Stop Big Bang Agile Transformation!

Martijn Oost
15 min readJan 5, 2024

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In the 14th State of Agile Report, a vast majority of participants (84%) indicated that their organizations lacked advanced proficiency in agile methodologies. Imagine if companies confessed to a similar shortfall in other critical business areas such as accounting, sales, or production. Would such an admission be deemed acceptable? What repercussions would arise from acknowledging such fundamental weaknesses in essential business skills?

84% of agile transformations are not successful yet.

Organizations' primary obstacles in embracing agile methodologies have remained the same over recent years. Issues such as an incompatible organizational culture, an aversion to change, and a deficit in support and expertise persist. We have noticed that these issues likely indicate deeper underlying issues rather than that they are the actual problem.

Notable hurdles in the journey towards agile implementation encompass:

  • Cultural clashes 43%
  • Inconsistencies in processes and practices 46%
  • General organisational resistance to change 46%

Let’s examine these three challenges more closely and discuss why, from our experience, directly tackling Cultural clashes, Resistance to change, or Inconsistencies in processes and practices may not be the most effective strategy.

Culture is the wrong end of the right stick.

We hold the view that culture is not an element we can directly influence. It’s not feasible to ‘implement’ a culture without resorting to extreme, often unethical measures, reminiscent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the outcomes of such approaches are universally known. Efforts we’ve observed aimed at directly shaping culture invariably fall short, frequently leading to disheartening outcomes for the individuals involved.

Chinese Cultural Revolution poster

Attempting to change an organization’s culture is a folly, it always fails. People’s behavior (the culture) is a product of the system; when you change the system, peoples’ behavior changes. Systems-thinking thought-leader John Seddon

Stop Agile Culture

When individuals first encounter Agile, they are often enticed by the prospect of a vastly improved corporate environment. Companies such as Google, Spotify, or Zalando are frequently cited as ideal examples of agile success. Yet, what seems like straightforward behaviours that could be effortlessly replicated in one’s own organization typically stem from fundamentally different principles than those found in most traditional companies.

Establishing an Agile culture outright is unfeasible; it’s a deep organizational shift. Agile emphasizes flexibility, collaboration, continuous improvement, and customer focus, values that can’t be imposed but must evolve naturally. Behaviours, beliefs, leadership, and structure shape culture. Simply trying to ‘install’ Agile is like expecting a seed to grow in barren soil. It requires nurturing the right environment, leading by example, and a commitment to the principles of Agile. It’s a journey of transformation, not a quick procedural update.

Stop suppressing people's Resistance to change.

Research indicates that people tend to resist change when it’s imposed on them. This resistance stems from a natural human instinct to maintain stability and predictability in their environment. The imposition of change without consultation or consideration of individuals’ perspectives can often lead to a sense of loss of control and autonomy, exacerbating the pushback. Understanding this, it becomes crucial to approach change management with empathy and inclusivity. Engaging individuals in the process, giving them a voice, and addressing their concerns can avoid resistance altogether. Organizations can align individual needs with broader goals by fostering a collaborative environment where change is not merely imposed but co-created. This approach not only eases the transition but also harnesses the collective insights and energies of the people, making the change more sustainable and effective in the long run.

Stop Changing Process over People.

The false dichotomy in Agile that suggests altering or removing processes is both simpler and more ethical than changing people overlooks the complex interplay between systems and individuals. This perspective assumes that processes are discrete, easily modifiable elements of an organization, distinct from the human component. In contrast, altering people’s behaviours or mindsets is perceived as more intrusive and ethically questionable. While this perspective is fundamentally accurate, it oversimplifies the situation and frequently results in overly drastic alterations to the people’s surroundings. Processes and people are often intertwined; changes in one inevitably impact the other. Modifying a process often necessitates a corresponding shift in how people work, communicate, and think. This interdependence means that ethical considerations and challenges are inherent in any change, whether it’s labelled as process-oriented or people-oriented. By recognizing this interconnectedness, we should approach Agile transformations more holistically, understanding that true agility is achieved not just by changing procedures but by fostering an environment where people and processes co-evolve.

The complex agile system of many interactions between many actors

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. John Gall: Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail

Stop organising inconsistencies in your system.

We frequently observe that while there is ample management focus and involvement in team composition and organisational division, it’s often guided by outdated views. The focus tends to be on assembling efficient teams to meet traditional objectives and paradigms rather than forming entities capable of functioning in an agile system. This misalignment is problematic. When such teams are forced into frameworks like Scrum, it’s hardly surprising that they encounter significant cultural clashes and inconsistencies in their processes and practices, resulting in resistance. The old mindset of efficiency at the cost of adaptability doesn’t support the flexible, collaborative, and iterative nature required for Agile. For teams to truly embrace and benefit from Agile, there needs to be a shift in how they are composed and managed, emphasising their purpose, cross-functionality and continuous learning abilities.

Why is Agile not working?

Despite many people in the agile industry being aware of the above challenges, the full benefits of agility often still remain elusive. This persistent gap between knowledge and implementation could be attributed to several factors. Primarily, there’s the comfort of familiarity with traditional transformation methods that have delivered predictable outputs in the past. Changing away from the ADKAR-like linear change management paradigms to a new, more dynamic and agile approach to change requires not just a shift in strategy but also a radical change in the transformation consulting industry.

With all due respect, it’s like the blind leading the blind.

  • Almost every Big 5 business consultant we collaborated with admitted that they had never witnessed a successful agile transformation firsthand.
  • None of the agile coaches we are acquainted with managed a larger enterprise successfully.
  • Most of the managers we have engaged with lacked sufficient understanding of agile business practices.

Stop Consultants

Business consultants assist in navigating a business transition, leading to a new way of handling operations. Agile coaches facilitate an agile transition, steering the way work is done towards a different approach. It’s up to managers to integrate these aspects for a triumphant agile business transformation. Transformation isn’t merely about altering actions; it’s about evolving into something distinct — achieving a new, stable state for the organization that yields different, sustainable results. Regrettably, this outcome is seldom realized, and it’s even more regrettable that little is often done to address this shortfall in our industry.

Agile Utopia is not a helpful ambition.

Stop Agile Utopian Dreaming.

The community of agile coaches is increasingly embracing an idealistic perception of agile. Trends like the No Estimates movement and bashing of Scrum exemplify this shift, advocating for greater team autonomy by reducing management and structure. While these objectives may be commendable, completely discarding all forms of structure and management is unrealistic. Theoretically, a structureless approach might seem attractive but rarely materializes in real-world settings. Organizations inevitably retain some level of governance and structure, which should be actively managed. Ironically, the path to achieving self-management requires a certain degree of management and a fair amount of structure to guide the transition effectively.

Stop Classical Reorgs

Conversely, the business consulting sector is veering towards a dystopian approach by promoting rigid agile scaling frameworks that easily align with existing organizational structures and traditional methods. These frameworks often lead to initial improvements but fail to deliver on the full potential of agile. Major business consultancy firms lacking in-house agile expertise are frequently engaged to spearhead the agile transition. These firms typically send in teams of consultants charging exorbitant fees. Contracts often stipulate clear deadlines and targets to cap the duration and cost of the engagement, sometimes imposing substantial penalties for non-achievement. Since agile’s impact is challenging to quantify directly, these targets usually focus on visible but not necessarily agile-centric changes. What often results is a classic reorganization, the type consultants are traditionally enlisted for, complete with the usual power struggles. New roles are assigned based on a standardized scaling model, and just like that, the ‘agile transition’ is declared complete, despite it often being more superficial than substantive.

Stop Big Bang fixed deadline Transitions.

Multiple firms frequently bid on these contracts. As the organization is often inexperienced with agile, selecting a provider based on quality or a proven track record becomes challenging, leading them to prioritize the overall cost of the contract. In an attempt to remain competitive, consultancy firms don’t typically lower their rates; instead, they propose shorter durations for the transition. This practice is usually the genesis of so-called Big-bang transitions, which are not driven by the urgency to adopt agile methodologies swiftly but rather by the desire to conclude a fixed, non-agile reorganization project within a set timeframe and budget.

Looked good on paper, perfect in ppt, good storyline. Terrible outcome

Stop tying your fate to the consultant's objectives

Similar to how construction companies often derive substantial revenue from the “extra” work required to complete your home to your liking, consultancy firms count on subsequent engagements when clients realize that their initial solutions haven’t fully addressed their needs. This creates a problematic dynamic. Transformation Leads who have committed to a particular consultancy and their fixed price contract inadvertently tie their reputation to fulfilling the terms of the agreement rather than the success of the agile transformation itself. In traditional organizations, this can lead to a situation where maintaining objectivity becomes challenging due to the significant personal investment involved. Consequently, both managers and consultants find themselves pressured to deliver what essentially amounts to a reorganization, often within an unrealistic timeframe that doesn’t accommodate the gradual introduction of agility. In such scenarios, the genuine adoption of agile values and principles is usually sacrificed first.

More Agile Management, less Agile Ignorance.

Management often finds themselves ill-equipped in the transition to agility due to ineffective support from both business and agile consultants. The guidance typically lacks the specificity and actionability necessary for tangible change, focusing more on theoretical advice than practical steps towards real agility and improved business performance. This misalignment leads to superficial changes that don’t embody the core tenets of responsiveness, efficiency, or customer focus, causing frustration and scepticism. For a successful agile transformation, management requires targeted, practical support that is directly aligned with achieving measurable, positive business outcomes and is tailored to their organization’s unique needs and challenges through the adoption of agile principles and practices.

More the factory, less the sausage.

Management’s deep involvement in day-to-day operations often obscures their view of the broader organizational system they oversee. Petty discussions at the C-level are not uncommon, as minor crises get escalated to the top and are often used to settle old scores among peers. It’s not unusual for management teams to resolve disputes by engaging in a contest, showcasing their in-depth knowledge of the situation. However, more often than not, the teams on the ground should be fully capable of resolving these issues themselves. Management tends to prioritize escalating problems rather than focusing on individuals and interactions, particularly in interdepartmental issues, where this tendency is most prominent. In stark contrast, Agile emphasizes a different approach: addressing problems at their source, involving and empowering those directly affected, rather than distant, detached deliberations in a boardroom. The fixation on daily operational problems, frequently exacerbated by the Peter Principle, overshadows the critical need for in-depth root-cause analysis and comprehensive systemic reform. A thorough examination of these fundamental challenges facing your business is essential and should serve as the foundational step in planning and executing any comprehensive transformation strategy.

Start with Why

When the business necessity and rationale for change are clearly defined, we can move beyond nebulous concepts like Agile, Transformation, or Mindset and focus on tangible, specific actions. We can directly address and resolve issues at their source, involving the affected individuals. These are genuine business issues, not deviations from an idealized agile state as perceived by coaches, nor are they merely targets for consultants to achieve within a broad scaling framework or contract. When we approach these challenges locally and agilely, we typically encounter minimal, if any, resistance to the changes. Although concentrating on local solutions can distract from the overarching aim of business agility, this is precisely the juncture at which agile management becomes vital. It connects these individual changes to the broader agile vision, continually evaluating progress towards our agile business goals and identifying any impediments that could hinder this journey.

Three Vital Pillars: People, Structure and Content

During our years of agile consulting, we’ve pinpointed three critical pillars in our agile organizational framework: People, Structure, and Content. Concentrating on these fundamental aspects is essential for any effective agile transformation. We employ these elements as lenses to identify potential obstacles to the business results we aim for. Our approach involves instigating changes across these dimensions, usually resulting in a harmonious blend of actions within these three domains.

People, Structure Content

An example of a harmonious blend of change within the domains of Content, People and Structures

Consider this scenario: Employees are frustrated with constant, lengthy meetings. Traditionally, managers might respond by advising fewer meetings or scheduling meeting-free periods. However, from our experience, this often merely disperses the issue and can lead to unintended consequences. Alternatively, altering the meeting’s structure to a stand-up format, where participants remain standing to discourage lengthy discussions, often results in shorter, more effective sessions. By restricting attendance to only the essential people, we eliminate the need for repetitive explanations and maintain focus. Changing the content to a set agenda with concise, standard questions transforms a tedious, drawn-out status meeting into a dynamic and efficient interaction. This isn’t just a temporary fix but potentially a sustainable change.

The Three dimensions: People, Structure, Content

People

At the core of any system are its people. Modern management is built on a foundation of respect for individuals and teams alike. We’ve observed that within a facilitative environment, people can deliver remarkable outcomes. No framework or management methodology alone has ever led to substantial improvements, breakthroughs, or innovations. It’s the dynamic interplay of ideas and actions among people that propels organizations and cultures forward. The primary goal of an agile manager is to facilitate these interactions. It’s crucial to note that the objective isn’t to mould the perfect agile employee but to foster continuous growth and development of individuals and teams.

Structures

The structures in our organizations significantly influence agility. This includes the formation of teams, departments, or hierarchies, as well as the implementation of processes, meetings, practices, communication, frameworks, and incentives. In today’s digital-centric world, both the architecture of your business structures and the structure of your software play crucial roles in enabling agility. These scaffolding structures act as the system’s backbone; without them, people may feel disoriented, chaos can ensue, and there’s often a regression to less agile, more traditional methods. Without structure, individuals might prefer clear directives over navigating the uncertainties of creating new systems. While the term ‘structures’ might imply rigidity, in a contemporary organization, they can be as adaptable as necessary, providing the necessary stability while still allowing for flexibility and growth. We favour the term ‘structure’ over ‘framework’ because it encompasses a broader range of elements within your system beyond just a single agile frame or methodology. These structural components require active management to effectively support your organization.

Content

The substance of our work — what we generate and produce — is vital. This includes not only the final output but also all the materials that flow through our system: documents, research, emails, briefs, analyses, backlogs, and, ultimately, our products. Content is the lifeblood of the agile process. Even with the most agile-minded individuals and flexible structures, it’s the content that ultimately dictates the success of our efforts. In an environment without overarching project plans, where content is generated by each team, managing the evolution of this distributed content becomes crucial. Simply instructing teams to maintain a backlog and complete tasks is often insufficient. Especially when time and resources are limited, there’s a pressing need to accelerate the creation of genuinely valuable agile content, as this is fundamental to realizing positive business outcomes swiftly.

Why, How & What: The Golden Circle

The breadth of an agile business transformation is all-encompassing, typically impacting the Why, How, and What of a business to fully harness the advantages of agility. The original Why, or the organization’s purpose, may require reevaluation and realignment to reflect the changes that prompted the transformation. The How, which is essentially the company’s DNA and operational approach, will undergo a profound shift — the crux of the transformation. As this new How takes shape, the What — the actual tasks and outputs — must adapt accordingly for a genuine transformation. This necessitates ongoing interaction and reflection on these three critical aspects. Recognizing and proactively addressing this need is at the heart of agile management.

This interactive, interdependent concept also pertains to the dynamics among the three essential elements: People, Structures, and Content. The ineffectiveness of Agile often arises from a misalignment between these components and the desired Agile business goals. Even with highly adaptable individuals, if the structures they work within are not agile, the anticipated business benefits won’t materialize, leading to frustration instead. Similarly, even with an ultimate agile framework, if the Content or projects are managed in a traditional, sequential way, the same issues will surface. True effectiveness and positive results are only achieved when there’s a harmonious, agile balance and alignment between People, Structures, and Content, all directed towards your business objectives.

Stop doing harmful transformations.

Our quickest advice to avoid failure in your agile transformation is to stop doing certain things:

More on this in other articles in The Stop Agile Transformation list, also on what you should do. But for now, know that warning signs should start flashing when coaches or consultants mention these approaches.

I Can't Just Stop!

You can actually! It has been done before and with amazing results. Stopping is preferable to taking the wrong steps. While inactivity might seem counterintuitive to the agile ethos of action and experimentation, experience teaches us that certain approaches are doomed to fail, no matter how logical or well-presented they may seem in a polished consultant’s slide deck. By steering clear of these common missteps, you can save considerable time and avoid frustration. Instead, begin by asking yourself and your organization: What problem are we trying to solve with the transformation? If you don’t get a fairly common and satisfactory answer across your organisation, don’t transform anything yet. First, identify the Why behind the change — this will be crucial, also later when aligning everyone involved. Avoid adopting someone else’s Why or borrowing it from a book; while these can serve as inspiration, it’s vital to discover a compelling, personalized Why for your business and context. So “Better Sooner Faster” is probably not a good Why. Skilled agile coaches can be instrumental in helping you identify your unique problems and will invariably start setting the course from there.

Start with the Problem

Problems possess a distinct advantage: they are real and tangible, whereas solutions are often numerous and uncertain. We might speculate on potential solutions, but in a complex world, predicting outcomes is nearly impossible. Conversely, problems can typically be thoroughly analyzed and defined. It may require some effort and learning new skills, but understanding problems is a task that has been successfully undertaken many times before. Therefore, the initial step we recommend isn’t uniquely agile but rather foundational: Start by gathering qualitative and quantitative data on your problems. If you’re unsure of your specific problems, it's often a sign of a lack of trust in your organisation, and you should address that problem first. Find out how in this article: Stop picture-perfect management! Enjoy your journey; we would love to share it with you.

Manage the system, not just the people.

TLDR: Manage Things, Lead People

  1. Get the Why of the transformation crystal clear.
  2. Let the How evolve with the What.
  3. Stop hands-on micro-managing your day-to-day.
  4. Three dimensions need to be addressed: People, Structures and Content.
  5. Stop: Culture implementation, Copy-paste a model, Big-bang, Bottom-up or top-down transformation.
  6. What problem are we trying to solve?
  7. Share your problems and ask your questions.
Let us know what you want to know.

This article is part of the Stop Agile Transformation! list. Let us know what topic you would like to see covered in there.

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Martijn Oost

Natural born Agilista, Lean product thinker, Chief Trouble Maker.