The Fallacy of Establishing an Agile Organization

7 min

Have you been thinking of establishing an agile organization in your company? Think twice. And then, think again…

When enterprises embark on digital transformation journeys, they often pursue the implementation of agile organization structures along with the technological changes. And in most cases, they fail. They fail because they’ve adopted the flawed understanding that “going agile” means simply introducing a specific form of organization. In reality, an agile organization is one in which a distinct collaborative culture is established. Consider the following:

The Agile Manifesto was crafted as a set of values and principles

“Agile” practices developed in several forms long before the term itself was coined in 2001. Throughout the 1990s, so-called lightweight software development methods like Rapid Application Development (RAD), Extreme Programming (XP), and Scrum evolved and suggested that there is a better way to organize and perform than by following the traditional, predictive project management methods.

But when the crème de la crème of lightweight software developers met in Snowbird, Utah in 2001, they did not postulate “The Ten Holy Laws of How to Organize Software Development.” Instead, they crafted the Agile Manifesto as a set of values and principles that would become the North Star for all existing and arising agile methods and practices.

Agile frameworks focus on practices, not structures

Subsequently, agile frameworks gained traction as they provided easy guidance on how to operationalize these values and principles. To a certain extent, this included an elaboration of organizational aspects but overwhelmingly the common focus of these methods was on describing the practices that had proven effective in real life.

One of the best examples of implementing agile practices is Scrum and its core “facilitator,” the Scrum Master: even though the method specifically defines the Scrum Master’s role (in an organizational kind of way), the “facilitator” is simply an enabler of practices. Not granted any command or control, the Scrum Master is meant to be the guardian of the agile values and principles, the emcee of the rituals and practices, and the catalyst of collaboration and communication.

As the prominence of agile methods increased beyond pure software development projects and as businesses became more interested in exploiting its obvious benefits, questions of how to organize agile at a large scale arose. Companies regularly struggled to introduce and integrate agile practices across various teams and organizational units.

Additional frameworks like SAFe, Nexus, and LeSS were developed, providing different sets of organizational and procedural workflow patterns intended to guide enterprises in scaling up lean and agile practices in an organizational context. In its latest versions, SAFe depicts an organizational structure that spans well beyond traditional product development spheres.

Agile methods are human-centered

Originally, agile methods and frameworks developed in response to developers’ dissatisfaction with existing organizational structures and related heavyweight software development and “waterfall” project management methods. With their excessive focus on planning and controlling progress, those “traditional” approaches were considered inflexible in their response to change, ineffective in delivering a satisfactory customer experience, and the root cause of immense organizational waste. In short, they were perceived as inefficient and de-motivating. That’s not exactly what we would call forward thinking.

As a consequence, the creators of the Agile Manifesto explicitly stressed their belief that individuals, interactions, and collaboration should be imbued with greater value than processes, tools, and documentation. Therefore, their values and principles emphasized human-centric aspects such as customer satisfaction, motivated individuals that should be trusted, and self-organizing teams that pursue continuous learning.

Agile as a culture rather than a form of organization

All of the above highlights that thinking of agile methods and frameworks as different forms of organization falls short of understanding what “agile” really is—that is, a culture of human-centric, customer-focused and results-oriented collaboration practices. In essence, these practices are explicitly designed to decrease the necessity for formal organizational structures and processes while simultaneously improving the performance of the enterprise in terms of quality of service, speed of delivery, and financial results.

At this moment, let’s reflect on the aspect of culture for a second. Corporate culture is mainly driven by the mindsets, communication, and behaviors of the individuals that interact within an organization. As such, any plan to change a (corporate) culture would begin by influencing people’s way of perceiving things and would end with them adapting—for example—to a new way of working.

Communication is key to make this transition. Often, it’s a company’s top management itself that torpedoes the success of an agile transformation initiative by sending ambiguous or contradictory messages – either verbally or through improvident behavior.  Therefore, transformation leaders must be considerate of their attitude on display and are well advised to find an appropriate language that will resonate with their employees and other stakeholders.

Dear CEO: It’s time to embrace and lead the agile revolution

Business executives should thus  be cautious in defining an “agile organization” as part of a transformation vision and should refer to it instead as an “agile working culture.” Already, by simply rephrasing the goal, it becomes transparent that the lever to achieve this goal is not to redefine organizational structures but to start with the social side of change. There are many stakeholders to align and convince before corresponding transformational change can be implemented effectively.

More important in this sense is to start “embracing agile” top down—with all its consequences. It is not enough to simply proclaim agile values and principles—management needs to embody them. You may well start small but it is important to show your dedication to walk down this road. As the principal transformation agent, the management board must be an active part of the practices and rituals; if this is achieved, the rest of the organization will follow suit.

Should you, Dear CEO, be asking yourself whether your active participation is really required, then let me ask you a question (again, please consider the subtext): Do you consider yourself to be

  • a director,
  • an executive,
  • or a leader?

I rest my case.

Beware the agile religion: The seven sins of implementation

In shaping your corporate culture, you can effectively lay the groundwork to truly become an agile organization. But be aware of the following pitfalls you can potentially stumble into:

  1. A lack of understanding can prevent your employees from buying into the initiative. Thoroughly educating and enabling your current stakeholders will improve know-why and know-how.
  2. Structural resistance will occur when agile is introduced on an organizational level and in a dedicated area only. Engaging in a comprehensive cultural overhaul will help minimize opposition and drag.
  3. An insufficient integration of principles and practices will cause friction and frustration for all parties involved, if not resolved effectively. Ensure that legacy structures and processes do not deflate the balloons that shall let rise your agile vision.
  4. A lack of leadership commitment is likely the single biggest reason for failure. Providing unambiguous executive gravity to the initiative is essential to overcome the problems that you will surely face.
  5. Overambition can cause disappointment if progress does not keep up with expectations. Design your agile transition with an agile mindset: iterative, incremental delivery of value, short feedback cycles and a limited amount of work in progress.
  6. Religious-like attitudes of “agile champions” and corresponding disputes about the best method or tool to use can trigger opposition of more pragmatic or even skeptic team members. Make sure the practices and tools don’t become goals in themselves.
  7. Insufficient proof of performance may have your investors question your transformation success. Establish a suitable set of metrics that help you gather and report the information and data needed to show your transformation is garnering the desired results.

To summarize: Refrain from targeting an agile organization. Envision an agile corporate culture. Lead your pack by expressing your executive commitment—and acting accordingly. Define a realistic roadmap. Then, organize accordingly. Iterate, inspect, and adapt. Succeed.

Recommended posts