Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

The Problem with Agile Transformations

It seems every organization wants to transform itself to become more agile. They want to respond to opportunities quickly and cost-effectively. They want to adapt faster than their competition in the Darwinian corporate landscape. COVID-19, for example, required a quick shift to remote working for their employees and remote interactions with clients and suppliers. Geopolitical changes alter supply chains and increase legislation. Cloud, IoT and similar internal IT trends accelerate.

An agile transformation often starts with a consultant-led agile processes adoption. These range from methodologies like Scrum at the small scale and Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) at the highest. Despite some negativity in the agile community aimed at higher scale methodologies, these methodologies help by providing structure, vocabulary, and expectations.

However, following an agile process is the least important part of being agile. An organization attempting to increase agility solely by adopting a new process usually creates superficial changes that foster change fatigue, at best, or failure, at worst. This failure is often then incorrectly attributed to the process without any more profound and helpful introspection, leading to the negativity mentioned earlier.

An agile organization needs agile systems. “Agile systems” does not refer to using a tool like JIRA to track work. Agile systems, both IT and business processes, are easily changed and provide feedback for timely validation or correction.

Modern software development practices are a good example. Frequent demos to users and stakeholders and automated testing and deployment, for instance, ritualize change and create tighter feedback loops.

However, an organization’s systems are not agile if only their software development teams are agile. For example, consultants often build organizations’ back office and operational systems by customizing third-party tools. Organizations then maintain them with skeleton teams and, therefore, usually lack the skills or the environment to change them safely and cost-effectively.

Product Owners are not the answer. Product Owners can shield their team’s backlog to encourage agility. However, systems are more extensive than just the team or teams that maintain or implement them. Product Owners are also usually experts in the business area and handling internal politics. They are rarely also design experts and incentivized to think strategically.

Agility extends to data. Organizations are under increasing pressure to collect and monetize data. Agility requires knowing where that data is (“systems of record”), ensuring its quality and integrating it with other systems (“systems of engagement” or “systems of transformation”).

Governance systems must adapt. Regulatory, financial, legal, risk, IT security, privacy and similar teams must work in smaller batches. A lengthy, formal review of a completed system is often too late.

Unfortunately, articulating the benefits of agile systems is difficult. Pruning teams to their minimums has clear short-term financial benefits. Executives often overstate their systems’ capabilities through ignorance or self-promotion. Product teams may fall into the trap of a short-term, sales-oriented focus under the guise of being customer-focused. A system’s agility often depends on an executive’s skill at shielding budgets or convincing stakeholders.

These problems may extend to company culture. Business processes sometimes lack an agreed, empowered business owner. IT is sometimes “seen and not heard”. Insufficient executive representation or ownership means minimal focus and support, making agility practically impossible.

An agile organization also needs an agile structure. This statement may sound tautological. However, an otherwise agile organization that cannot leverage and benefit from that agility wastes that effort.

A good example is what SAFe terms the “network” versus the “hierarchy”. Most organizations structure themselves hierarchically around similar skills for ease of management. For example, an organization often has a legal department for lawyers, a sales department for salespeople and an IT department for developers and system administrators.

However, work frequently requires people across different teams to cooperate, called the “network”. Identifying value chains then building and supporting these multidisciplinary teams to implement and enhance them increases flow, ownership, and individuals’ agency. Effective use of “networks” requires different management techniques and incentivizing outcomes, not throughput. These often fail without executive support.

Organizations are rarely homogeneous. Some teams or systems may be more agile than others, such as through mergers/acquisitions or pockets of conscientious staff. Tracking and aligning these is vital. Otherwise, some teams may adopt inconsistent processes or tools, be omitted from the transformation or optimize at others’ expense.

This all assumes the organization’s bottleneck is the lack of agility. Organizations frequently want to decrease “friction” but cannot articulate it beyond the highest level. Defining friction by actionable, measurable metrics is a prerequisite. Increasing agility also only highlights any poor prioritization or lack of focus.

The “transformation” concept is also a misnomer. Agile thinking encourages constant self-evaluation and improvement, and this “transformation” does not end when the consulting engagement does. From the executive viewpoint, this can scarily move the fulcrum of structural control into the middle and lower levels of the organization.

The chosen agile methodology’s principles best guide agile transformations. Unfortunately, people easily gloss over these in favour of the easily implemented and more prescriptive processes. However, these are often what the more prescriptive parts are derived from, not vice versa. If you want to be agile, internalize the principles!

Agile transformations are more than superficial changes. Focusing too much on process changes instead of systems and structures often stalls or blocks agile transformations. Instead, these transformations require people to move outside their comfort zones, particularly executives. The problem with agile transformation is it is hard but increasingly necessary.

The image is from https://digileaders.com/webinar-shape-agile-organisation/, used under Creative Commons license.

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