Agile Adoption or Transformation?

Hey all!  This is a repost from my blog at MATRIX Resources.  Check out the original here:

Matrix Resources Professional Services Blog – Adoption or Transformation?


There is only one answer to this, isn’t there? Unless you do a full-on, top down, inside out, grassroots, executive-led, business-driven transformation, you’ll never experience the benefits of agile practices, right? If you would have asked me several years ago, I would have told you that there was only one way – a full-scale transformation. Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve worked with several organizations that, for some reason, simply could not commit to a full transformation.

Understanding Where We are Headed

Let’s first look at what is meant with agile adoption or transformation. I’m sort of a word guy -my background (and just my brain) tends to have me looking up the meanings and the origination of words. So, here we go:

Transform: make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of. Transform comes from the Latin word transformare which literally means “across form” or to change form. The Romans would have used this word to describe the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

Adopt: to accept or act in accordance with (a plan, principle, etc.). Adopt comes from another Latin word, adoptare (I am so glad I took two years of Latin – thank you Magistra Sullivan!), which means “to choose or desire for oneself.” Once more, the Romans might have used this when talking about bringing specific holidays, cultural improvements, or architectural techniques from conquered states into their own.

So, if we look at just the basics, agile adoptions mean that companies chose certain practices that are agile. They are, in this case, bringing these principles or practices or tools into their existing business framework. On the flip side, transformations mean that these companies are letting the principles, values, and practices change them. In some cases, organizations might view this transformation as opposed to their business models, their existing strategic goals, or even detrimental to their client relationships. Let’s look at a few navigational decision points that will help your organization decide which journey is right for you.

Organizational Strategic Alignment

That’s a mouthful! In essence, does your organization already have a strategic set of goals set up to achieve this value and is it static? We have worked with organizations that answer a resounding “yes” to this question. They have invested millions of dollars to make sure that their business processes, tactical and organizational frameworks, and strategic goals all align to their primary product delivery. To take on a full transformation, even if it is IT only (which is NEVER recommended), would require more than just a systemic change to their business model – it would possibly mean tearing it down and starting over. Adoption of certain agile practices, even at the executive level, simply mean increase the efficiency by which the organization can execute and deliver value.

For other companies, transformation is necessary. They might struggle with keeping up with their market’s vastly changing needs and when they do deliver, they are already behind the curve. They might even have no way of supporting or transitioning their existing products to 21st century products. These companies NEED transformation; adoption for them would simply be injecting chaos into an already chaotic environment.

“Championing” Agility

Another buzzword! A fancy way to ask, “who is going to run with this initiative?” I’m reminded of a customer where the sponsor of the agile initiative had a manager who was almost anti-agile. This individual, even though a vice president, had to expend additional effort just to counteract the challenges from the manager. In addition, the business didn’t engage fully. This left the IT manager only able to focus on targeted adoptions and tactical changes to delivery. Was this a failure? Not at all! While it wasn’t all that this individual (or we, to be honest) wanted, there were pockets of success and improvement in delivering working products. Adoption is not always transformation’s evil stepbrother! Sometimes the sponsor can only champion adoption.

Funding Models

How does your company fund projects or initiatives? This subject can get very complicated, but fortunately, we are not talking about the several different ways that organizations can improve their funding. We are also not talking about capitalizing or operationalizing work. We are simply asking here whether your company is at a place where it makes sense to address changes in funding. Why is this such an important question? Many companies have implemented very project-centric funding methods by which monies are allocated in very large chunks, sometimes into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Oddly enough, these same models require down-to-the-task level coordination and oversight from project and program managers. Agile frameworks at a program and portfolio level generally reduce the size of work, therefore reducing risk. Transformation seeks to tackle this issue by thin-slicing portfolios of work and providing autonomy to allocate funds as needed, incrementally. Adoptions, on the other hand, could keep a project-based funding model and simply improve the way we look at tracking the funds. Is your company at a place where finance should and could be addressed?

Staffing and Team Components

How much does your organization rely on offshore, nearshore, or vendor-delivered solutions? Please hear me out on this one! I am not saying that an organization cannot “be” agile if they have offshore teams or work with vendors for their supporting products. I am saying that the questions must be asked to see what makes sense. Several of our customers have a large offshore component with one company having approximately 75% of their software development occurring offshore. Another client has a dependency where they rely on mostly external vendors (some of them rather sizeable) and simply cannot say, “hey largest-provider-of-CMS-products, we want you to change the way you deliver software!” Understanding the trade-offs (needs of strategic partners vs. the company’s direction) is key to deciding whether agile practices are adopted or whether the organization looks at a full-scale agile transformation that could impact how the work occurs with partners.

Size of the Company

I can hear it now! “Joshua, are you saying that big companies should not think about transformation? Are you saying that agile is so delicate that only certain practices could be adopted by our Fortune 100 organizations?” Absolutely not! This question, just like the funding model question is based on what the organization is willing to do. There are companies that are big and act monolithically and there are those that still have the flexibility (and agility) to respond to change. There are companies that see change as the only constant and those are the ones where transformation aligns with their core values. But let’s also be very transparent – size of the company does play a part. We must ask ourselves, if we are in a large organization, what is the appetite for change? As some companies grow, their desire and will to make changes that keep them on the cutting edge can dim. In this case, there is still hope of agile practices, delivery, and even skunkworks-type scenarios where agile can be adopted but the thought of a full-scale transformation is more challenging.

And in closing…

As you have read this way-too-long blog, I hope that it has at least sparked questions and even help expose some of the hidden challenges that your organization may face. This was not meant to dissuade anyone from transformation or, worse, shame organizations that haven’t been able to punch through. This hopefully highlights the concepts and ideas that need to be made transparent to make a good decision!

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