The Borg Effect: Assimilation Instead of Transformation

When agile meth­ods encounter encrust­ed struc­tures of tra­di­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions, one can­not auto­mat­i­cal­ly expect a sus­tain­able trans­for­ma­tion. It is much more like­ly that the new prac­tices will be inte­grat­ed into the exist­ing struc­tures as smooth­ly as pos­si­ble through assim­i­la­tion. As an Agile coach, you might feel as secure and effec­tive as Jean-Luc Picard in the cap­tiv­i­ty of the Borg.

Cor­po­ra­tions orga­nize the col­lab­o­ra­tion of numer­ous experts to accom­plish some­thing big togeth­er, such as devel­op­ing cars and pro­duc­ing them with con­sis­tent­ly high qual­i­ty at com­pet­i­tive prices. Such orga­ni­za­tions are accus­tomed to struc­tur­ing their long-term projects with com­pli­cat­ed plans. Much effort goes into pre­cise­ly record­ing the work progress dur­ing the project and even more into coor­di­nat­ing every­one involved. It is, there­fore, hard­ly sur­pris­ing that agile meth­ods, above all Scrum, fall on fer­tile ground in these tra­di­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions. After all, get­ting results deliv­ered every sprint and always hav­ing full trans­paren­cy on sta­tus and progress, glad­ly sup­port­ed with tools like JIRA, is very appeal­ing to managers.

Sym­bol­ic image: The adap­ta­tion of agile meth­ods in tra­di­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions (Source: YouTube)

This kind of incor­po­ra­tion of agile prac­tices into the clas­sic method­olog­i­cal canon of plan and con­trol resem­bles the mis­use of a cord­less screw­driv­er as a ham­mer. The new tool looks spiffy and gives its user the appear­ance of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and moder­ni­ty. It fits nice­ly in the hand and quick­ly dri­ves the nail into the wood. But doubts remain because the grandiose ben­e­fits tout­ed by con­sul­tants and coach­es have yet to mate­ri­al­ize. Some undy­ing doubters even believe their good old ham­mer would per­form just as reliably.

Even though a well-known book title by Jeff Suther­land promis­es to get twice as much done in half the time with Scrum (Suther­land, 2019), agile meth­ods do not aim at work­ing through a fixed scope bet­ter or faster. Instead, the aspi­ra­tion is to max­i­mize “the amount of work not done,” as stat­ed in the prin­ci­ples behind the Man­i­festo for Agile Soft­ware Devel­op­ment. The short cycles and fre­quent deliv­er­ies are not for the project man­ag­er to check progress but for the cause itself. They help the team learn empir­i­cal­ly, i.e., through expe­ri­ence, what works and what does­n’t in volatile, uncer­tain, com­plex, and ambigu­ous sit­u­a­tions. Agile meth­ods aim to do the right things, or at least to try the wrong things with as lit­tle risk as pos­si­ble. They ensure that the lad­der is lean­ing against the right wall, not that the false wall is paint­ed more efficiently.

We are the Borg. Low­er your shields and sur­ren­der your ships. We will add your bio­log­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tive­ness to our own. Your cul­ture will adapt to ser­vice us. Resis­tance is futile.

Star Trek: First Contact
Cap­tain Jean-Luc Picard after his assim­i­la­tion by the Borg. Any per­ceived sim­i­lar­i­ty as an Agile Coach in a large cor­po­ra­tion is pure­ly coin­ci­den­tal. (Source: Wikipedia)

Large and tra­di­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions behave like the Borg in Star Trek, those cyber­net­ic organ­isms that assim­i­late tech­nolo­gies and knowl­edge from oth­er species. How­ev­er, the new is not used for trans­for­ma­tion; instead, the orga­ni­za­tion’s struc­ture remains unchanged main­ly (appro­pri­ate­ly, the Borg star­ship is shaped like a mas­sive cube). The goal is mere­ly to add to and per­fect the capa­bil­i­ties of the col­lec­tive. What appears use­ful is absorbed and inte­grat­ed, and what does­n’t fit is made to fit. Resis­tance is futile.

Many agile trans­for­ma­tions are more of an assim­i­la­tion of some agile prac­tices with­out ques­tion­ing the struc­ture at large or rethink­ing the val­ue streams from an agile per­spec­tive. One unmis­tak­able sign of this is that exist­ing func­tion­al­ly ori­ent­ed depart­ments are being “agilized.” Such “agile” spec­i­fi­ca­tion teams, test teams, mar­ket­ing teams, secu­ri­ty teams, etc., work through the same tasks as before, orga­nized into three-week sprints. Such assim­i­la­tion does not improve the orga­ni­za­tion’s adapt­abil­i­ty or respon­sive­ness, but the new cord­less screw­driv­er fits nice­ly in the hand and looks professional.


Suther­land, J. (2019). Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time. rh Ran­dom House Business.

Share This Post

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.

Leave a Reply