Agile is Organizational (Re-)Design

For many years, Agile has mainly been about the iterative and incremental process, a couple of new roles, etc. Over the last years, as Agile has increasingly become about companywide transitions1 in large companies, scaling this process and roles has gotten a lot of attention. Agile has gone from what could be illustrated like in the diagram to the left2 to the one to the right3 on the figure below.

However, I have observed that while we try to deal with the increased organizational complexity by applying scaling frameworks, we still struggle with the obvious misalignment between agile and traditional company culture and complex IT-architectures. After agile transitions in large companies, we often still have:

  • very large projects with many people
  • people working on several projects at the same time
  • component teams handling a systems layer or a component determined by system architecture rather than user perspective
  • people in many locations working together
  • handovers from business to IT in the portfolio process
  • longer release cycles
  • etc

We call whatever it is we do Agile, even though it is not significantly more flexible or productive than what we had before. 

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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, appearance1 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?

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