Agile Transformation: Comparing Transformation Strategies

Three-legged stool

In Agile Transformation: Being Agile, Doing Agile, and Supporting Agile we described three factors – people (being agile), process (doing agile), and tools (supporting agile) – that in our experience must be addressed during your agile transformation.  In this blog posting we compare agile transformation strategies in terms of addressing combinations of the three factors.  The following diagram overviews the eight potential strategies that you may embark upon.

Agile Transformation Strategies

Let’s compare each agile transformation strategy one at a time:

  1. None of the factors are addressed.  Good luck with that.  😉
  2. Focus on people only.  When you focus solely on being agile your teams don’t really learn how agile techniques fit together, nor do they understand the implications of how they’re working.  An example of a people only strategy is to give everyone training and coaching in leadership and collaboration skills and then expect them to self-organize into effective agile teams because “they already have the skills and they’re smart people who can figure it out”.  We saw this sort of strategy fail at a large product company when the teams who received this coaching and training invariably went back to their former ways of working.
  3. Focus on process only.  With this approach you get “cargo-cult agile” that is layered on top of your existing processes. What we mean by cargo-cult agile is that the team adopts many of the straightforward management practices, the ones that Scrum tends to focus on, such as holding a daily coordination meeting, an iteration/sprint demo, an iteration/sprint retrospective, and iteration/sprint planning.  You end up with people holding “all of the agile meetings” and who on the surface take on their version of agile roles such as Product Owner and Team Lead.  They have the appearance of working an an agile manner but they really aren’t, and worse yet they don’t even know it and usually nor does senior management.  This is a very common problem when an organization’s entire agile transformation strategy is to send their people on two-day workshops so that they may become “certified masters.”
  4. Focus on tools only.  Some organizations believe that if they buy several agile tools, or even an entire agile tool suite, and then force their staff to use them that the tools will somehow make their teams agile.  The actual result is that you end up with a “standardized” approach to agile that is both overly complex (the tools typically include far more features than you’ll ever want, many of which provide functionality completely inappropriate for your situation) and incomplete (you can’t automate everything and even if you could the vendors haven’t gotten to it yet).  The worst offenders are the Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) suites, many of which seem to be offered by vendors who themselves are struggling to deliver consumable products into the marketplace.
  5. Focus on people and process. A common agile coaching refrain is to address tooling once you understand the process, which is good advice to an extent, but it quickly falls down when you realize that many technical practices such as continuous integration (CI) and automated testing require adoption of tooling from the very start. When you ignore or at least greatly downplay tooling issues you tend to grow “agile purists”, and even “agile zealots”, who only know how to apply agile in simple contexts.  Ignoring tools can ease your agile transformation at first but eventually tends to get you into trouble when you start to apply agile in more complex situations.
  6. Focus on process and tools. When you don’t coach people in the skills and mindset around
    “being agile” you tend to end up with cargo-cult agile with automated bureaucracy.  Agile transformation requires a paradigm shift, which inherently implies you need to address what it means to be agile.
  7. Focus on tools and people. When you downplay how to “do agile” you tend to get agile children playing with shiny new toys.  They tend to know the agile language and mindset, and will often have a cursory understanding of simple agile practices that they learned on their two-day certified mastery workshop, but they really don’t know how to successfully build consumable solutions from beginning to end.  Teams who receive little help on “doing agile” tend to spend a lot of time, and a lot of money, figuring out the agile process.  Worse yet, they often adopt a WaterScrumFall approach where Inception and Transition tends to be more traditional and heavy and only Construction is lightweight and agile.
  8. Focus on people, process, and tools simultaneously.  When your agile transformation strategy addresses all three factors at once you have the potential to create Disciplined Agile teams that can work at scale.  This only happens when your “being agile” efforts help people to shift to an agile mindset, when your “doing agile” efforts teach a comprehensive yet flexible (think goal driven) view of agile strategies and practices, and your “supporting agile” efforts lead to a context-driven, enterprise aware approach to tool selection.

In your agile transformation you will spend much more effort addressing people-oriented (being agile) issues than you will either of process (doing agile) or tooling (supporting agile) issues.  Think of it like this: these three factors are effectively the legs of a stool, if you don’t address all three then your agile transformation will fall over.

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