All agile initiatives are flawed (and thats good)

If I may paraphrase the late Madeleine Albright: “What really troubles me is that agile is getting a bad name because it is identified with imposition and occupation. I’m for agile, but imposing agile is an oxymoron. People have to choose agile, and it has to come up from below.” (Albright was talking about democracy not agile, if like me you associate agile with democracy the sentiment is no surprise.)

I’ve spent much of the last 20 years helping companies and teams adopt agile. A lot of people are cynical about agile today but I still see benefits. A lot of the cynicism comes because all agile initiatives are flawed – every single one.

Whether you call it agile transformation, agile initiative, agile change or simply agile adoption all are flawed. While I like to claim success for many of the companies I’ve worked with I also see flaws in my successes.

Some agile transformations are flawed in conception. I’ve worked on a couple of these and find them soul destroying. Typically change driven from the top, a big consultancy is probably involved, there may be a roll-out plan and success is measured on some kind of “maturity assessment” – are you doing stand-ups? do you have a product owner? is your backlog burning down?

These kind of agile transformations focus on “doing agile” rather than being agile and achieving agility. I feel sorry for everyone involved but what are senior leaders supposed to do? Imagine you are the CEO of a legacy bank: you know agile is good, you know all the other banks are trying it, and you know digital transformation depends on agile transformation but what can you do? You have little choice but to call in a big consultancy and impose it top-down.

The other kind of flawed agile transformation is, to borrow a phrase from Amy Edmondson, “the right kind of wrong.” These are flawed by success, although it might not feel like that. It is hard to recognise and harder to live through. I’ve seen plenty of these too and, if I think about it, some of these flawed initiatives were my greatest successes.

Be agile to be agile

It is because agile transformations efforts are flawed that we practice agile. Agile is not the end state, it is the way you operate. There is no final, fixed, state.

It was Jutta Eckstein who I first heard describe agile as a problem detector. While some agile tools make things better as soon as applied them other help you see the problems you face. There might be an agile tool to help with the problem or you might need to fix it yourself. This is especially true at the level of the organization, Agile OKRs make this really clear.

Agile transformations which work well are flawed because success breeds success: each success lifts you higher and you can see more problems. A successful team will want to make more change. Remember by maxim: “The only thing you can do wrong in agile it doing it the same as you did 3 months ago.”

Before long successful teams find changes are needed beyond the team. Maybe the marketing department needs to forget about annual big launches, maybe the HR department needs to change bonus systems and so on. The successful agile teams sees the initiative as flawed because they need more.

At the same time, people in those other groups might be seeing the successful agile team and want to copy them. But because they face their own obstacles they can’t.

To those on the periphery of these teams – typically managers – this can look like conflict, tension, complaining, and even agile failure.

Whats happening here is learning: agile is learning. When teams are successful they don’t just learn about sprints and WIP limits, they learn what else needs changing to be more successful.

It is actually good that they see failure because failure is a great motivator for change. When something is a success why change? When something fails then fix it! Inside those problems are opportunities to be even better.

Agile OKRs

Which brings us to OKRs, and specifically Agile OKRs. One of the reasons, despite myself, that I like came to like adding OKRs to agile: because they open up new vistas to see and address problems, and thereby enhance agility.

I have been talking about OKRs as “just in time story generators” for some time, increasingly I see them as change drivers. Adding OKRs to agile doesn’t solve problems overnight, but it does make some problems clearer, like the run away backlog. Working with Agile OKRs means ensuring OKRs are set bottom-up, which demands that leaders are clear about strategy. Too often leaders aren’t clear about strategy – sometimes because they don’t have one. Agile OKRs allow us to address that problem.

The challenge is to keep the faith and keep working to fix your flawed agile transformation. It is in being agile that we become agile. Which is pretty much democracy.

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