Agile Transformations Are Failing – Embrace It!

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
– Thomas A. Edison

I’m tired of the F word.
I’m tired of hearing about how to spot Agile transformation failures and sad sacks.
Here’s a sampling of some recent article titles:

“Recognizing the 12 Failure Modes in Agile Transformation”
“How to Mess Up Your Agile Transformation in Seven Easy (mis)Steps”
“10 Reasons Enterprise Agile Transformations Fail”
“Agile Transformation When Failure Is ‘Not’ an Option”
“Why Agile is Failing in Large Enterprises and What You Can Do About It”

They sound like headlines straight out of the National Enquirer.
The premise being that if you know what to look for like code smells, you can avoid it.
The problem is there is no avoiding the F word or the J curve, and you may not want to in the long run. The doom and gloom surrounding failed Agile transformations is depressing. Why so glum, chum?
How can you learn if you never fail? When you were learning how to ride a bike, did you expect to be proficient from the get-go? Embrace, celebrate and rejoice in the bruised knees and learning. There is no prescription for failure just like there are no best practices for success. As you traverse through your Agile journey, you may not get what you had hoped and planned for. Instead, you may stumble upon and uncover the totally unexpected. And isn’t that the nature of complex change after all?

I’m a half-full kind of person. So, I say, let’s not dwell on the failures. Accept them. Learn from them. Dampen them and then move on. Let’s take time to celebrate and amplify the little successes that emerge and blossom along the way. Take time to smell the scents of success. Take a deep breath. I’d like to start a list of telltale signs that an Agile transformation is having impact and being successful.

How to Tell Your Agile Transformation is Succeeding

  1. Free and easy engagement
    People – managers and staff alike, start spontaneously initiating and volunteering for the work of the transformation. Not because they “have to” but because they “want to”. At first when the chains and shackles of legacy ways have been removed, everyone is a little unsure. They are curious but cautious. As leadership focuses on patiently building relationships and showing compassion over correcting problems, trust builds. Your optional invites to co-create the new ways of working start to pay dividends. Grassroots communities of practice spring up like spring daisies. People start discovering on their own what’s really in it for them.
  2. Teams gladly accepting the yellow card
    Some soccer players are notorious for feigning injury and crying foul to get ahead. Give them a yellow card and the melodrama that ensues is worthy of an Oscar. To them it’s a game within the game. The opposite starts to happen in organizations that start to ignite and nurture high performing teams. Those teams evolve from gaming the system to make the numbers to doing what’s right in their hearts no matter the consequences. A great example of this from one of my clients was a team that faced a dilemma. They were coming to the end of an Epic to develop a new and improved application when they realized they had missed a key piece of work. The work involved decommissioning the remnants of the older existing application in production. The work would require several additional sprints to complete. By doing so, they would be declaring themselves over budget and flagged with a yellow status. The go-to alternative in the past would’ve been to declare the Epic complete, secure a green status and then open a new work item to do the decommissioning work under the guise of a scope change request. The alternative did not sit well with the team. It would’ve delayed the inevitable and exposed unnecessary red tape to the business stakeholders. They decided to accept the yellow status and turn a few heads in the process. The team was successfully climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the motivation of security to the meta-motivation of self-actualization.
  3. The Business is willing to invest and pay for help
    Many of my Agile practitioner colleagues working in large, successful enterprises and especially those affiliated with Agile Centres Of Excellence/Enablement/Expertise (COEs) often share frustrating stories of annual budget funding woes. The few that are centrally funded by enlightened leadership need not worry about who’s going to fund the necessary training, coaching and consulting. However, the others are destined to go through annual business case development exercises and fund-raising tours with each line of business. The focus is on committing to some form of business value delivery and justifying the value and worth of their Agile trainers, coaches and consultants. The businesses that want help with improving their outcomes through Agile ways of working and are willing to pay for it will thrive through the transformation. They’ve started to see early benefits and want more.
  4. A learning organization emerges
    Successful Agile transformations place a premium on both business outcomes and continuous learning and improvement. For these organizations, success doesn’t stand still. They make time at all levels for learning to sustain success. Managers engage in Gemba walks to build learning relationships with their teams. Lines of business sponsor and invest in monthly learning workshops where everyone is invited to nominate learning topics and to participate together in the workshops. Physical and electronic book shelves start popping up everywhere with contributions from staff and corporate. Formal and informal book clubs form to share, argue and experiment. The enterprise starts to look like the right side of Bob Hartman’s Agile brain.
  5. Shift from Transformation Team work to Operational work
    If you’re a member of an Agile Transformation Team in your enterprise, how do you know when that magic moment arrives and you and your team are no longer needed?
    At the beginning of the transformation, there’s much work to be done by your Transformation Team. Gelling as a team, confirming and sharing your why, establishing and sharing your vision, modeling mindset shifts, launching Agile teams, adapting functional roles and processes, dealing with the rest of the business. Your Transformation Team product backlog is brimming with excitement and possibility. There’s so much to do. Cycles of experimentation, learning and adaptation ensue.
    Then one day as your team plans for their next transformation sprint, someone asks the question, “Is that our work or is that an operational work item?” And so, the shift begins. More and more work comes off the Transformation Team board and weaves itself into the fabric of the organization. No one talks about Agile anymore – it’s just who we are and how we work. What started off at a frenetic pace is now almost as easy as Sunday morning
  6. Add your scents of success here…
    Think of what’s happening with Agile in your organization.
    What’s one positive thing you can share from your journey?

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