Beyond Agile: Why Agile Hasn't Fixed Your Problems

Most organizations today are slow, bureaucratic and broken. Employees, executives, stakeholders, and customers are unhappy. Agile is seen as the remedy, the magic cure that will solve all the problems. And after all, everyone is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?

Adopting Scrum, Kanban or other agile practices is a great way to start fixing the organization: it puts the focus on learning and iterating instead of planning and predicting. It helps you move away from the hierarchical model to a more networked model of autonomous teams. But it is far from a silver bullet.

At The Ready we have learned that a lot more is needed to unlock organization-wide agility and become future-proof. The truth is that most agile transformations fail to deliver what is promised. On several occasions we were asked to repair a failed attempt to bring agility and responsiveness into the organization.

What we often see is that organizations try to adopt agile in a way that is fundamentally at odds with the underlying mindset that it tries to introduce.Here are some of our observations.

Top-down agile doesn’t work, it simply creates a new command-and-control structure

The agile manifesto and its 12 principles provide a lot of wisdom of how to effectively create value in organizations. The manifesto tells us to ‘build projects around motivated individuals … self-organizing teams … and trust them to get the job done’. However many organizations and leaders end up adopting agile frameworks with the same plan-and-predict mindset they’ve always had.

Too frequently, the old, centralized, command-and-control system of management remains in place. When using Scrum, product owners mandate project scope and deadlines, and Scrum Masters assign tasks to team members. Now that backlogs have become transparent, even more time is spent on long-term upfront planning than before. The detailed plans and estimations need to be approved by oversight committees, whose main job is to “align” the agile teams. Time of team members is tracked in detail, and people are summoned to explain if there is a deviation of the plan. Failure leads to blame, instead of learning and innovation.

Teams suffer from slow decision making processes and policies that are incompatible with agile. Many teams never actually interact with a customer but end up executing whatever management tells them what to do. They arenot empowered to decide what makes most sense for the customer or bottom line. It’s almost impossible to get approval for great ideas that originate within the teams themselves.

“I tried to be innovative once, but I got stuck in meetings.” —source unknown

We can’t deal with the increasing world of complexity and unpredictability by doing more controlling, planning and prediction — even if we’re “doing agile.”We have to let go of our linear, reductionist mindset and instead aim for self-management enabled by servant leadership. The leader’s new job is to workon the system, creating a healthy environment in which people can grow and results can happen.

 Comic by  geek & poke

Comic by geek & poke

Agile is not a fixed end-state, it’s a way of being

The agile manifesto told us to value ‘individual and interactions’ over ‘processes and tools’. And yet, agile has become a jungle of tooling vendors and consulting companies selling frameworks that are implemented as a static blueprint.

Agile becomes the new ‘standard process’ and the attention shifts to implementing and enforcing the agile practices. Maturity models and reports are created to measure how much of the teams are complying to the new way of working. Doing ‘agile right’, while ignoring the underlying values and principles, will not lead to agility.

We are often asked “what does the organization look like when the transformation is completed?” That’s the wrong question. If you’re looking for a new fixed end-state, you’re missing the point of agile. To keep up with a fast changing world, the organization needs to change continuously — it needs to be agile everywhere. Successful organizations are like shapeshifters or chameleons. They go beyond agile practices. The organization is being ‘worked on’ every day, with everyone’s input, all the time.

Agile doesn’t fix your problems, it shines a light on them

Agile shines a light on the real problems of the organization but doesn’t necessarily offer a way to fix them. Agile is designed to make teams faster. This additional speed will put more pressure on the system, revealing the leaky pipes which then need to be fixed.

Very often the leaks are so deeply embedded in how the organization works that even the most experienced executive will be unable to fix them. Things that commonly need to be changed are decision making, prioritization, resource allocation, policy enforcement, performance management and organizational structure. Chasing such a big org-wide change can pose a risk to the person’s career progression or reputation in the organization even when that person is already at the top.

Scrum, Kanban and other agile methods can help organizations become more agile in pockets. But eventually these efforts plateau, and even stall, as they reach organizational constraints. The problem is not the people or their skillset, but legacy structures, practices, policies and even culture that reinforce old mindsets and patterns. If these stay in place, agility will remain constrained.

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Agile lacks the language to go beyond IT

Agile’s aim was to “uncover better ways of developing software”, and it did. Nowadays, it is successfully applied to other disciplines and other places where people work in teams to achieve a goal together. But because of its origins, it continues to be seen as the latest tool that we can use to execute IT projects successfully. The manifesto and its practices lack the language to get what we desperately need: a mindset shift in the way we organize work in the 21st century.

To bridge this gap, we like to articulate agile principles in broadly relatable language. These principles and questions will help you move from ‘doing agile’ to ‘being agile’.

Vulnerability over Professionalism
Bring your whole self, call it like you see it, stay open.
Do we talk about our emotions? How can psychological safety be enhanced?

Trust over Verification
Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt (or get new colleagues).
Are people told what to do or can people self-organize and decide how to work?

Consent over Consensus
Make decisions “safe to try” and move forward.
What can be done to improve the speed of decision making?

Progress over Perfection
Have a bias for action, learn as you go, iterate. 
Do we try to get it right the first time, or have we adopted a mindset of making every step as small as possible?

Doing the Work over Discussing the Work
Go try something, get some data, come back.
How can we make meetings more effective and reduce the time spent on them?

Participation over Power
Seek cognitive diversity, perspective taking, engagement.
Do we ask for everyone’s input on how the organization can be improved? Can we let people decide for themselves what to work?

Open over Closed
Embrace transparency, let information flow, work in public.
Does everyone has the information they need? Can we provide clarity and improve transparency of priorities?

Sprints over Big Moves
Take small bites, timebox, steer continuously, commit to a cadence.
Do we steer continuously or are we still making long-term plans?

So as a leader, when I feel ‘yes this is true for me’, what should I do?

Do small experiments and learn how change happens in your organization.Learn what your people need. Point your agile toolkit at the organization itself. Don’t stay stuck in dogmatic agile practices. Let them bend and flex in order to serve you better. Start asking your teams what is holding them back from doing the best work of their lives. Ask them for suggestions to change the organization.

Imagine leading an organization where everyone is engaged in making the organization better every day. I recently saw a quote from a LinkedIn update that perfectly encapsulates this idea.

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Too often organizations think becoming agile is something that needs to be added on top of what they already do, when in reality, as Rick states above, it’s more about unlocking the potential that already exists.

Don’t stay stuck in top-down agile. Instead, adopt an agile mindset and start addressing the deeper and more fundamental challenges in your organization.