The Agile Transformation Race: Why the Tortoise Beats the Hare every single time

Their journeys in the realm of Agile transformations offer a striking reminder of a timeless truth: the path to lasting business agility is not a sprint but a marathon.

Hrishikesh Karekar
6 min readNov 15, 2023

--

The Agile Transformation race

As an Agile coach who’s been around the block for well over a decade, I’ve seen my fair share of Agile transformations. Some have been exhilarating, propelling organizations to new heights of agility and success. Others, not so much. But there’s one thing I’ve discovered to be common over the years — a key finding I would love to share with you.

In the ever-evolving landscape of Agile transformations, we find the repeat of a tale as old as time — the tortoise and the hare. But in this modern fable, the characters are not creatures of the animal kingdom; they are Agile coaches who personify two distinct approaches to Agile transformation.

Meet Alex, the hare of our story, and Taylor, the tortoise.

Their journeys in the realm of Agile transformations offer a striking reminder of a timeless truth: the path to lasting business agility is not a sprint but a marathon.

Alex — The Agile Hare

Alex is the dynamo of Agile coaching. They’re like a bolt of lightning, ready to electrify your organization’s Agile journey. Alex hosts back-to-back Agile workshops training everyone from the team member to the executive, implements the latest Agile practices at warp speed, and dazzles teams with infectious enthusiasm with the promise of a glorious future. They’re all about quick wins and spectacular presentations that leave everyone in awe. In their world, velocity is the name of the game, and agility is just around the corner.

In a significant transformation for a major European bank, Alex enrolled everyone in Agile certification programs. They loved attending and were all fired up to experience Agile. He spent weeks perfecting the “new ways of working” communicating via shiny new portals and mobile apps. However, the actual implementation started after months for many projects and programs. Many teams lost interest by then or had to undergo additional refresher programs.

The time it took for the teams to adjust to the “new normal” was also far more than everyone expected. This was because the teams were trying hard to force-fit the agile approaches to their context, which often was a major struggle. Instead of “uncovering better ways of developing software,” the teams were trying hard to “get agile right,” impacting the perceived and actual outcomes and causing a lot of heartburn, skepticism, and even apathy toward the agile transformation.

While Alex’s approach gave a lot of quick wins and seemed to be moving at a fast pace initially, there was a catch. Alex’s whirlwind transformation was like a sugar rush — initially exhilarating but unsustainable in the long run. The obsession with Agile buzzwords and ceremonies often overshadows the real prize — lasting business outcomes. It’s the classic case of the hare sprinting ahead, losing sight of the finish line.

Taylor — The Agile Tortoise

Taylor, our tortoise, takes a different route. They’re the calm, deliberate, and thoughtful Agile coach. Taylor understands that true agility isn’t about flashy ceremonies; it’s about aligning Agile principles with your organization’s unique context and business objectives. While their progress may seem slower at first, it’s like building a solid foundation that can withstand the test of time.

When Taylor coaches teams, time is often spent first to understand what the unique challenges of this team are and what agility means for them. While there was a broad approach to agile at the organization for consistency and efficiency, enough contextualization was applied to each team to make the change relevant and meaningful.

For one of the teams, Alex discovered that while the organization’s overall approach is SAFe / Scrum, for this particular team, Kanban is more relevant at the team level. The implemented approach was more of a combination that included the right elements from Kanban to enable agility at the team level while retaining the system-wide alignment with relevant practices from SAFe / Scrum at scale.

The change did take some time to implement as the team experimented with a few practices before arriving at an approach that was effective in their context. Taylor’s role here was crucial to work with the leadership team to allow the team the necessary time for experimentation.

Additionally, one key differentiation with Taylor is his broad understanding of topics that go far beyond agile — change management, project management, risk mitigation, and stakeholder orchestration. He leverages a combination of that to drive change and not repeat the mantra — We must all do agile. He actually gets them to do Agile.

Taylor ensures that every Agile change introduced isn’t just for show or to comply with a particular framework. It has to be relevant to the organization’s needs and strategically aligned with its business goals. He fosters a culture of transparency, collaboration, and continuous improvement — a culture that breeds genuine agility.

For quite some time, it may actually feel as if nothing’s changing. However, as time goes on, Taylor’s results shine through. The organization becomes more adaptive, customer-focused, and efficient. They navigate market changes and customer demands with grace.

Meanwhile, Alex, burnt out from their initial sprint, struggles to keep up. Their teams have grown complacent, relying on Agile rituals without understanding their purpose.

In the end, Taylor, the tortoise, emerges victorious, showcasing a crucial lesson:

It’s not about racing the fastest; it’s about racing with purpose.

Taylor’s approach, rooted in strategic intent and relevance, consistently outpaces Alex’s obsession with Agile jargon and superficial practices.

Why Taylor Triumphs Over Alex

Strategic Alignment

Taylor, the tortoise strongly emphasizes aligning Agile practices with the organization’s strategic goals. For example, when introducing Agile development practices, Taylor ensures that these align with the organization’s overarching goal of improving time-to-market for critical products. This alignment ensures that Agile practices have a meaningful impact on the bottom line.

Sustainable Culture Change

Taylor knows that Agile is not just a set of ceremonies but a cultural shift. Taylor invests time in cultivating a culture of transparency and collaboration. For instance, when implementing Agile retrospectives, Taylor encourages teams to openly discuss challenges and improvements, fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptation.

Adaptability in Practice

Taylor’s approach shines in a rapidly changing business environment. When market dynamics shift unexpectedly, Taylor’s Agile transformation is built to adapt. For instance, during a sudden economic downturn, Taylor’s organization can swiftly pivot and prioritize cost-effective initiatives while maintaining customer satisfaction.

In contrast, Alex’s Agile approach often struggles to achieve these sustainable outcomes. Quick wins may generate initial excitement, but they can fizzle out when they need more strategic alignment and cultural buy-in. For example, a rapid Agile implementation under Alex may result in teams performing Agile ceremonies impeccably. Still, if these ceremonies aren’t contributing to the organization’s long-term goals, their value diminishes over time. At the same time, the other extreme of change being introduced at a very slow pace also beats the purpose and is ineffective.

Successful agile transformation is often a long-running program or a series of programs that take us forward toward agility at a sustainable pace that is neither too fast nor very sluggish. It is not an overnight turn-on-turn-off endeavor. It’s a systemic change that takes time and persistent effort with ups and downs. The transformation at Getty Images took almost half a decade to show results. The Getty teams struggling to meet business demands in 2005 transitioned with a combination of Scrum and Kanban approaches to an organization where highly collaborative one-hat teams ship new software to the business on demand.

From Alex to Taylor: Navigating the Agile Coaching Spectrum

It’s worth noting that not all Agile coaches embody the extreme personalities of Alex or Taylor. In reality, many find themselves somewhere in between, striking a balance that aligns with their organization’s unique needs. The extreme personifications of Alex and Taylor serve as a literary device to vividly convey the nuances of Agile transformation journeys and to emphasize the central point that achieving lasting business agility often requires a thoughtful and strategic approach that acknowledges the complex nature of our organizations and does not force fit linear solutions and thinking for overnight successes.

Conclusion

Regardless of whether you are a Scrum Master, Agile Coach, or a transformation leader, as you embark on your Agile journey, consider this:

Are you more like Alex Agile or Taylor Tortoise in this race?

The answer may well determine the success and longevity of your Agile transformation. In the Agile race, it’s often Taylor Tortoise who emerges victorious, driving lasting business agility and meaningful outcomes.

** Did you like this? Feel free to bang that clap button. Do you want more? Follow me on Medium, LinkedIn or Instagram or read more here. ***

--

--