Forget all about Agile Transformations

I have learned over many years of implementing Agile that words, and the images they create, are crucial for your success as change agents. To succeed, it is important that you can explain, what is going to happen, and how it is going to happen in a meaningful way.

I have been heading several of what we called agile transformations without deeper reflection on why we picked that word. I guess we just followed the majority of the agile community without considering the impact that it would have on our efforts to help the organizations to become more agile.

Which images appear in your imagination when you hear the word transformation?

The most used illustration of transformations regardless of kind, is the one from being a caterpillar to become a butterfly. Why’s that?

It visualizes a radical change in form, appearance[note][/note] etc, the result is one of the most beautiful animals on earth and most of us associate it with warm summer vacations. All the way through attractive. The butterfly is also much more agile and free than the slow caterpillar.

And no doubt: Becoming agile is a radical change for large corporations. It is not just employees put in teams doing Scrum events. It is a much more profound change of every part of the organization including the company culture. To describe the extend of the change required to be agile, the word transformation and the image of the butterfly is a good metaphor. The agility and beauty of the butterfly is also an attractive image for the end result of an agile transformation. But does it actually reflect the process of becoming agile?

Perhaps it is only the perfect image from our perspective, the change agents: This is how we as true believers will liberate the infidels. We will bring our magic cocoon and create the most beautiful being out of ”nothing”. Perhaps it is what management wishes to hear. Who wouldn’t like everything that Agile promises without any hurting?

Why is agile transformation a misleading term?

Is an agile transformation seen from the organization itself really a radical change from one fixed structure to another? Is it a swift oneway change? Will it within a short time be obvious to customers that they are dealing with a transformed company? Will they meet all new people, will all the products be different, will they purchase from different channels, ….?

Not in my experience … the process of becoming more agile is by no means like “the magic” in the cocoon that transform the caterpillar to a butterfly.

Using the word transformation also implies that there is a perfect end state for agile. There is not. The agile movement has constantly evolved over the last 20 years and has teamed up with likeminded like Design Thinking, Lean Startup, DevOps etc. which means that agile companies are in constant change to be able to remain competitive in an increasingly complex world. 

Becoming agile is more shifting from a state where stability is considered good to a state of constant movement, than it is an actual transformation. 

Becoming more agile is hard work. Everybody in the organization is involved, everybody must change and put energy into moving the change forward. If not, the existing culture will create a pull towards the existing, which will stop or reverse the change. Becoming more agile is accepting that everybody and everything in the organization does not change with a blink of an eye, but you have to live with the fact that parts of the company move with different velocity.

Even though you call it an agile transformation, it will never be that. It cannot deliver the instant, non-problematic, radical change, we all dream of. Don’t trust people who tell you, they can turn you into a beautiful butterfly with their cocoon. Unfortunately it is much less sexy than that.

And do you really want to associate the result of your efforts to something as short-lived as a butterfly, who lives one week to a year[note][/note]?

H2O as metaphor for becoming more agile

If the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly is not a good metaphor for becoming agile, what is? How to explain your organization, what journey they are embarking on?

What I have learned through numerous agile journeys is that the right metaphor must illustrate that becoming more agile: 

  1. Is a change from structure to movement
  2. Requires a lot of energy
  3. Is a lifelong journey
  4. Is being in several states at the same time
  5. Is in many perspectives appearing more or less the same before and after

I have found that something as common and unsexy like the transition from ice to water fulfills all these criteria. Just look at the time-lapse below:

Ice and Water

When I first searched for a better metaphor for becoming more agile I discarded the transition from ice to water, because I thought the change was not radical enough, but the more I read about ice and water, the more I actually like it as a metaphor:

Despite the fact that ice and water look similar and are built of the same molecules, the differences in structure give them very different properties. The fixed crystal structure of ice only allow the molecules to vibrate, and ice cannot change shape without breaking. This means ice does not adapt to its surroundings, and therefore moves slowly and either breaks itself or parts of the surroundings, when the shape doesn’t fit (eg glaciers, icebergs). 

Water, on the other hand, is much more agile: It adapts easily to the shapes of the surroundings and finds its way, because the molecules can move freely in the flexible structure. If there is room, the water will find its way (eg. the sea, rivers, waterfalls, canals) under influence of the gravity or capillary action[note]The capillary action refers to the tendency of water to move up a narrow tube against the force of gravity. This property is relied upon by all vascular plants, such as trees.[/note]. Exactly the properties we want from an agile organization.

The Ice to Water transition

The transition from ice to water is a good metaphor for an Agile Transition, because you have to add a significant amount of energy[note]When ice melts, it absorbs as much energy as it would take to heat an equivalent mass of water by 80 °C. During the melting process, the temperature remains constant at 0 °C.[/note] for a longer period of time to create the change, and in that period, you have to balance two different paradigms. It is an illusion to think that everybody in an organization can just shift their mindset, behaviors, actions etc and interact with each other in a new way after attending a few days certification course. 

Some parts of the old organization will exist even for a long time, and it is unpredictable which ones they are. It might take years to break down the functional silos, to change the budgeting process or the reward structure, to learn to collaborate closely with customers and suppliers etc. etc.

During the transition the melted water can actually start to flow, even though there is still ice left, and it can actually flow far ahead of the ice. In agile transitions this often makes the remaining organization uncomfortable, and if they are powerful enough, they’ll pull energy out of the system to stop or reverse the melting. This is unfortunately not uncommon in organizations when they shift focus and/or the champions of the transition are moved to other assignments. To prevent this from happening make sure that you, as a part of the transition, have empowered the warm hearts of your agile leaders/coaches to keep melting the organization. 

Another interesting property of the transition from ice to water is that the temperature rises in the ice until the transitions starts, remains 0 °C during the transition and rises again when the ice is completely melted. I guess this is where the analogy to agile transitions becomes a little weaker. It makes sense that it takes energy to raise the temperature enough in the organization to pave the way for the transition, that you have to keep adding energy to the transition until the whole organization is liquid, and the full benefit of rising temperatures won’t show itself until the transition is completed. The latter is a bit inaccurate, as I always see benefits from very early on in a transition – not the full potential, and often in smaller pockets of the organization.

An Agile Transition is forever 

As mentioned above, becoming more agile is an endless journey, a constant movement – just like the hydrologic circle[note][/note], the state will change depending upon the conditions the H2O meet. On the journey from being ice on the top of a mountain, finding it way down waterfalls and rivers to the sea, water must adapt and follow unexpected ways … not to reach its end state, because there is none. Much water never reaches the sea and the water that does, may return as rain on forests, deserts or perhaps the mountains.

Likewise you have to be prepared to continuously adapt your agile transition to whatever happens within or outside your organization. Respect the different views on what is the better path for the transition, because locally the optimal paths may be different. Respect those who travel at a lower speed than you, they probably have very different conditions. Invite them to join the transition into water, as it is much more fun and fulfilling to be part of the flow of water … at least to most of us.

I think it is time that we all become realistic and realize that becoming more agile is much more of a transition than a transformation. I think it is time that we use metaphors that illustrate the dynamics of a transition instead of creating unrealistic expectations to the power of our magic.



And one last thing …

Some of you probably already spotted that there is yet another consequence of using H2O as the metaphor for organizational agility: Ice and water is only of two state its states. H2O can also become steam (gas) and plasma[note][/note]. 

This means that there is probably something more agile than Agile. Something that not only moves on the surface, but can move freely in space, something that fills the space of opportunity in a completely different way.

I imagine that the ”steam organization” is as different for us who “breathe water”, as an agile organization is unimaginable for people who have spend their entire life in traditional organizations – until they have experienced it. 

Therefore I am probably not the right person to tell you how it is going to be, and how to get there, so let me send you to Frederic Laloux who has written a very interesting book about the topic[note][/note]. If TEAL organizations are the steamy organizations is probably a bit too early to say, but seeing and discussing your current standpoint from a very different perspective is alway a good challenge, when you want to improve. I can certainly see, how it resonates with me being an independent consultant for almost 15 years, but how it scales to larger organizations is still unclear to me and has been a subject for some challenging discussions and more to come. Do you want to start one here?

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