Aberrations of the Agile Transformation

Not every­thing that has trans­for­ma­tion in neon let­ters on its cov­er actu­al­ly is a trans­for­ma­tion. It all starts with the erro­neous assump­tion that agili­ty can boost employ­ee per­for­mance just like some sort of con­cen­trat­ed feed. Mis­guid­ed by this promise of greater effi­cien­cy, an agile trans­for­ma­tion is then ordered from the top and proven blue­prints (Spo­ti­fy and Co.) are eval­u­at­ed and rolled out. This ulti­mate­ly leads to an “agiliza­tion” of the exist­ing encrust­ed struc­tures and process­es with­out rig­or­ous­ly ques­tion­ing them. In the end there is hard­ly any trans­for­ma­tion left but only agile label fraud: Same same but different.

Agile Concentrated Feed

Per­fec­tion of means and con­fu­sion of goals seem, in my opin­ion, to char­ac­ter­ize our age.

Albert Ein­stein

An agile trans­for­ma­tion often has a sig­nif­i­cant birth defect. A com­mon mis­con­cep­tion is that agili­ty serves as some sort of con­cen­trat­ed feed to increase employ­ee per­for­mance. Book titles like “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Suther­land (a book worth read­ing and help­ful by the way) quick­ly seduce the avid man­ag­er to this fal­la­cy and deval­ue the agile trans­for­ma­tion from the out­set by focus­ing uni­lat­er­al­ly on efficiency.

Employ­ees are not dairy cows and agile meth­ods are not con­cen­trat­ed feed. Agili­ty does not opti­mize the per­for­mance of indi­vid­u­als, but the per­for­mance and the val­ue stream of the whole sys­tem in which these peo­ple do their work.

Agili­ty is pri­mar­i­ly aimed at effec­tive­ness, not effi­cien­cy. It is about doing the right thing in an unpre­dictable and com­plex envi­ron­ment rather than work­ing through well-known and planned tasks more effi­cient­ly. The focus of agili­ty is on deliv­er­ing cus­tomer val­ue quick­ly. On the one hand, of course, to cre­ate val­ue quick­ly and con­stant­ly increase it. On the oth­er hand, how­ev­er, also to gain empir­i­cal­ly sup­port­ed insights for the fur­ther devel­op­ment from cus­tomer interaction.

Transform Yourself!

As tempt­ing as blue­prints and their large-scale imple­men­ta­tion may look, it is pre­cise­ly this that leads the agile trans­for­ma­tion into a dead end.

Mar­cus Raitner

The lead­er­ship task in agile trans­for­ma­tion is not to select the best mod­el of an agile orga­ni­za­tion from the vari­ety of blue­prints or to design one of its own and then roll it out. This tra­di­tion­al­ly cen­tral­is­tic top-down approach vio­lates the core agile prin­ci­ple of self-orga­ni­za­tion. It degrades peo­ple and teams to pas­sive­ly affect­ed object, although the goal of the trans­for­ma­tion must be autonomous, self-respon­si­ble sub­jects active­ly shap­ing the change. 

Those who want to pre­vent their agile trans­for­ma­tion from get­ting stuck in this dead end must leave behind their for­mer role as chess mas­ters and lead like gar­den­ers. The actu­al task is to cre­ate a set­ting in which such an orga­ni­za­tion­al mod­el grad­u­al­ly emerges from the coop­er­a­tion of self-orga­niz­ing teams. This is a process of joint learn­ing that can­not be accel­er­at­ed with blue­prints. If you try it any­way, you just intro­duce a new orga­ni­za­tion­al mod­el and con­duct a trans­for­ma­tion, but agile will be nei­ther one.

Same same but different!

I sup­pose it is tempt­ing, if the only tool you have is a ham­mer, to treat every­thing as if it were a nail.

Abra­ham Maslow

A swal­low does­n’t make a sum­mer and a few agile projects in hip rooms with bean­bags and Kan­ban boards don’t make an agile orga­ni­za­tion. Agile projects do not lead to agile orga­ni­za­tions if they are embed­ded in encrust­ed struc­tures, from the approval of the project to the oblig­a­tory steer­ing com­mit­tees. And it is also not enough to impose the shiny new agile meth­ods on these struc­tures and process­es and some­how “agilize” them: Same same but dif­fer­ent.

To suc­cumb to the Law of the Instru­ment – after its inven­tor Abra­ham Maslow also called “Maslow’s Ham­mer” – and thus to cel­e­brate all kinds of car­go cult is not the solu­tion. Instead, the max­im is “Don’t scale agile – descale your orga­ni­za­tion!” This means that struc­tures and process­es must not sim­ply be giv­en an agile coat­ing, but must be con­sis­tent­ly ques­tioned and rethought in terms of cus­tomer ori­en­ta­tion and the val­ue stream.

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Chris Philpott 21. March 2019 Reply

Hi Mar­cus,
I recent­ly post­ed on PLAZA about this exact same top­ic, although not as elo­quent­ly as you have.

Marcus Raitner 21. March 2019 Reply

Thanks a lot, Chris! (although not many of my read­ers here will be able to fol­low the link to our inter­nal ESN)

Mark Hesler 8. May 2019 Reply

Good stuff Mar­cus! The laws of Human nature prevail.

Marcus Raitner 13. May 2019 Reply

Thanks a lot, Mark.

Niels Pflaeging 27. October 2020 Reply

Great arti­cle!
Are you aware of the Beta­Codex Net­work? I think you will find it being in line with what you are implic­it­ly look­ing for: www.betacodex.org. We also devel­oped an approach for Very Fast Orga­ni­za­tion­al Trans­for­ma­tion- with­out consultants.

Marcus Raitner 1. November 2020 Reply

Thanks, Niels. I’m aware of the Beta­Codex Network.

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