Agile Transformation Failure Modes and Success Modes

Brad Swanson and Dave Sharrock contributed to IBM Innovate 2013 conference a double list of ingredients for successful agile transformations (or not)

6 June 2013

Agile Transformation Failure Modes

Lack of Executive Commitment

An enterprise agile transformation requires sustained commitment, effort and a focused sense of urgency from the leadership team. Lukewarm commitment or incongruent messages from leaders are quickly detected, legitimizing apathy and delay, and stalling the transformation before it gains the momentum needed to create lasting organizational change.

Overburdened Teams

When teams and managers face a daunting array of volatile, short-term priorities, they have no capacity to learn a new system for working. Failing to pursue clarity of purpose or to allow teams the time to learn sends the message that we are not serious enough to prioritize our current workload. And, because people revert to old habits and behaviors under pressure, it reduces the window of opportunity for change.

Failure to Build Consensus

Even when leaders have a clear vision for change, a critical mass of people in each team, and across the organization, must believe in and support that vision in order to reach the tipping point where sustainable change is driven from the inside. Many organizations forget to build consensus as they move from highly localized pilots with early adopters to broader adoption impacting a wider cross-section of the company.

Weak Strategy

Many agile adoption strategies are too narrowly focussed or light-weight, not recognizing the magnitude of the organizational change problem. Common weaknesses include an over-reliance on training alone without coaching and failure to build an internal coaching capability for scaling and sustaining changes. A weak strategy can leave the agile transformation isolated and under-resourced just as the scale of the change emerges.

Underestimating the Importance of Culture

In the 2011 VersionOne ‘State of Agile’ survey, the #1 barrier to agile adoption cited by 52% of respondents was the ‘inability to change organizational culture.’ A strong culture is what allows a company to scale and grow without rigid rules. But when a change in culture is needed, the very strength of the culture works against you. Culture will eat your strategy for breakfast. You’d better plan for it.

Silo’d Agile Adoption

Reaping the full benefits of agile practices requires alignment across the entire value stream. When agile adoption is limited to a single silo or department (e.g. IT or R&D), a dissonance begins to emerge with the departments in the rest of the organization, where Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance and even HR practices find themselves at odds with - and unable to keep up with - agile practices.

Practices Without Principles

Agile development is first and foremost a set of values and principles for managing uncertainty and complexity while showing great respect for people. These values and principles guide the process improvement, strengthening the learning process. Knowing how to implement practices is necessary but not sufficient for an organization to continually improve and achieve organizational agility.

Neglecting the Need for Technical Excellence

Although Agile will improve most processes immediately, sustained improvement when building high quality software and systems in short cycles requires disciplined and rigorous technical practices like continuous integration and deployment, refactoring, test automation and test-driven development. This requires a culture of technical craftsmanship.

And Success Modes to make it work…

While there is no recipe for successful enterprise agile transformation that works in all contexts there are some critical ingredients and principles common to any successful agile adoption strategy:

Urgency and Commitment

Change is painful, and anyone will avoid the pain if there isn’t a good reason to go through it. A shared sense of urgency, a belief that change right now is critical to an organization’s success, and that the pain is shared across the organization -- this brings people together, removing obstacles allowing tough decisions to be made. Following an organizational change adoption framework, such as John Kotter’s 8-steps to Leading Change, can help align people and build momentum and support for the change. Develop a sense of urgency, create a guiding coalition, and begin communicating the strategy.


Radical transparency has to be one of the most underrated tools for changing behavior. Ford Motor Co. started turning around when Alan Mulally recognized the need for transparency into what was really happening in the company - red and amber dashboards started emerging in a culture dominated by green-light reporting. Leaders can set the example by making the change process open and transparent, and the vision and strategy highly visible to everyone in order to gain buy-in. Leaders must put themselves in a vulnerable position of making bold decisions with high visibility; this leadership by example demonstrates the commitment to change and empowers others to act on their own.


Making a commitment to an enterprise agile transition means clearly and visibly saying ‘No’ to other organizational initiatives. Most organizations are stretched thin today, working on too many projects in too many domains. Steve Jobs, on returning to Apple, refocused the company on just 4 products, stopping development on many potential product lines to bring about the shift needed to make Apple great once more. Leaders must communicate unambiguous delivery priorities at the organization and portfolio levels so development and operational teams can align around common goals, and this invariably means stopping many activities in progress in order to focus on a few critical priorities. “Stop starting, start finishing.”

Investment in Continuous Learning

Eric Ries wrote, “the only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” As technologies and trends such as social media speed up the pace of feedback, companies that are able to utilize this information will prosper. The capability to both analyze data, respond to new information and execute on it becomes more and more valuable. But mistakes must be tolerated, even celebrated, and rigorous validated learning encouraged in order for innovation to occur -- often at the perceived price of the status of the resident experts. If lean thinking teaches us to pursue perfection, which is approachable but never attainable, then agile thinking allows us to incrementally move towards that perfection through its core practices that promote continual learning and improvement.

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