Agile as a starter for organizational transformation?

by Markus Tacker

: Agile as a starter for organizational transformation?

I was a first-timer at this years Agile Cologne XXL, a two-day open-space dedicated to the exchange about the Agile Movement. Needless to say I was not sure, what to expect, given that I didn't know anybody from the roughly 80 attendees. But it turned out to be a very well organized event and I had two great days, learning and sharing in an open-space format (you can find the session plans here: Sunday, Monday). Most of the attendees were either scrum masters, product owners or consultants that teach people how to fill this roles. Tech people were rather underrepresented, which actually is a good thing: I find getting to know other perspectives to be very helpful in your day to day work. Especially we as developers are notoriously sticking to "our people" … if we leave our workplace at all.

Agile as a starter for organizational transformation?

Now for the part that kept me busy during these two days; a lot of the sessions dealt with variants of this question:

How can my team and I work in an agile fashion, while the rest of my organisation is not agile?

The experience of many attendees is, that many companies are running their agile projects mainly for two reasons that are driven by management

  1. increase the output of IT projects,
  2. make more profit.

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Oftentimes it seems to be a decision based on hearsay ("We've heard about this new thing, that everyone else does, so lets do it, too!"). Improving product quality and customer satisfactions rarely are the driving factors nor is improving the working conditions for employees.

The missing understanding of the core values behind the agile movement and the disposition as experiments obviously leads to a lot of friction and conflicts between the agile teams and the rest of the company and puts these teams under extra pressure. Now they are not only quested with the success of the project using a new way to work with which they have no experience but with leading the implementing agile within the whole organization.

These endeavors are bound to fail and the failure will be attributed to shortcomings of the agile methodology and not to the inability of classical, hierarchical structures to support agile teams at all.

To ask for advice how to make these agile teams or projects "work" in these circumstances is one option, but that does not fix the root cause of the problem: the organization itself.

Network organizations are an enabler for agility, self-organisation and creates a focus on delivering customer value. These are environments in which agile teams can thrive and will be successful.

So I set out and collected problems agile teams face in order to show, that there are indeed solutions to these problem, but they usually are not that obvious and need to be applied at a different level in order to become effective.

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You can find the long list here, and I'm sure it can easily be extended even further. After I had this material, I used the evening in the hotel to compile our tools and measures of choice we use to fix these problems. I wanted to show, that there is a solution to every single problem. It might not be simple, but we've done it in the past. This flipchart gives you an idea. "Unfortunately" we had a very lively discussion, so the note-taking-part on my side came a little short but I was able to show a fix for every problem, and I might go into some of them in the comments, if you are interested.

Agile is a seed, and seeds need a soil

My takeaway from the conference is that agile practitioners need to identify the root causes for the problems and stop trying to handle the symptoms.

You can't just plant an agile project into your organization without providing the grounds for it to grow roots.