me repeat it again here: YOU should care. A lot!