The problem with Agile Transformation Programs

Many organizations want to "become Agile", then browse through the catalog of common frameworks, pick their favorite - and run a Transformation Program. While all of these are officially communicated as a massive success, I'd like to cast a bit of light on what is actually going on.

Transformation Input

There are some "givens" that affect a framework-based Agile Transformation program before it has even been conceptualized: expectations, reality and the determined future state as described by the framework.
These are the constraints to the success of the transformation, and depending on how well they overlap, this success can be bigger or smaller. Worst case, this intersect is empty from the beginning - in which case, the transformation program is doomed.

Management Expectation

Typical management expectations from an Agile Transformation include, without being limited to:
  • Faster time-to-market
  • Lower development costs
  • Higher Quality (fewer defects)
  • Improved customer satisfaction
  • Happier employees
The choice of framework often falls to that which promises most of these benefits.
"Good" transformation programs then set targets based on improvment seen on these metrics. 

Unfortunately, to scope a proper project and/or program, the real work is oftentimes measures in amount of departments/projects/employees using the chosen Agile Framework "successfully" (whatever that means).

Real Problems

Usually less visible to management is the entire quagmire of problems the organization has accumulated over the years. Benefits are generated by getting rid of problems, they don't appear from thin air.
The more problems are known and the greater the pain to solve them, the easier it will be to actually get benefits out of a transformation. 

Cultures averse to admitting or taking responsibility of problems will be struggling to gain actual benefits from any "Transformation Program", regardless of whether it's agile or not.

Framework Scope

Frameworks themselves have a very clear scope, mostly concerned with structure - roles and process, events and some artifacts. We can easily determine how much of this structure has been implemented, and that's how success is often measured.

What's significantly more challenging: determining how compatible people's mindset and behaviour is with the intent of the framework, and how significantly the "new ways of working" get impacted by "old ways of thinking and doing".

Transformation Output

To keep this article simple, let's not argue about how well any of the inputs was understood or change was actually realized, and keep to reality - "we are where we are, and we go where we go."
This reality is:
  • some expectations will be met, others don't.
  • some aspects of the framework will be implemented perfectly, other won't.
  • some problems will be solved, others won't.
Another reality is that at the point in time when the program is conceptualized:
  • some expectations are based on known problems, others on unknown problems.
  • some expectations are based on understanding the framework correctly, others on understanding them incorrectly.
  • some program activity will be planned to do things that solve meaningful problems, others will focus on something that's not a root cause.
  • some framework components will lead to beneficial change, others won't.
... and we can't know which is which, until we have done some experimentation. 
For argument's sake, let's just assume that the program is sufficiently flexible to allow such experiments, and that everyone contributes to the best of their understanding and ability.

Programs are still time-bound, and it doesn't matter whether that timespan in 1 month or 5 years. Within this period, a finite amount of activity will happen, and this activity will lead us to wherever it does, and "not everything" will be perfect. And this is what the future reality will look like:

Outright failure

Some aspects of transformation will lead to success, others will fail to provide success - or even distract from success. Let's call things by their name: When you scope a transformation program and don't get something you planned to get, that's failure.

In this section, I want to highlight the failures your program will have.

Unmet expectations

There will be a number of management expectations that haven't been met (blue area outside intersects). Some may have been unrealistic from the outset, others "could have ... should have". Regardless, someone will be disappointed. Managers familiar with diplomacy and negotiation will stomach the ordeal, knowing they got something at least.

Just be careful that the higher your expectations are and the less aligned they are with the framework's actual capability, your organizational reality and the flexibility of the transformation program, the bigger the disappointment will be.

Wasted Investment

Frameworks are frameworks, and when shown an overview of everything that the framework has to offer, managers often decide that "we need all of that". Truth be told, you don't, because a lot of it provides a solution to problems you don't have (yellow area outside intersects). But you can't know what you need until you are in a situation where you do need it.

By deciding upfront to go full-scale into implementing everything a framework has to offer, you're going to load a massive amount of waste into your transformation program - and this waste costs time, money and opportunity.

Unsolved problems

Many of the problems in your organization won't get addressed at all (red area outside intersects) - because they're unkown, too complicated to resolve or simply not relevant enough.

The intent of an agile framework isn't to solve your problems, but to provide you the means of solving them - you still need the heart, the will and the power to actually do this. 
Great transformations focus on tackling meaningful problems, thereby showing by action that resolution is possible and valuable - bad transformations avoid the mess of problem solving and focus on just covering the existing heap of problems under the blanket of a framework.

Unresolved pain points

Managers would prefer to have the perfect organization where everything is smooth and problems don't exist. But we don't live in cockaigne (purple intersect between blue and red on the left), and "Agile" won't create one, either. Problems are still real - and frameworks don't address them directly, they just provide means for addressing them.

The list of pain points is (near) endless, and seems to grow with increasing transparency. and we only have a finite amount of time. There will be un-addressed pain points. Even if the Agile Framework is perfectly implemented, many of the pain points will remain - most likely, more than imagined.

When a transformation program scopes more framework implementation than problem solving, don't be amazed if the outcome is more structural change than solved problems!

Partial Benefits

Transformation programs can and do provide benefits, in different categories:
What you see and feel, what you see but can't feel, what you feel but don't see - and what you neither see nor feel, although the latter is a difficult topic in and of itself.

Illusory benefits

Informed managers will expect the transformation program to implement certain framework elements that will indeed be implemented (full intersect between blue and yellow circle). This is great when these elements actually solve a problem the organization has - but there's no guarantee (greenish intersect between blue and yellow on the right). 
Oftentimes, we create "change for change sake" without getting any better results, because we changed something that's not a problem.
In some cases, the new status quo is even worse than the former state, but it looks better ... because it's new, and compatible with the Agile Framework.

These benefits are not real, they have cost money and kept people from doing the right thing!

Let me warn you right here: Unethical coaches/consultants will focus their efforts on the illusory benefits, to build management rapport and milk the cash cow as long as possible. 
AVOID generating benefits in this category!

Hidden benefits

The framework may actually solve some problems that management isn't even aware of (orange intersect between red and yellow on the bottom), either because the benefits take a long time to become visible or because they do not affect anything of management relevance.

A typical example is the implementation of XP engineering practices - it may actually look like teams are getting slower when they write unit tests and create deployment automation, but the benefits will become visible in the future, as defect rates and stress levels decline. Example: Developers who have worked on Clean Code microservices with Continuous Deployment never want to go back to legacy processes or code, because it's so much easier and faster to work this way - but getting there could take years (and possibly be entirely unfeasible) on legacy systems.

Let me dive in with another note of caution: Ethical coaches/consultants will focus their efforts on solving real problems, many of which managers don't see. Managers must be curious to learn from their teams whether such hidden benefits are being generated, or whether the consultant is just trying to please management.

The success story

Every organization that has invested lots of effort and money on an agile transformation program will eventually produce a success story (brown intersect area of all circles in the center) based on what management expected, how the organization actually benefitted and how the Agile Framework has brought them there.

People are smart enough to not reveal publicly how many of their initial expectations weren't met, how much activity didn't lead the organization in a better direction and how big their problems still are. But depending on how well the Agile Transformation Program was defined and executed, this could easily be some 90% (or more) of the program.

Simply put, it's insane to start an Agile Transformation Program because you read someone else's success story, because the story doesn't tell you what went wrong, how much disappointment and frustration has accrued, how much time and money was wasted - and oftentimes, you don't even see the pointers of what actually made it a success.

Real success happens where the three items intersect, and the size of this intersect is determined by:
  • How well do you focus on solving real problems?
  • How flexible are your expectations?
  • Are you using frameworks where they benefit, rather than making your organization framework-compliant?


An agile framework transformation program, conceptualized, planned and executed by people who do not exhibit an agile mindset and who do not practice agile organizational development - is going to produce a politically motivated, insignificant success story. 

Stop thinking frameworks, stop thinking programs.
Start thinking agile, and embark the agile journey in an agile way.

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