Agile Transformation Mistakes to avoid — part 1

Agile Transformations are never easy and often plagued with challenges. These are further aggravated by ignoring the emergent nature of the transformation programs and forcing an ordered approach on it. This article dives into why we need to acknowledge the reality that our organizations are complex adaptive systems and linear approaches would not help us to address our challenges.

In 1983, Julien R. Philips published a paper “Enhancing the effects of Organizational Change Management” that popularized an “adoption penalty for firms that didn’t adapt to changes in the marketplace.”

Agile these days is one of the most significant changes that all organizations are striving to adapt. Many adopt because they fear this adoption penalty or have the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). However, there is growing despair about the state of these transformations. The business results that these changes deliver are often questionable, especially those involving the implementation of popular frameworks. The change management effort and cost are massive, and if at the end of it, all we get is old wine in a new bottle, it’s simply not worth it.

Many of these transformations struggle because they are plagued with waste and not lean at all. In a previous article, I have detailed the 7 wastes of agile transformations in a previous medium post.

Two fundamental challenges

The root causes of this waste often lie in the way we think and plan our transformations. Observing the organizations and programs that we are trying to transform from systems thinking perspective, I see two fundamental challenges.

  1. We treat the system as either a chaotic system or an ordered system and miss out on the emergent nature of the system, which is a complex system in the first place.
  2. We are not moving from waterfall to Agile. We often move from an inefficient, ineffective, or mediocre system and expect Agile to be the magic wand to attain Nirvana.

Today we will deep dive into the first one. The second part of this is in order very soon.

The Children’s party

David Snowden has made a beautiful analogy with a children’s party to explain the difference between chaotic, ordered, and complex systems.

How to organise a Children’s Party ( Dave Snowden)

Chaotic systems: Have no clue what lies next.

Assuming the birthday party is a chaotic system is often an honest approach but one where you have no predictability of where you might end up. Following this mode, in the context of agile transformations, some coaches are wary of planning and are happier “living in the moment.” They don’t set goals or milestones and “see where we land up.” In hindsight, living in the moment may be a successful strategy if the children make the right choices. The possibility that you end up with a burnt house exists too. The journey of pure unadulterated self-discovery could be blissful or disaster. It depends on how lucky (or unlucky) you get.

Ordered Systems: Can predict more or less and so plan

The ordered approach is quite familiar and home turf for many. We have articulated objectives and the vision/mission statements to guide us. A project plan with clear milestones tries to guide us. An army of project officers defines and tracks the targets and keeps on adjusting and re-adjusting the plans as situations evolve. This planning and re-planning is often a tedious and laborious exercise. Anything that is misaligned with our outcomes or key results or ambitions (or whatever new fancy name for the good-old target) is not OK. We need to remain focused and not distracted. The evolving situation might as well provide us an opportunity to leverage something and achieve our outcomes, but hey — it is not there in the plan, so we put it in the backlog, which essentially is a long queue) and it stays there waiting for its turn that never comes.

Because everyone else is doing SAFe and it seems popular, one of my customers insisted we start with it. Three months down the line, it was clear that the SAFe approach was unsuitable, and we needed to re-align. However, it took months before such a decision and strategy alignment could happen because the project was already approved, and initial milestones were around training teams and preparing guidance documentation. The need for realignment dawned upon the senior stakeholders once the implementation kicked off in the projects.

Complex Systems: Manage the emergence with attractors and boundaries.

As Dave Snowden states in the children’s party example, assuming a complex system is the third and the simpler option. Though for people conditioned over a lifetime for an ordered world, this is the hardest.

The “line in the sand analogy” is perfect. You draw a boundary and then explore what could be done within that boundary. The boundary is the constraint, and within that constraint, you have flexibility. The boundary protects us, and the flexibility allows for emergence.

As Dave explains in the video, “we stimulate a pattern of activity which is called an attactor and if it’s a beneficial attractor we stabilize it we amplify it if it’s a negative attractor we dampen it or destroy it very quickly so what we do is we manage the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors within boundaries and in that simple phrase we see the promise of complexity theory.”

In simple English, we do more of what’s working and start to do less or stop what is not working — all within the boundaries. We constantly evolve towards a better system.

In conclusion, organisations by nature are complex adaptive systems. That acknowledgment is the first step in devising solutions and approaches that might bring us better results and lead to better outcomes.

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Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh Karekar

Enabling Change,

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