Agile Transformation? Really?

September 12, 2011 Lee Cunningham

“Agile Transformation”: now there’s a search phrase that can keep you busy on Google for quite a while. But what do we really mean by “transformation”? A quick peek in the dictionary tells us that a transformation involves a change in composition or structure, even a change in character. The word “metamorphosis” is sometimes listed as a synonym.

There is no shortage of folks, myself included, who are willing to help you with your transformation. But if you’re pondering going down that path, it’s a good idea to find out if your organization really wants to change before you get in too deep.

Sometimes, you can pull off a stellar performance in making your case as to why agile would make sense for your organization on many different levels, and the answer (sometimes very explicitly, sometimes not) may still be, “Thanks, but no thanks”. The prospect of making changes to an organization’s composition, structure, or its very character can be intimidating, and to some, frankly, just not worth all the fuss.

Transformation, by definition, entails irreversible change. If we latch onto the “metamorphosis” notion, the implications of transformation become even more stark: Butterflies don’t turn back into caterpillars.

A currently popular approach to making change more embraceable is to advocate an “evolutionary, not revolutionary” approach. Here again, though, the words and techniques we choose can’t and shouldn’t obscure the real objective: permanent change.  Slower, maybe, but still permanent. An executive once told me, after I explained this to him, “Well, we don’t really want to become ‘agile’ – just more agile than we are now”.  He clearly wasn’t after a transformation. He just wanted to make a few adjustments.

One way we can avoid failed agile transformations is by first correctly assessing whether or not transformation is really the goal. For many organizations, it simply isn’t – at least not right now. They’re content to try to devise viable “butterpillars”, with all the dysfunction you might imagine in such a creature.

This is not to cast a disparaging eye toward such organizations, as many of us have been down that same road to one extent or another. The point here is that a true transformation has no reverse gear, and that for it to succeed, we must be willing and able to make a commitment to changes that are both fundamental and lasting. Sometimes, only after having suffered the consequences of attempting in lieu of committing is an organization finally ready to do so. The organizations that have made that commitment, in my experience, don’t miss the chrysalis at all.

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