Escaping the Death Spiral of Your Agile Transformation

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This entry was written as part of the Supporting Agile Adoption program, an Agile Alliance initiative dedicated to supporting organizations and their people become more Agile.

Almost all of us have seen Agile transformations being disrupted by external factors. For example, a new strategy, new CEO, a market disruption, or a pandemic can bring a halt to or – if you are lucky – accelerate your transformation. Whether these external factors disrupt, stop, or accelerate you depends on your maturity in ‘being Agile’ and the robustness of your culture of Agility.

The first step is in understanding that you are actually not going through a transformation, but rather, you are on a transformational journey towards higher levels of Agility. This means, in contrast to a transformation, this journey is never over. Understanding this opens you up to use any kind of disruption as a lever for further growth in your journey. Thus, what is called Agile transformation widely is just a first initiative in a company to drive a change for introducing Agile ways of working and driving different behaviors to speed up innovation.

A Crisis Point in the Agile Journey

What we have seen is that while being on this Agile journey, you will sooner or later come to a point of crisis: your great strategy to implement Agile is under execution, but then things happen that were unforeseen (and unforeseeable). Now you are in a dilemma: you were talking about embracing change for a long time. But now you would need to change even your change initiative that you believe in and maybe have fallen in love with. What is happening is not in line with your beliefs. Having arrived at this intersection, the question is this: Should you continue with your strategy execution or change your beliefs?

It is these moments where you either have a great opportunity to take serious next steps in maturing toward higher levels of Agility or accept a fall back. It is time to take a step back to ‘reflect, inspect, and adapt.’ And it is a time to look at the whole journey with an innocent perspective. Do not attach yourself to any previous beliefs, but look with a fresh pair of eyes at what is true and what can be done. Truth is not only in the facts you see but also in what you sense (and feel). Even if you sense confusion and have a hard time admitting it, that is still the truth of your actual current situation. And it is more constructive to acknowledge that you are in confusion rather than denying it. Confusion can be the fertile ground from which new ideas and options can grow. It is your choice to allow that.

Getting a Different Perspective

As you have been part of the journey–growing and evolving into the situation you are in now–you are likely not able to observe your limiting beliefs. So it is helpful to seek the inspirational power of people outside of your regular context to have them challenge you and bring in different experiences and perspectives.

An additional way for verifying or questioning some of your limiting beliefs is to run experiments. This kind of probing can start with a mental experiment or with actual simulations that may or may not evolve into real tangible changes. (For grounded theory and examples on probing, see the Cynefin book by Snowden et.al. and the so-called BOSSA nova book by Eckstein & Buck.)

A Hypothetical Example

How could that look practically? Here is an example:

Imagine you are well into your Agile journey. You have established an open and transparent atmosphere of continuous learning. Now a new manager is appointed who has not been part of the journey before. People are curious and maybe a little nervous about what the new leader will bring.

The new manager is eager and passionate to drive the organization and is asking for reports, metrics, and data to understand the current performance. This request is interpreted as “this new manager is from the old non-Agile school”. And as a consequence, people might fall back to the pre-Agile responses, becoming cautious, non-transparent (“What can I say without fearing negative consequences?”) etc. Assumptions are (unconsciously) made and start to block open dialogue. Rumors are spreading around the coffee corners amplifying the projections and speculations (“I’m not sure how Agile the manager is! Look: We get asked to deliver all these reports! It feels like where we were three years ago!”)

This creates a self-reinforcing negative loop that amplifies behaviors counter-effective for an open innovative culture.

However, stepping back and looking at this neutrally, this is all just a projection on the new manager and there is (thus far) no data proving that the new manager is anti-Agile.

Limiting Beliefs Revealed

When you look at this from a distance, you will also see a couple of un-proven projections and hypotheses revealing some limiting beliefs.

One hypothesis might be that the new manager does not support the Agile culture. Proof point: They are not speaking of the previous achievements. Instead, they are asking for reports and metrics and dashboards. So your limiting belief might be someone asking for reports, dashboards, and metrics is criticizing the previous organization and must work from a non-Agile mindset.

Becoming aware of this and reflecting on the potential limiting belief might lead you to a different hypothesis: The new manager does support an Agile culture, yet “doesn’t speak the language” that the organization is used to. Proof points: Their words are carrying a different message than we are used to. They are asking for reports more than the organisation was used to before. Yet in all employee meetings, they are inviting for dialogue, feedback, and input. At first sight, this is experienced as conflicting invitations.

Are these hypotheses and “proof points” true or do they just reveal our limiting beliefs? So instead of just reacting to the situation and allowing you and your organization to fall into the down-spiral, it is more helpful to become aware and validate these hypotheses with some experiments.

Experiments to Try

Below are different possible experiments you might want to try.

  • Validate your observation and feelings with colleagues close to you.
  • Do a role-play: one person represents the new manager and is well-intended. You start discussing with the manager why there is a need for reports. Observe how that feels. Reflect on whether a different perspective emerges. What limiting beliefs do you discover? In yourself? In your manager? What new hypotheses emerge?
  • Carefully listen to all messages from the new manager, cross check these messages with the organizational goals, OKRs, etc. If possible, discuss your data points with the new manager in person.

In other words, take the crisis as a chance to learn what kind of behaviors and practices still need support (most likely the support should be different than what you’ve offered before). Probe the situation in order to learn how far the change has impacted your situation. In such a situation, be Agile by taking a step back and reflect on what your actual beliefs and hypotheses are about that crisis. As such, the crisis works for you as opposed to against you. You respond to a complex challenge in a constructive way.

References

  • Snowden, D. et.al (2020): Cynefin – Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of Our World.
  • Eckstein, J. & Buck, J. (2020): Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy. Survive & Thrive on Disruption.

 

About the Authors


Jutta works as an independent coach, consultant, trainer, author, and speaker (https://www.jeckstein.com/). She has helped many teams and organizations worldwide to make an agile transition. She has unique experience in applying agile processes within medium-sized to large distributed mission-critical environments.

In 2001, Jutta was one of the first worldwide who scaled agile. She has published her experience in many books:

- Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy (with John Buck), see https://www.agilebossanova.com/
- Diving for Hidden Treasures: Uncovering the Cost of Delay in your Project Portfolio’ (with Johanna Rothman)
- Agile Software Development in the Large
- Agile Software Development with Distributed Teams
- Retrospectives for Organizational Change

She is a member of the Agile Alliance (having served the board of directors from 2003-2007) and a member of the program committee of many different American, Asian, and European conferences, where she has also presented her work.

Jutta holds an M.A. in Business Coaching & Change Management, a Dipl.Eng. in Product-Engineering, and a B.A. in Education.


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Growing up in the 1980s I was a passionate computer game developer during my school and study times. After getting my diploma in Electrical engineering I started at Ericsson in 1994 as aSW developer. From 1996 I worked in project management roles. Since 2000 I am working as a manager, first heading a Project Office, later Systems- and Technology Management and since2009 the Portfolio and Technology Management for Mobile Core. In 2008 I was a key contributor to the agile transition of our organization. I am supporting the enterprise transition to lean and agile by consulting and teaming up with other parts of Ericsson.I am an active speaker at conferences, both Ericsson internal as well as public (Agile 2012, 2013, XP2013, Agile Executive forum, XP2014, Bosnia Agile Day 2014). I am a member of the Agile Alliance and the Program Director of the Agile Alliance's "Supporting Agile Adoption" Program.


This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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