A "real" agile transformation, ok... but what are the prerequisites?

Written by Guillaume Dutey-Harispe, on 02 April 2019

Whether succumbing to a trend or genuinely attempting to heal an organization that has exhausted its conventional solutions, "agile transformation" can seem like a magical remedy for crisis resolution.

However, when these transformations bear fruit, it's not due to any "magic" but rather the presence of favorable prerequisites.

In this post, I aim to outline the experiences I have lived through and the favorable principles that make it possible to initiate a transformation journey that takes into account the systemic dimension of organizations. I'll also discuss how these favorable prerequisites lead to the construction of clarity of intention.

1 - Acknowledge that it's not working

If you deliver on time, your clients are always satisfied, your employees are engaged (and not leaving), you're making money, and you can handle growth—basically, if everything is going well, don't change anything. You're probably close to your optimal operating state. This doesn't mean you can't improve, but if you're experiencing persistent challenges (quality, deadlines, turnover) that your current processes aren't resolving, it might be time for a reality check. List objectively what isn't working well.

What's the purpose of this list? To identify what you want to leave behind, preferably linked to objective and measurable points. What's it not for? Searching immediately for solutions to each problem.

2- Identify your strengths

You are currently delivering value. Perhaps not optimally, but sufficiently for your clients to appreciate you and for employees to take pride in their work. And speaking of employees: they are likely among the foremost assets of your organization. Through their professionalism, experience, and effective human relationships, they often deliver value despite procedures, challenging consultations, changing client preferences, and communication difficulties.

Take time to highlight all these strengths, all these virtuous behaviors, perhaps through an appreciative inquiry. Because what you do well—and what feels good—we want to keep for the future.

3 - Acknowledge that you can't "improve" the existing system

"It would go better if everyone followed the procedures, if people were conscientious and paid attention, if roles and responsibilities were better defined." Better defined likely meaning even more precisely described. And if reporting tools were even more precise, more detailed. Or if we finally found a solution to each of the problems identified in point #1.

However, according to the systemic rule outlined by Peter Senge 30 years ago, "today's problems come from yesterday's solutions." It will be necessary to mourn a system that, while producing fruit and coherence, has reached the maximum capacity to manage complexity.

By the way: it's the system that has reached the limit of its capacity to manage complexity. The system; not the individuals.

4 - Define a clear mandate for experimentation

To truly enter into a systemic approach, it will be necessary to challenge the sponsor on the clarity of the experimentation mandate given to the organization. It should be in their mind a mandate for experimentation. Not a transformation mandate, which would imply they know where they're going (or worse, that we consultants know where they should go), but an experimentation mandate in which they are included. In an experiment, the mandate allows for a protected practice of a shared exploration of new working rules as a team.

What will allow the agile transformation to tackle complexity (hence the name agile or systemic) is not the installation of processes with English names or changing the format of reporting meetings. What will make the agile transformation is conducting it iteratively, incrementally, and adaptively. Learning as you go and using that learning to produce directly usable and applicable knowledge by teams and employees.

To carry out this experimentation, the coaching contract that you establish in co-construction with the sponsor and teams will set the limits allowing the permission/protection of your experimentation.

5 - Protect the teams

During the discovery of new regulations, many "professional identities" will be shaken. Even if the learning brings value, some may perceive "it works better than before" as a personal challenge. Others may find themselves protecting, at all costs, ways of functioning or prerogatives that seem essential to their professions.

These visible demonstrations need to be handled gently, listened to patiently, and the tempo of the transformation-experimentation must respect them.

Using stress on teams to drive a transformation (agile or not) is an absurd practice, even if it may have been part of the repertoire of solutions for some high-flying consulting firms. It guarantees, in addition to workplace suffering, the collapse of collective intelligence and the abrupt loss of fundamental knowledge.

"You don't manage knowledge workers; they manage themselves" according to Peter Drucker's formula, unfortunately forgotten for a few decades.

6 - Set success benchmarks (objectives and subjective)

In the list of points that are not working (see #1), some can be translated positively into objective points: quality return rate, number of open bugs, average time to release features, response time to a call for bids, sick leave, turnover. But it's also possible to measure more subjective points: customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, virtuous behaviors at work.

In the experimentation framework, you may need to set aside certain management tools [time, for example...] that will lead to a feeling of organizational "blur." Having set success benchmarks will help you qualify the stage of your experimentation. It will also show external people to the transformation that "different" doesn't necessarily mean "worse."

7 - Be "okay"... with the fact that the right "solution" won't be found on the first try

Systems are sometimes more reasonable than we are: they learn to be satisfied with what they are and practice self-regulation (homeostasis) to avoid abrupt revolutions. There is a strong presumption that the organization will go back and forth between the initial elements that were moved and the target solutions.

This systemic stability is certainly "painful" (we want to go fast), but also beneficial (if we make a mistake, we have the opportunity to turn back).

The next step will be to be okay... with the fact that finding a good organization once and for all is, in the land of complexity, an illusion. But everything in its time.

These "few steps" are certainly just preamble. However, they already set the bar high for individual and collective awareness.

Certainly, organizations can afford to function, for a while, without a clear identification of the meaning that binds them. However, is it possible for them to undergo a profound transformation without identifying the meaning that drives their evolution, the intention that guides them?

And you? What would be your intention then?


  • * La cinquième discipline (1990 & 2016), Peter Senge
  • ** The Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959), Peter Drucker