Successful Agile Transformation through Community Building

I’ve worked with enough large organizations to see patterns in how they typically approach Agile Transformation:

  1. Someone gets excited about Agile for some reason, and people who get agile, run with it.
  2. Someone in the existing hierarchical structure becomes responsible for it.
  3. Rollout team is created.
  4. Rollout plan is created.
  5. Organization becomes paralyzed by how to measure it.
  6. Consultants are fired.
  7. Organization scratches its head.
  8. VP of Agile is hired.
  9. Repeat steps 3 through 7.
  10. Organization gives up, or institutionalizes some form of Agile that is unrecognizable to most Agile practitioners.

As organizations grow, the desire to not lose control creates over-specialization and the creation of more centralized functions analogous to optimizing all the parts in the engine of a car.

Unfortunately organizations don’t work that way. There is much more overlap between roles today and the more we try to control how people work, the less control we get.

After just over two years running my Lean Change Agent workshop, the patterns are clear. People want just enough process and structure that allows them to create meaning for change. Change canvases, the notion of moving away from change activities and towards experiments, and big visible change walls have been the 3 most popular parts of the workshop.

The last few workshops, I’ve been testing other ideas. Namely, how social change happens. Last week at the Toronto Agile Open Space I did an adhoc session about how change happens:

Sometimes change doesn't need to be as complex as we make it out to be.

The interesting thing about the pattern I mentioned at the start of this post is that it’s exactly how social movements happen:


Uncertainty is at its highest during step 1. Once someone has decided Agile is a good idea, the people who who have the agile mindset (or growth mindset) immediately start doing. At some point the desire to formalize Agile becomes important. That could be an un-official ‘agile’ group, or an officially recognized team of agile coaches that hasn’t yet been plugged into the official hierarchy.

Then things start to get interesting!

During Social Ferment, or Emergence, there will be a pile of unknowable unknowns. The best way to work though this is by creating more frequent feedback loops. Yes, it’s going to be chaotic, but social movements have a way of working out the way they work out.

I’m sure that sounds scary to those who value stability, and planning. There will be temptation to get things under control, and you can choose how much structure to put around your transformation. Once you’ve decided on that, you’ve moved through Social Ferment and Popular Excitement, and now you’re in Formalization. This is where the desire to fight off chaos becomes strong, and you run the risk of installing Agile the same way the centralized PMO installed the PM methodologies that people aren’t following.

Once you choose this path, Institutionalization is unavoidable. This is where the movement enters decline. Some practices might stick, but more often than not, Agile is installed using the old values of the organization. That is, if the organization values structure and stability, Agile becomes a set of new processes governed by a central body. Another possibility is outright failure or Repression. Repression simply means that the organization falls back on the old way of working.

Perhaps before we decide to repeat steps 3 through 7 I listed at the start of this post, that is, make someone responsible for the transformation, create a rollout team, and a rollout plan, we need to rely on building communities instead:

  • establish a budget to allow people to connect to the global Agile community.
  • use informal Lean Coffee sessions to find innovators and early adopters.
  • encourage disruptors to run amok in the organization and then watch how the dust settles.
  • encourage people to work on the transformation from the ‘side of their desk’
  • avoid creating too many rules and restrictions
  • all hands on deck monthly retrospectives and open spaces
  • if you’re a large organization, live with the chaos through all of your annual ceremonies (annual budgeting and planning, audits, performance reviews etc)
  • visit other organizations
  • connect your senior leadership with other senior leaders who’ve been through it
  • host meet-ups in your office

Can it be as simple as this? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is any change agent worth a pound of salt knows that an organization is complex adaptive system. The trouble is, normal people in the organization could care less what a complex adaptive system is and we will never make them understand what it is. Nor should we try.

Instead, we need to help them explore what Agile means to their organization, themselves, and the people around them.

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