4 reasons why you need to understand Agile from first principles

According to the 10th Version One survey, which must be by now the most quoted Agile survey of all time, the top 4 reasons for an Agile adoption failure are:

  1. Company philosophy or culture at odds with core Agile values
  2. Lack of experience with Agile methods
  3. Lack of management support
  4. Lack of support for cultural transition

If we look at these common failures, we can sum them up as a wide-spread lack of understanding across an organisation of how critical Agile is to the organisation’s very survival. For example,  often there are just a few people who get the importance of having the Agile toolkit for complex adaptive problems, but they don’t possess the necessary theory, data or experience to demonstrate and influence others.

Let’s take each in turn.

1. Company philosophy or culture at odds with core Agile values

A company’s philosophy or culture is made up from what is in people’s minds. It exists in the continuation of habitual process and communication style. Changing culture means changing what is in people’s heads.

The core Agile values include:

  • Transparency
  • Collaboration
  • Courage and Trust to speak out and be heard
  • Respect for others
  • Honesty
  • Simplicity
  • Feedback

It is hard to see how these types of values can be at odds with anyone’s individual beliefs. What is more likely, and in my experience, is that these core values don’t manifest themselves in the current workplace because the current organisational structure, management style, and belief in the level of predictability of software development is not in tune with what is needed in a complex adaptive product development environment.

Being as us Humans are all (thankfully) different and culture is an aggregate of all the Humans in a particular organisation, it stands to reason that all cultures are slightly, if not completely different.

Also, given that every organisation builds a slightly different product in a different market, then the optimal culture, shape, process, and structure are likely to be slightly different for every organisation. Consequently, the start and end position for a given change initiative is different for every organisation.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that a framework, certified consultant or book is not going to help you much. You need a custom solution.

To derive a custom solution that allows you to change the culture in line with Agile values – you need to understand the underlying principles of organisational design and culture. This understanding will enable you to derive the required steps for your unique change situation yourself.

The skills to identify these changes are in short supply. In many cases, boilerplate or school boy solutions are applied without understanding the consequences of the change until it’s too late. Inevitably this causes stress in the organisation and leads to failure.

This is why the inability to change culture largely comes down to not identifying the right steps to make. Incidentally, this is because of the second cause of failure.

2. Lack of experience with Agile methods

We learn best from experience. This is perhaps our biggest weakness when it comes to organisational design and culture change. Everyone who is impacted by a culture that is optimised around anything other than product delivery is usually not in a position to see or experience the big picture of the entire ecosystem.

The belief that optimising each part will somehow result in the optimisation of the whole is still sadly prevalent in most organisations. And those that try to make change can only see their tiny part of the whole.

Without coaches that effectively sit outside of the hierarchy, the organisation, via various mid and senior level managers, is doomed to make local optimisations that seem (at least to those making the changes) to have unintended consequences elsewhere in the organisation. Or they are met with fierce resistance because they step on someone else’s local optimisation.

The only way to move an organisation forward is to have someone (or a group of people) who don’t belong to any small part of the organisation to optimise the whole.

This group needs specialist organisation design skills. Sadly, such skills are lacking in the marketplace.

Without these skilled people in the right place, you can begin to see why Agile transformations can easily fail to persuade other managers in other areas, of the benefits. Without the support of others, you can not hope to make successful change. This leads nicely on to failure reason number 3.

3. Lack of management support

Change programmes often start either:

  • at the top of an organisation with senior execs pushing through the change but with little understanding of the full implications of what Agile means
  • with teams desperate to work in more collaborative and faster way but with no influence to make a difference

Both of these approaches are admirable. But will not work unless there is a significant training and education programme for mid-level managers.

It is the mid-level managers that hold the key to successful adoption. However, they are often the last to know what is going on in an Agile adoption and as a consequence, the most resistant to change.

4. Lack of support for cultural transition

The fourth reason for failure is really the same as the third reason. Lack of support.

To create good support usually means creating some good successes while having the data to show other motivated managers how the Agile work has gone and achieved the objectives. A good marketing team as part of a transition can help a lot in promoting the benefits already gained.

To gain this support, you must have the ingredients in place to make those successes.

These ingredients are:

  • the right organisational design experts outside of the hierarchy
  • the right buy-in from senior execs
  • the right project to work on
  • the right team to run it
  • the training and education programme for managers
  • the ability market the success to others

This is when the journey really starts.  You will need to reach a tipping point of over 19% of the organisation being agile and part of the transformation as fast as possible.  To do this requires a much wider support.

Gaining such wide support requires a different set of skills and mass rollout techniques. These skills are also often lacking as they are not usually used within an organisation.

How to remedy the situation

The first step to changing anything is to change yourself first.

You must learn the underlying principles of organisational design and what it means to derive:

  • a framework
  • an operating model
  • ways of working for your unique situation

The best place to start or continue this journey is to attend the right training courses.

I would recommend Don Reinertsen’s course on Lean Product Development. He gives the underlying logical and mathematical principles that make Agile work and how to apply them.

Without the real mathematical understanding of why smaller batches, shorter queues, high variability, and faster cycle time really matter, you can’t build the blocks to make it work. Don’s course teaches you to build an economic framework for decision making that can then be used to make the right trade-off decisions you will confront every day.

Drawing parallels from economics, operating system design, nuclear physics and lean manufacturing, Don has a unique course that teaches topics that no one else covers. It’s the only course where you can really understand the building blocks of Agile thinking, and the mindset behind the entire Agile and Lean philosophy.

This is the only course that gives you the first principles and mathematics to derive the right solutions on a daily basis. It is a course for people who really need to understand what is going on in an Agile transformation and why. It allows you to talk Agile in the language of money.

Don’s work has paved the way for the scaling frameworks and many of the principles built in are from his work.

For example, SAFe’s 1st, 6th, 7th and 9th principles are based on his work with his quotes on most of the pages taken from Don’s work.

Large Scale Scrum’s Queuing Theory is based on Don’s work and he is quoted numerous times on the LeSS website. Understanding Don’s work is key to understanding organisational design and overcoming the common elements of failure.

Transitions only happen in one place. In the minds and hearts of the people in the organisation. By not being able to change those minds, nothing will work in the medium to long term.

Once you have the understanding from Don’s work, you will start to really understand the differences between the existing frameworks and why they have been created. You can then start to build your own framework optimised for your situation.

Learn more about Don and his work by watching this video.

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