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.
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
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.