Last year I published a book where I presented a solution for leaders and managers who wanted to improve their success in making organisational agility become a reality in their organisations. You can still click here to buy your digital or paperback copy on Amazon (it even went number one for a few days!)

As a lead up to that solution, something I have called the Pre-Tx model (pre-transformation), I identified the top 5 mistakes made by all managers who preside over failing agile transformations. Being the generous person that I am I even gave readers of this blog access to the solution here: Pre-tx model blog post

Here is what I said in my book about the 5 mistakes:

When organisations first experiment with Agile, they tend to focus on small teams within the IT department, on small pilot projects, using processes such as Scrum (https://www.scrum.org/resources/what-is-scrum). Once the software teams have experienced some success, the middle managers begin to get involved and will start to consider scaling the process to larger teams across multiple departments.

The traditional route is to hire expensive consultants …

It is at this point middle managers often opt to bring in a number of Agile Consultants/Coaches to assist with implementing and running ‘Agile at Scale’. This is the conventional ‘bottom-up’ approach. This transition from small- to large-scale Agile is referred to by people in the industry as ‘Agile Transformation’, as mentioned. There are now a number of large-scale methodologies and frameworks that broadened the application of Agile, such as the Framework for Business Agility, LeSS, DaD, SAFe.

… then Do a “Pseudo-Transformation”

Although each of these methodologies provides some focus on the people element, this aspect is generally not given sufficient emphasis when being applied. Hence, culture change, and other transformational change elements previously described, are not addressed, and therefore I consider this conventional approach ‘Pseudo-Agile Transformation’. The focus with the conventional approach to Agile Transformation is to improve on what the IT or technology department is currently doing, in other words, the transactional change elements. But, as practitioners of Agile know, because Agile extends far beyond the confines of the IT department, for it to be effective, departments relying on Agile need to be more Agile.

Because an agreed plan is followed, with inappropriate KPIs, success is called too soon

In the context of the conventional approach, once the Agile Process has been delivered and the process manuals have been handed over by the Agile Consultants/Coaches to the Project Management Office, it is frequently perceived that the goal of Agile Transformation has been achieved. But, in reality, what the client is left with is an Agile Process, which staff frequently do not know how to use, even after training. This is another reason why I refer to this approach, which seems to focus on ‘processes and tools’ rather than ‘individuals and interactions’, as ‘Pseudo-Agile Transformation’.

It is ‘pseudo’ in that the transformation does not result in lasting change, and before long, those practising Agile revert back to how they were working in the past. In my view, this constitutes a failed transformation and, as has been recently pointed out in research by McKinsey (2017), a disproportionally large proportion (77%) of Agile Transformations fail.

The question then is, why is there such a high failure rate of Agile Transformations?

The top five mistakes

My hypothesis, as I have said, is that they fail because they are Pseudo-Agile Transformations, which focus on transactional change elements, rather than Genuine Agile Transformations, which emphasise transformational change elements. In addition, over the past fourteen years working in implementing Agile Transformations, I have identified a number of other key mistakes, some of which relate to the transactional change elements previously described, which I believe lead to the downfall of Agile Transformations. These key mistakes are:

  1. Lack of informed dialogue between leaders and senior managers, regarding Agile and its applicability in the organisation. This results in Agile not being sufficiently understood, leading to a loss of investment of time, money and effort, when an organisation discovers it was not ready for Agile.
  2. Agile Transformation not sponsored at the top (C-suite), which can lead to inter-departmental politics that block or obstruct collaboration. If delegated too far down the organisation, only partial benefits can be realised, due to organisational silos being re-inforced.
  3. The mindset of the managers entrusted with the transformation may be less Agile than is required for running such a complex change initiative. Mindset change is also conventionally focused on the teams, rather than the managers and senior leaders.
  4. Agile Transformation planned and run in a ‘Waterfall’ way (which can happen if run by managers with a more ‘Waterfall’ mindset.)
  5. Agile Transformation focused on the team element only (to the exclusion of leaders and managers). Culture work is important and must not be relegated in favour of focus on process/tools delivery.

Focus on Agile Process rather than Organisational Agility

In other words, the conventional approach to Agile Transformation starts at the lowest levels of the organisation. The assumption is made that the focus of the Agile Transformation should be on delivering an Agile Process and training people in the process.

This form of Agile Transformation, instead of being sponsored at the highest level in the organisation, is managed by middle managers, and it is perceived that these managers do not have to be that Agile themselves, but can instead ‘buy-in’ experts to train their people in the process – i.e. ‘do the change to others’.

Consequently, although it may be perceived by some that an Agile Transformation has been implemented, what actually happens is that the transformations are planned and subsequently run in a non-Agile, or less than Agile, way. In other words, no genuine transformational change has occurred and thus it should be considered as a ‘Pseudo-Agile Transformation’.

Culture is more than just process or behaviour

Moreover, as culture is ignored or downplayed in favour of process delivery at the lower echelons of the organisation, resources tend to run out before there is time (or money) to focus on the critical layers to complete the transformation above the teams, i.e. the managers and leaders.

Instead, when the Agile Coaches and Consultants move on, they leave with the existing non-Agile Culture in place. Consequently, the Agile Process cannot be sustained effectively, as it needs an Agile Culture to support it and thus no real lasting transformation occurs, and vast sums of money are needlessly wasted.

Ignore Organisational Agility at your peril

While it is possible to deliver a new IT process without complete Organisational Agility, it will be less effective and will deliver significantly fewer benefits to the business. In short, there is a high dependence on Organisational Agility for the Agile Process to be successful. The organisation may start out delivering a shiny new process but, at some point, someone will need to address key impediments that block the way of the process being effectively and appropriately deployed.

Hence, the high failure rate of Agile Transformations.

Now in 2020 …

Since this publication last year I have now started to focus on exploring the problem in more detail, taking manager to the root cause of the problem.

My thinking here is that if I give a deeper understanding of the impediments and roots cuases that result in these mistakes then maybe there will be greater uptake for a solution.

This book will be published shortly, within the next six weeks or so. I hope it will help senior leaders and managers to use the wisdom both in the case studies I present along with insight from many of my trusted associates so that they can rapidly accelerate organisational agility in their organisations.

Stay safe, stay well and most importantly stay positive!