The Limitations Of Agile Adoption In A Legacy World

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This article is part of a series titled A brief History Of The Organization

In most cases, Agile Transformation doesn’t bring the expected improvements to organizational agility

Unfortunately, when many organizations adopt agile, I don’t see them go beyond a limited threshold of change. Is agile adoption worth it? Done well, the answer is yes! But is it enough? I would have to say no.

Many would say that Agile has not brought about expected improvements simply because of the way people have adopted it. Indeed, many in the agile industry hold their nose at the variety of agile that has taken hold in many large organizations. We use terms like Flagile (Flaccid Agile), Wagile (Waterfall Agile), Fragile (Fragile Agile), Smagile (Smashed together agile), Heavy Weight Agile, Hybrid Agile, to describe the results we often see.

Glass Tables and Pyrex Shattering
Did something break my agile, or did my agile break something?

There are a lot of very imperfect stories related to agile adoption, along the journey. Some would even call them horror stories. I know I have been involved in several that were pretty disappointing.

Agile Adoption Efforts are Often Rooted in Industrial Era Motivations.

A true shift towards a people centric approach means we need to examine the entire organization. Yet most agile transformations take root in the technology departments, specifically the application development parts of the organization. Taking one part of an org and improving it is not so bad in itself (you have to start somewhere). However, internal departments are often motivated by internal targets. These targets often have an industrial era feel to them.

I want faster. I want cheaper. I want more. I have heard this mantra on many occasion. But the reality is we don’t make organizations fit for an uncertain world by thinking about improvements in this way.

We become fit for a complex world when we slow down enough to stop making stupid mistake, putting breaks in place so we can improve on what we are doing. If is from going slow that we learn how to go fast. Success also comes from doing less work, but more of the right thing.

Winter Safety - Slip & Fall
This is agile, right?

Most paradoxically moving towards agility drives up cost from a purely widget building perspective. We get more agility when we inject feedback into our work and deliberately iterate based on that feedback. This means we accept re-work and even removal of things that don’t add value. If you are a bean counter this will make things seem more expensive. But you end up building something that has value,

When we start adopting agile in what is still a largely industrial organization, we often manage it through the lens of a more legacy oriented mindset. A standardized agile methodology comes first, next comes the standard tooling that everyone *has* to use, then comes the targets. Then comes the governance. Very little self-organization actually takes place. Very little changes in the grand scheme of things.

Agile Transformations are Limited in Their Scope Of Change

By their very definition, agile adoptions are focused on how teams deliver software, at least that is where most of the agile literature resides, and where most agile adoptions have taken hold. Now it is true that variants of agile have integrates with Lean and other thinking to take a more expansive view, but that has not changed the reality that the rest of the organization is often only peripherally involved in the journey. If we want teams to own outcomes and iterate on market feedback than a lot more players need to be a part of the story. Executives, Finance, Compliance, Security, Marketing, HR, Legal all need a serious rethink if we are to successfully organize are for an uncertain world

why didn’t a coat of agile paint change everything?

Perhaps our expectations on what we believe agile can do to move organizations forward were a little mismatched. It seems that agile, when adopted by hierarchical organization, with commands flowing from functional departments to specialist workers, only does a little to move that organization from the industrial age to our modern era.

Agile, and other things like it (think Lean, Design Thinking, Corp Innovation, etc) ask a lot of positional leaders and everyday workers. It asks for a complete rethink, a questioning of values, and a belief in a new mode of operation. The reasons Agile, Lean, etc give to make this change, ie staying competitive, happier customers, happier workers, etc. seem to inspire what is typically only surface level changes. Perhaps a more meaningful reason is required to motivate leaders and others to take the serious risk and introspection required to truly operate with a different mindset.

So, agile is not leading to an organizational rethink. The evidence seems to point out the opposite is true.

A combination of lean and agile methods work amazingly well when leaders are already rethinking their organization with an eye towards decentralization and autonomy. When the prep work is done to promote conditions required for self-organizing teams to own meaningful outcomes.

I could see agile working here…

When we make these changes then agile practices work well, very well. Agile methods take hold organically, and the thinking comes naturally.

I will posit that Agile is not the real change that organizations need to make. Agile is something that you can do because of a change you are already making.

A change that is both more systematic and more personal. A change that asks us to look at our organization as a reflection of the self, and look at how shifting one will shift the other. A change that allows us to organize forward, to enable organizing with humanity at scale. A change that is inspired by a much more compelling imperative than winning at the market

Up Next: The Three Principles Of Organizing Forward

In Summary

  • Agile is largely a software centric approach adopted mostly by teams in technology groups
  • Internal departments often adopt agile, and concepts like it for the wrong reasons, and guide the adoption through the lens of a legacy mindset, which limits the impact of adopting agile
  • When taken into an organization that is doing the prep work to become more human, agile can work very well
  • The real challenge is how to shift our-selves and the organizations we work in so that we can operate with humanity at larger scale.
  • A true shift in thinking cannot be inspired by the typical goals of markets, speed, etc it needs to be motivated by something deeper

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