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.

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