12 Failure Modes of an Agile Transformation

Posted by Jean Tabaka in Agile

The year? 2015. The setting? An Agile transformation near you. The problem? You’ve hit a wall. Despite all your best intentions, you’re still not getting those promised benefits of Agile: speed, quality, value, sustainable growth across your organization. And your problems don’t stop there. You aren’t responding to market threats; you can’t even see market threats; you’re unable to retain great employees; you’re not an industry showcase. In the end, your Agile transformation has brought cynicism and distrust.
You may have heard me talk about “12 Agile Adoption Failure Modes” that concentrated on agile failure in the context of IT teams. Given the expanded adoption of Agile practices in organizations beyond the IT group, the threat of failure is now farther-reaching, with bigger impact.
Now it’s imperative that we look not just at Agile adoption, but at Agile transformation — where organizations move beyond Agile principles within their IT groups to business agility. To accomplish this, we transform from just doing Agile to being Agile.
Over the next few weeks I’ll share with you the top 12 failure modes of an Agile transformation that I’m witnessing in my work with organizations around the globe. The first three center around LEADERSHIP.

1. Lack of Executive Sponsorship

 photo via Flickr CC

This failure mode evidences itself in several different ways and ultimately, it warrants its spot as the number one failure mode and drives all the other failure modes. Also known as “buzzword buy-in,” a lack of executive sponsorship can come at you from two directions
Imagine a small group of techies eager to adopt Agile in their team. With no executive sponsorship, they perform in a stealth environment — sort of a “skunkworks” adoption — under the radar of the existing organizational structure. Why? Because they’re hiding from the hierarchy of management (see the second failure mode, below) which could shut down their effort, and evading the current gate-driven approach to product delivery. While the project may gain some momentum, deliver value faster, and stir the souls of those involved, its sustainability is improbable. Lack of executive sponsorship will limit visibility into the team’s success and provide insufficient support for adoption across subsequent teams. Agile adopted this way will likely die.
In our second scenario, an executive decrees a switch to Agile delivery across the entire IT organization, but there’s no real follow-through: it’s simply a “checkbook commitment.” The executive demands immediate results, yet doesn’t change the metrics by which success is measured. Unengaged, the executive proclamation for an Agile adoption will never move to a true business transformation. At best, without the executive’s continued engagement, the organization will only have pockets of Agile success, typically limited to the team level. The organization will probably grow to blame Agile (and each other) for decreased quality and productivity. And the executive’s resignation letter will conveniently not include the word “Agile” in its summary of successes.
How do we prevent this failure? Leaders must accept that a successful transformation is a journey. Along this journey, leaders seek guidance for a transformation with a broad, sustainable impact. As part of the transformation they make a personal commitment to their teams, and in turn they recognize the personal commitment they are asking of their employees. Executives commit to measuring success differently from before, because the work is different from before. Success now favors value delivery, and time for learning is built into the transformation. Ultimately, success is celebrated across the organization and setbacks are seen not as failures or cause for blame, but as opportunities for learning and growth.

2. Failure to Transform Leader Behaviors

Isn’t it great to have managers who just get things done? They know the right actions to achieve success; they direct their teams to perform these actions; and they have the power to control all aspects of the work and do whatever it takes to get it done.


Let’s pull this apart a little. When a manager tells the team what to do, there’s a false sense of success via control. When a manager powers through difficult circumstances regardless of the impact on the team, they leave the wisdom and the morale of the team behind.
 photo via Flickr Commons
Such a management style is a classic Agile transformation failure mode. All the team-level Agile practices in the world mean nothing if the manager doesn’t embrace a behavior that is more in service to the team than control of the team. Robert Greenleaf’s work identifies the characteristics of what he calls a “servant leader”: one who serves by leading, and leads by serving. An Agile transformation success story hinges on the ability of the leaders in the organization to take on these characteristics:
  • Systematic neglect: knows the limits of how much focus can be allocated to issues; learns what to focus on and what to let go of in order to support the team and achieve goals effectively
  • Acceptance: knows when to let go and trust the instincts of the team; accepts the wisdom of the team and is prepared to support it
  • Listening: facilitates useful and necessary communication, pays attention to what remains unspoken, and is motivated to actively hear what others are saying
  • Language: speaks effectively and non-destructively; clearly and consistently articulates the vision and goals for the team
  • Values: is responsible for building a personal sense of values that are clearly exhibited through consistent actions; supports team behaviors that build their sense of values
  • Tolerance of imperfection: modulates his or her own sense of perfection and offers to each team member an understanding of their strengths and challenges; cares more about “How can I help the team grow?”
  • Goal setting: owns the vision; doesn’t advocate for a personal belief in what is right but rather maintains the goal for a higher purpose, inviting others to align with the vision for the overall good
  • Personal growth: recognizes the value of continually finding diverse disciplines that invite new ways of acting in service to the team, and models this growth behavior to inspire others
  • Withdrawal: knows when to step back and allow the team to figure out its course, versus inflicting a personal sense of what is right for the team; carefully decides what to bring forward and when

3. No Change to the Organizational Infrastructure

What is your current organizational structure? How many layers of management exist around each Agile team? How is governance perceived, and who is ready to break down walls to make sure that value flows through your organization?
 photo via Flickr CC
Failed Agile transformations suffer from an inability to change the existing organizational structure. What do I mean by this? Typical organizations have been set up for sub-optimization: that is, they measure success by departmental performance, versus overall value delivery. Here’s what that looks like: In the book This Is Lean, authors Niklas Modig and Par Ahlstrom depict a soccer field scattered with teams, each one in its own tent. Success is defined as any one team getting the ball out of its tent. But is that really success overall? In this scenario, as in our traditional organizations, we create accidental adversaries. We limit visibility of the organization’s overall effectiveness, and focus on our team’s success at the expense of success for the organization.

True Agile transformations push the boundaries of these existing organizational hierarchies. In the soccer field metaphor, we remove the tents. Now everyone can see where the ball is, where everyone else is, where the goal is positioned, what the referee is indicating, what the coach is saying, and what the scoreboard says. In your effective Agile transformation, you know what the true value is, you know who needs to be involved in order for the value to be delivered, and everyone associated with the value delivery has visibility into the current state of the value stream, including its blocks. They see the goal as successful delivery of value to the customer, and they coordinate as a whole to deliver that value.

Here’s another symptom that your organizational infrastructure is crippling your Agile transformation: Does your organization cling to a notion of efficiency based on resource usage — believing that loading people to 100% capacity is the best way to get work done, and then measuring people annually by how well they deliver in this fully-loaded mode?
To incent greater collaboration and communication, you need to revisit how you appraise work. Instead of annually, by individual, 100% utilized, with MBOs set 12 months earlier, you should invite frequent feedback; focus more on team effectiveness; and bias performance appraisal toward efficiency of value flow versus efficiency of workers.
If you’re not feeling the discomfort change brings, you aren’t truly transforming. If your transformation isn’t requiring you to invest in the technology and culture to support a new mode of visibility and collaboration, you aren’t truly transforming. If you’re adopting some Agile practices at the project level without looking at the bigger picture, your Agile transformation is poised for failure. And Agile, not the failure to transform the organization, will get the blame.

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