August 9, 2020

Stop Blaming Frameworks, Improve Adoptions

I have yet to meet an Agile practitioner who would say that the original Scrum idea and perfection vision it provides isn’t good. Would anyone refuse to have high-performing Scrum Teams being able to deliver value to the market? What I usually hear is “Scrum is great, but it doesn’t work in my organization, because...” and then follows a list of excuses why change is impossible or hard.

There are a number of useful Agile approaches: Extreme Programming (XP), Scrum, Nexus, Kanban, LeSS, Crystal Clear, Lean Startup, Management 3.0, and others. The vision they provide and the knowledge they bring is valuable. The co-creator of Scrum Ken Schwaber writes that Scrum can be superseded by a better method if it would be based on four principles: self-organization, empiricism, bottom-up intelligence, and transparency. Indeed, I prefer some framework over others, but what I care more about is the underlying values and principles. 

Now I want to make a bold statement here:

Stop blaming frameworks, improve adoptions.

From what I see, organizations are full of superficial Agile/Lean adoptions. You must have come across ScrumButs, FlaccidScrum, Copy Paste Scrum, fake Kanban adoptions yourself. People tend to blame tools and frameworks/methods, but my observation is that it is mostly a problem of implementation. There is research that supports this belief.

The inability of most organizations to reap the full benefit of innovations has little to do with the specific improvement tool they select. Instead, the problem has its roots in how the introduction of a new improvement program interacts with the physical, economic, social, and psychological structures in which implementation takes place. In other words, it’s not just a tool problem, instead, it is a systemic problem, one that is created by the interaction of tools, equipment, workers, and managers (Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems that Never Happened, Nelson P. Repenning, John D. Sterman)

A short story from the trenches that illustrates this.

We have a friend working as an internal Agile Coach in a big outsourcing company with thousands of people employed. One day he became interested in Kanban and threw a message to the whole company. He was looking for a proper Kanban implementation and wanted to learn from experience that teams had accumulated. He was astonished to get lots of responses from such an impressive number of people. More than a hundred teams claimed they successfully used Kanban. Therefore, my friend reached out to them to learn from their experience. To say that he was disappointed is to say nothing. Only 2-3 teams used WIP-limits, the rest used the so-called ‘proto-kanban’ and just basic visualization. 

We know hundreds of similar stories. Despite the framework used, proper Agile/Lean implementation usually means uncovering organizational weaknesses. Why? Most of the known Agile approaches are based on lean thinking ideas. When you start asking teams to deliver something valuable to the customer, the waste and ineffectiveness in the current way of working become painfully clear. Remember the “lake and rocks” metaphor? 

Unfortunately, frameworks and methods are not capable of removing impediments, only people are. 

Most Change Initiatives Barely Scratch the Surface

In his book Diagnosing Change: the organizational undercurrent, Van Es (2008) states that the main reason for change initiative failure is that the change is being made too quickly or too superficially. Changes rarely go deep, changing the system of work and overcoming the initial status quo. Often the only outcome of another change is fancy terminology. Many companies achieve only minor gains in terms of productivity and adaptability after Agile adoptions. As a result, management is unsatisfied and soon starts searching for a new management fad. Employees become cynical and meet further change attempts with a blatant distrust. We know companies that went consequently through Six Sigma, Lean, Scrum, Kanban waves of transformations during the years with poor results. 

Once, I talked to the CEO of the investment bank, who invited me to discuss a partnership and potential Agile adoption. He was very enthusiastic about Scrum and had recently visited some professional training. I remember how puzzled he looked when I told him that Scrum was based on lean thinking. He seemed very disappointed. Why? It turned out afterward that his company had been trying to adopt lean thinking during the last several years without any noticeable results. Why adopt Scrum based on lean thinking ideas that ‘do not work’ from his perspective?

Resistance is Normal

Dealing with obstacles and organizational weaknesses means disrupting the system. 

“During change, every system responds in the same way: by returning to the starting position as soon as possible!” (Thiecke, Maaike, Systemic Transition Management). 

Resisting change is a normal reaction. It is not a sign that a team or a particular department lacks courage or abilities. Also, it is not a sign that a particular framework or method is bad. Resisting change is not only inevitable; it is necessary for a change to become successful. A highly qualified Agile coach needs to be well prepared to work with resistance and have knowledge and skills in change management.

Essential Activities For Any Successful Change

Let’s pin it. Changing any system of work is hard. Indeed, it matters which framework/approach you use. Still, essential activities that form the basis of the success of the change initiative, from my point of view and real work experience, are independent of the framework or method used. They are the following:

  • Persuading and educating management and teams;
  • Changing the system of work with the help of management;
  • Focusing on the change vision and keeping creative tension;
  • Facilitating and removing organizational impediments;
  • Facing and dealing with resistance during the change; 

Now, please, please stop blaming frameworks, start improving and deepening your adoptions.