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Breaking the habit: Why is agile transformation so hard?

What is it that makes Agile successful? What makes becoming a truly agile organization so hard? Two questions I believe have the same answer at their core. The answer lies in replacing vicious with virtuous patterns.
Date
6 October 2020
Author
Michiel van Gerven
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Powerful patterns

Many organizations have started out on a journey of agile transformation. They adopt agile frameworks to help them deliver greater customer value continuously and may be starting to see the first benefits, but what is it that makes agile frameworks work?

Agile works because of patterns. It helps you to start eating apples instead of crisps. In other words, we replace an unhealthy pattern with a new one. Do the new pattern for long enough and it becomes the new normal. You have created a new habit. Do this on a large enough scale and you will eventually change an organization’s culture.

How does this work in practice? Let’s take a look at the most famous and most widely used agile framework: Scrum. It consists of a number of healthy patterns that, if done right, can put you on the path to a virtuous cycle of growth and relentless improvement. Scrum is so powerful because it has a strong focus on changing structures from the outset, team structures, and also behavioral structures. These structures are a combination – and codification – of a set of healthy patterns.

For a simple example, let’s consider the daily scrum. Teams can make the best decisions if they have all the information they need. The standup creates a pattern of information sharing and transparency that facilitates making better decisions and plans. These team level information sharing patterns combine to create a larger organizational pattern. A culture is created in which sharing information is the norm, allowing the whole organization to become smarter and to make better decisions.

Agile transformation works because it helps you to replace unhealthy patterns in your organization with healthy ones. This in turn will help your organization improve its performance while making it a great place to work. Sustain the pattern of replacing unhealthy patterns with healthy ones and you will find yourself in a virtuous cycle.

Clearly there is power in such a meta pattern. But if these patterns are so powerful, then why is agile transformation (creating this virtuous cycle) so hard? The problem lies not in learning the new, but rather in unlearning the old patterns.

Developing new habits

Anyone that has ever made a new year’s resolution knows how hard it is to create a new healthy habit. An old habit isn’t just replaced by a new habit: it often takes a long continuous streak of doing the right thing to create a new habit. Unfortunately, it takes only one instance of breaking out of the new pattern for you to have to start all over again (e.g. quitting smoking).

Therefore, building a new pattern requires conscious effort. Conversely, sticking to your old pattern requires no effort at all. It’s akin to a reflex. Organizations, like people, have reflexes. Patterns that have become ingrained in the organization. I often like to illustrate this point and the effect on organizations going through agile transformations by showing the video below. It famously shows Destin Sandlin as he attempts to master cycling on a bike that has its steering inverted.

 

 

This video is interesting as it shows the process of adopting behavior that is contrary to what the brain is used to. It takes Destin significant effort to unlearn what he has learned about riding a bike, and adopt a new way. It shows his progress from him not being able to ride the bike at all, to being able to consciously ride the bike, to finally unconsciously being able to ride it.

Agile transformation is a lot like this. When first starting out on this path many things feel alien or even wrong – all your reflexes are the wrong way around. Then you start to make progress and see results, but your transformation is still in a fragile state. You are consciously agile, but in stressful situations you or your organization might resort to old behavior. Considerable willpower and awareness of your own behavior and patterns will see you through, or help you get back on the horse should you fall off.

Continue to learn consciously, and you can reach a level where the new pattern becomes the new normal. You have adopted a new habit. At this point you are able to unconsciously follow the new pattern. It has become sustainable. In the case of a large scale agile transformation this may take years. But this is not the end state. Truly agile organizations are never done learning: you have to stay nimble. Even in a sustainable agile situation, an organization must strive to keep learning and improving consciously, while being unconsciously competent.

Agile transformation requires learning and adopting new patterns and unlearning old ones. Crucially it requires sticking to these new habits even in times of stress to make the transformation sustainable.

Organizational plasticity

How long it takes to sustainably adopt a new (agile) pattern depends greatly on the current state of an organization. There is another story of note in that video. It also shows Destin’s son going through the same learning process at a much quicker pace than Destin did. In Destin’s words ‘A child has more neural plasticity than an adult’.

Compare this to organizational learning. The older the organization, the stronger the reflexes and the more complex the preexisting patterns are likely to be. Younger organizations often find it easier to adopt new ideas and habits than older ones. The organizational debt, in the form of organizational patterns, has simply not piled up as much. Or in other words: there is less the organization has to unlearn. Younger organizations have more organizational plasticity. Of course, start-ups have it easiest. As they are a blank canvas of sorts there is very little for them to unlearn. (apart from sometimes years of business school).

The process of agile transformation can be a painful one to older organizations as unlearning existing patterns often takes the form of structural transformation in areas such an organization’s operating model and reward structure. But I believe the benefit of adopting agile patterns does not only instill healthy habits in an organization, it also has the potential to permanently rejuvenate an organization. An organization that has become truly agile has added consciously learning to its DNA, greatly enhancing its ability to adopt new patterns in the future. In effect it is able to maintain a higher level of organizational plasticity.

Conclusion

In agile transformations the difficulty lies not just in learning new behavior and patterns. Rather it is in unlearning old habits and consciously replacing them with new, healthy ones. Like adopting a healthier lifestyle, it is worth the effort and it will eventually become easier. Getting to the stage where you do not revert to unhealthy habits when under stress, takes serious willpower.

The ultimate goal is to get into a meta pattern of consciously building healthy patterns and replacing unhealthy ones. Agile can help you become a permanently healthier organization by rejuvenating your organization’s ability to learn.

Michiel van Gerven
Agile coach