Why Agile Transformations Fail — Reason #3

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This article is part of a 13-piece blog series published by Verena Zoehrer, innovation consultant at viable — innovation consulting and rapid prototyping.

Rapidly changing market conditions and customer needs are forcing organizations to become more flexible and adaptive. The key ingredients to success are empowerment, customer orientation, direct feedback, iterative development and cross-functional teams. All of these benefits are offered by the concept of agility. It is said to be the next success factor deciding on the survival of organizations. However, the full benefits of agility can only be achieved if a company has the ability to (1) respond to changes in proper ways and due time and (2) exploit changes by taking them as opportunities. As you can see, transforming an organization to become agile is easier said than done. While many companies are starting to adopt agile methodologies, they often fail when linking concepts to specific actions.

“13 reasons why agile transformations fail” is the result of many interviews conducted with people working in companies of different sizes and industries. I’ve already talked about the first two reasons — culture and supporting IT systems — and now it’s time to talk about the third:

Reason #3: Spending months on planning

Many organizations spend months on establishing roadmaps and detailed plans before actually kicking off the transformation. What can be observed very often is that an exclusive team, including top-level managers and external advisers, hide in an office and start planning behind locked doors. No information should leak to the team too early. This procedure can be traced back to the classical models of change management. Some of the most famous researchers recommended it and I have to admit, it has worked very well for the last decades. One of these methodologies, developed by Kurt Lewin in 1947, is the freeze-unfreeze-refreeze theory. The researcher was of the opinion that an organization experiences a long period of stability, disrupted by a major organizational change and, afterwards, slowly moves back to a stable condition. In the so-called refreeze period, the major shift that has occurred should be anchored in the organization. Many companies followed this approach and achieved great organizational transformations.

FLEXIBILITY IS KEY

However, looking at today’s dynamic markets, there are no prolonged periods of stability anymore. Regardless of the industry or the size of a company, no organization can confidently plan for the long term anymore. This is why companies need to react fast and flexibly and be brave enough to take a leap into the unknown. This also holds true for agile transformations.

· “There is not really a phase of preparation; it happens more on the way. Done is better than perfect. This is an agile core principle.“

· “We did not prepare ourselves, we just did it.”

· “Very, very important: we have never presented finished things, but always the status quo and what could be possible next steps. We did this very early in a wave movement and gradually involved a larger number of people.”

· “It’s always better to jump into something and see how it works than to talk for a long time about methods. I think it makes more sense to learn as you go.”

· “Our preparation phase was relatively long. We should have connected the preparation to the implementation and done it simultaneously — start experimenting immediately. We just spent a relatively long time on a theoretical level. That is the opposite of agile.”

· “We did 12 small pilot projects in the first year, and the good thing is that out of those 12 projects, 9 were successful which was more than in classical projects. It was a clear signal that there might be something good here. Starting small was very important for us as a traditional, large company.”

· “Start small, do not change everything at once. Start with one team and learn from it.”

· “Start fast and small is definitely a secret of success. I would definitely do that again. It is not a change- everything-within-6-months because you have to learn as you go, and with these pilot projects we learned a lot. (…) Fast results. This is why starting small is so important.”

DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT

The underlying problem is not the theory of classical transformations, but that managers are still afraid of communicating or starting something which has not yet been developed to the last detail. Each step is meticulously planned in order to gain security; failing or taking wrong decisions is still perceived as negative. However, this attitude does not comply with agile values and it does not meet the new market requirements. No matter how good your plans are, they will be outdated long before you are ready to communicate them. Therefore, as stated in the agile manifesto, “done is better than perfect.” An organization should embrace experimenting and encourage failing. This is why starting an agile transformation with small pilot projects is crucial for success, because it allows people to try, fail and learn. Communicate thoughts and emotions and respond to change rather than follow a plan. This is one of the key ingredients to becoming agile.

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Agarwal, R., & Helfat, C. E. (2009). Strategic renewal of organizations. Organization science, 20(2), 281–293.

Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: a model for successful change. Journal of organizational change management.

Beck, K., et al. (2001). Manifesto for agile software development.

Cameron, E., & Green, M. (2019). Making sense of change management: A complete guide to the models, tools and techniques of organizational change. Kogan Page Publishers.

Lewin, 1947; zited by Zand, D. E., & Sorensen, R. E. (1975). Theory of change and the effective use of management science. Administrative Science Quarterly, 532–545.

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