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Freeze The Pond Versus Take The Hill Two Metaphors For Enterprise Agile Change

October 20, 2016

Organizations who don’t understand why they want to become Agile also often take the wrong path to get there. Agility requires empowering teams and helping them make decisions on their own, learning from their experiences as they go. They must organize themselves, yet they often have Agile practices forced upon them. I’ve personally encountered many teams who didn’t understand why they were on an Agile journey, didn’t really want to be on the journey, and weren’t particularly happy about it. No good comes from those situations, and the result is usually a team going through the motions, telling management what they think they want to hear rather than really embracing Agile principles.

Agile transformations can't be planned

Management, for their part, are equally culpable in this comedy of errors: they don’t really understand what Agility means or demands. They can be motivated by mistaken assumptions such as thinking that Agility is a means of improving efficiency rather than a means of achieving better outcomes that cannot be fully understood at the onset. Convinced that Agile Everywhere must be a good thing, these managers want a plan for rolling out Agile, with milestones and progress measures that they can use to manage the roll-out. The Agile adoption is planned like a military campaign, with great speeches and slogans, sometimes even complete with banners exhorting teams on to victory. “Becoming Agile” is a strategic objective, like a hill that troops must take on the path to victory.

The military metaphor for Agile adoption is flawed for many reasons, not the least of which that it applies a Waterfall process for adopting an empirical approach to delivering business value. It ignores the essential importance of team self-organization in a way that actually prevents teams from ever self-organizing. It discourages empowerment from the very beginning. Agile practices are not like a new version control tool that can be rolled out to one team after the other, in lock-step execution of a plan. We need a different metaphor to help us think about the problem.


Becoming an Agile organization requires a cultural phase change

In physics, phase changes occur when matter changes from one state to another, like when a pond changes from liquid water to solid ice. No one would talk about planning which molecules are going to change phase in what order; in fact the process is unpredictable. What happens is that, when the temperature of the water is just right, a small non-conformity causes a crystal to start to grow. Sometimes this happens in a single place, and sometimes in a number of places at once. The crystals grow and spread naturally, depending on local conditions.

Changing a culture requires an approach more similar to encouraging a pond to freeze than planning a military campaign. The right conditions for the change have to be in place; these conditions can be evaluated by examining the beliefs of the product owners, business leaders, and delivery team members responsible for a product. When the beliefs of these people support experimentation and learning, they are open to trying new things and working in a new way. These product teams are capable of making the changes.

When their beliefs are not supportive of the change, it is like having impurities in pond water that prevent it from freezing; forcing them to change is ineffective. Instead, you should work on changing their beliefs, perhaps by helping them to understand that a predictive approach to product delivery will not help them achieve the results they want. This is a long path, however, and if you are trying to change the organization, you are probably better off finding some other product team that is ready for the change than investing time in changing the beliefs of people who are not yet, and may never be, ready.



Agile organizational change is opportunistic

Working opportunistically, using the metaphor of the freezing pond, means focusing on helping parts of the organization that are ready to change, and that need to change to be successful. Agile practices will help them thrive. But other parts of the organization are nowhere near the critical phase transition, and no amount of energy applied to make them change will produce more than superficial conformity.

Beyond finding product teams ready to change, what can be done? Well, every part of the organization can benefit from improving their engineering practices, and reducing their technical debt. Senior leaders can be helped to understand why an empirical approach may be essential for their organization’s survival, just as Jeff Immelt came to see that Agile software delivery was essential to the future of GE.

Leaders have a strong influence over the beliefs of an organization, and they alone usually have the ability to help their organizations see things in a new way. What they usually need is to be shown proof that an empirical approach delivers innovation where the predictive approach won’t, usually by trying it on a product in a new market, or on a product that has nothing to lose by experimenting with a new way of working. These are the pockets of non-conformity where the cultural phase change starts and from which it spreads. Find and nurture these, and then look for other similar opportunities while building a supportive Agile ecosystem.









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