The Agile Transformation as a Joint Learning Journey

Agile trans­for­ma­tion is not a change project designed by con­sul­tants and ordered by top man­age­ment, how­ev­er much some peo­ple sell­ing panaceas may prop­a­gate it. Agile trans­for­ma­tion is a joint learn­ing jour­ney that includes all lev­els of the hier­ar­chy. The task of lead­er­ship in trans­for­ma­tion is first to explain the pur­pose of change and to deter­mine the new course, but then to take a step back and cre­ate a frame­work in which those affect­ed can coura­geous­ly embark on the joint learn­ing jour­ney of transformation.

Height Times Width

As much as I love cul­tured rebel­lion and grass­roots move­ments, in today’s hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions their effec­tive­ness is always lim­it­ed. Such move­ments can reach an amaz­ing breadth and mobi­lize many com­rades-in-arms. But most of the time they are com­rades-in-arms at the foot of the pyra­mid. With­out the lev­els above, this move­ment remains flat and is sup­pressed when in doubt.

Peo­ple don’t resist change – they resist being changed.

Peter Sen­ge

But pre­scrib­ing the agile trans­for­ma­tion from above alone is just as inef­fec­tive. Too often, employ­ees have had to expe­ri­ence this clas­sic change pat­tern, pri­mar­i­ly accom­pa­nied by exter­nal con­sult­ing firms. The reac­tion is auto­mat­i­cal­ly pas­sive-aggres­sive rejec­tion in the sense of what Peter Kruse describes in this video as “baw” for “bend and wait”, just lean back and wait until the big fuss is over. (This amaz­ing talk about the “Eight Rules for Total Grid­lock in the Orga­ni­za­tion” is unfor­tu­nate­ly in Ger­man; how­ev­er, thanks to there is a com­plete tran­scrip­tion avail­able.) 

Eight Rules for Total Grid­lock in the Orga­ni­za­tion by Prof. Peter Kruse

A suc­cess­ful agile trans­for­ma­tion requires both height and width. The larg­er the prod­uct of height and width, the bet­ter the con­di­tions for suc­cess. Nei­ther should the feel­ing arise that the man­agers are rebuild­ing the rest with­out also ques­tion­ing them­selves, nor should the rebel­lion at the grass root degen­er­ate into a destruc­tive par­ti­san fight between the bot­tom and the top. The trans­for­ma­tion can only suc­ceed together.

Joint Learning Journey Instead of Change Project

There are no blue­prints for an agile orga­ni­za­tion and no mas­ter plan for trans­for­ma­tion, no mat­ter how con­vinc­ing the promis­es of cer­tain con­sul­tants may sound. The attempt to impose panaceas and appar­ent­ly proven mod­els on one’s own orga­ni­za­tion leads to car­go cult hell and inevitably ends in a dead end.

A good trav­el­er has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

Lao Tzu

Not because the mod­els are wrong or bad, but because they are not the result of joint effort. The agile trans­for­ma­tion is and remains a jour­ney into the unknown, on which the par­tic­i­pants try out and learn togeth­er. This learn­ing can be accel­er­at­ed by net­work­ing and exchange, but not short­ened by blue­prints and panaceas.

Humility and Participation

If you want to dry up the pond, don’t ask the frogs.” This sen­tence sounds log­i­cal and fun­ny, but is sim­ply stu­pid and arro­gant as a guide­line for changes involv­ing peo­ple. The agile trans­for­ma­tion only suc­ceeds when peo­ple are allowed to par­tic­i­pate with equal dig­ni­ty. Only in this way peo­ple can become active­ly involved sub­jects of change act­ing respon­si­bly in the sense of the whole instead of just pas­sive­ly affect­ed objects.

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart peo­ple and tell them what to do; we hire smart peo­ple so they can tell us what to do.

Steve Jobs

On the one hand, the lead­er­ship task is to state the mis­sion clear­ly and attrac­tive­ly and to excite the peo­ple about it with­out already impos­ing the fin­ished solu­tion on them. On the oth­er hand, good lead­er­ship in trans­for­ma­tion is char­ac­ter­ized by mod­esty with regard to one’s own lim­it­ed abil­i­ties to know the right way cou­pled with great con­fi­dence in the cre­ativ­i­ty of the affect­ed employ­ees to find exact­ly this way together.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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