Time To Ditch “Agile Transformations”​

As compared to the State of DevOps – The State of Agile reports are much more doom and gloom. They originate horrific numbers that are then taken as excuses to do little to nothing about change as they try to accurately describe the state of the work culture. 

Many of us have come to believe a firm shake-up of the way we view the topic may well be the only way to stop the inertial train of “it doesn’t work”. 

Perchance the answer to the “agile” vs. “Agile” vs “#Agile” vs “agility” etc debate, is to ditch the term and focus on the much less tainted and now much more culture-driven “DevOps” term in general. 

Perhaps more effective way to start, is by ditching the word “transformation”. It’s grandiose, murky, all-encompassing and ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things and its monstrosity alone discourages real results. Ironically, in its very essence, preparing for one of these big transformations is the antithesis of any Agile principle as it starts with huge waterfall-type big-bang exercises.

To do so shall we start by replacing it with “change” and refusing to entertain the idea of frameworks?

It doesn’t matter what route you take to create big change – SAFE, XSCALE, etc – what’s always needed is understanding the pillars of what’s different and finding ways to get those comprehensible and intensely emotionally relevant to your own team and the team of teams aka – your organisation. I take that back – it does then matter what route, as if you take any of the prescriptive ones off the shelf, then the thinking and design needed to create a system that truly works for you and is capable of moving mountains are absent, and half the battle lost before it began.

Those pillars have to revolve around big, non-negotiable themes such as these ones:

Affirming deep commitment to change – giving your people real permission by sharing your thought process behind wanting change to give validity to how much you do. “This is what we’ve read and where we want this company to go and we know we must change our work culture and behaviours to make it happen so this is not empty rhetorics but our plan on how to become part of the digital elite – come with?”

Decentralised and purpose-driven autonomy in lieu of command and control. Some say this is the hardest of them all – servant leadership comes so unnaturally to every consummate exec that they have trouble even envisioning how a climate of lack of control would even accomplish the enterprise goals they have.

An environment where flexibility and adaptability are aggressively praised – in actionable terms not on paper only. Shifting from sequential thinking to a continuous loop with things done as needed not as road-mapped a year in advance is not easy but essential. 

Obsession with the customer. Finding ways to prioritise customer feedback above all else and therefore learn to be MVP driven to gather it. Above all others, this is intensely personal to your particular business and attempting any of the off-the-shelf strategies won’t work. 

Obsession with the team. Focusing on the idea of the family-like units that do the Agile work is fundamental. Too much of the rhetoric today revolves around “the organization” – a nebulous concept if you stop to think about it, which brings the discourse into the realm of the theoretic and unactionable in the same way that the term “transformation” does. Once the lens changes, the natural need will be glaringly clear: obsess with the team’s Psychological Safety so they succeed. 

Obsession with the people. Much of this is hygiene in this new world where automation can and will eliminate anything that isn’t intensely human and therefore competitive eventually. Giving our people respect and admiration isn’t the norm. Part of that, ensuring that personal growth is truly encouraged and asking every employee to find ways that they can best develop and become happier individuals through whatever practice works is one of the hardest tasks as our people have no reason to believe that’s all of a sudden desirable. At a company level and something HR can and should help with, is flipping the script on the idea of skills. A new razor-sharp focus on increased Emotional Intelligence, empathy and positivity, as opposed to “hard skills” and theoretical knowledge and experience, is paramount. 

Redefining “results” to what matters. Instead of KPIs and performance indicators lifted off someone else’s business manual from the 90s, sit down and understand what’s important and what would be a good measure of success. Ideally, the exploration finds that it’s cold hard cash in the coffers as that’s a perfectly valid reason for living business-wise and it’s translatable into OKRs to drive it comprised of these pillars here, once it’s crystal clear. These new measurements must reward failure, heart, courage and curiosity in lieu of compliance and submissiveness. 

Culture of experimentation. Once the above is in place and rewards become connected to being adaptable and brave all that’s left to see courage propagate in an environment where mini-results are praised is to consistently underline how making open and honest mistakes is more valuable than being spot-on. 

Deconstructing collaboration. Moving the topic from an empty word to meaningful and practical intense common purpose, mutual help and its immediate and tangible benefits. Instead of talking about breaking silos unify them by the vision and allow them to see the connection threads that will benefit their own customer obsession to let them think of ways to grow together not apart. 

Becoming addicted to critical thinking and cultivating passion. No stone should be left unturned and no question unasked by any of your people, your teams or your leaders. If they stop examining everything and attacking the status-quo they stop being able to always strive for the loop and they stop being in flux. Ironically a willingness to always exhibit critical thinking is the clearest sign of the presence or absence of passion. When it’s there in sufficient quantities, expressed and vociferous critical thinking will be too. 

Continuous learning and curiosity – a thirst for new and growth are fundamental to each of the above elements but it often comes as the least natural step considering the state of our knowledge organisations today. Earlier this week I wrote about curiosity being sine qua non here and I stand by how in its absence, we have no chance VUCA wise. 

The list above is neither exhaustive, nor mutually exclusive, and it surely isn’t “best practice”. It is hard practice, it’s new and uncomfortable practice but part of the recipe for insidious, seamless and non-labelled change. This isn’t to say change shouldn’t be openly desirable, defined and declared from the top, far from it, as per the first item there, enough exec-level goodwill and a personal #Agile mindset based on pure business greed and sustainability needs is fundamental, but it is to split it into manageable, realistic and supremely effective epics, each with immediate tangible results and to stop only paying it lip service.

“Organization”, “Culture change” and “Transformation” in anyone’s vocabulary today should ring alarm bells as even if not intended in the empty demagogic way in which they end up being delivered, they are far from being true levers for change. 94% of “Agile Transformations” may fail, I bet the farm 94% of “Agile Incremental Changes Of the Heart And Mind” do not.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.