The Truth about Agile Transformation: What It Is And more

Some people may see Agile as a trick, a method or a concept, but to me, it is the key element for a future proof organization. Agile is a social technology, an answer to the global technological disruption. Social technologies are universally applicable ways of thinking, working and organizing. I believe Agile is the most important social technology of this era. That is why I’d like to contribute to the understanding of what Agile is and especially what it can bring.
12 November 2020
Nienke van de Hoef
agile transformation

A few days ago, I saw an advertisement that read: “We also pay attention to modern concepts such as Agile working and working in Scrums. But we mainly assess, based on scientific knowledge, whether these new concepts are indeed valuable for the setting in which our customers work.” The person that wrote this is a director of a consultancy, teaches a post-graduate program at a university and has more than 30 years experience in organizational consulting.

When someone with so much experience, who is engaged in organizational development on a daily basis, has this (mis)conception of Agile, I get a strong urge to do some missionary work. I am shocked that Agile is still not understood fully by experienced organizational change experts. And if this is the case, it stands to reason that people with less experience will probably understand even less of Agile. Which unfortunately means that the much needed change in mindset and working methods goes even slower. Moreover, it is good to know what you are getting yourself into: a Scrum team on its own is not that exciting yet, but starting an Agile transformation demands better understanding: in for a penny, in for a pound.

The problem and the solution

Fundamental change happens too little and goes too slow. In my opinion that is a problem, because organizations could function so much better. We can make immense more impact when taking small steps. The good news is: you can start making more impact tomorrow. By ‘impact’, I mean more value for customers, whether they are consumers, citizens, patients or students. In short, ‘impact’ means a lot less frustration and, above all, getting what is intended: an answer to your question, future-proof education or a product that makes your life easier.


Meaningful impact also leads to more fun and job satisfaction. It would be great if we would enjoy the time we spend at work and if we would have the feeling that we are doing something meaningful at the same time. Classical change processes from the current state to the end-state based on pre-developed change plans or blueprints do not work. Every organization and every team deserves its own change process. But that takes a lot of effort, time and attention, and yes, also money and capacity. That’s because people view change as a hugely complicated undertaking: the solution is not that simple…

It’s not a trick, it’s a mindset

Agile has its origins in software development. In 2001, a number of bright minds wrote an Agile manifesto, with principles that had helped them deliver more value and be more effective than before. The values from this manifesto have become guidelines for Agile organizing. Even if you don’t work in software development, you too can use these values and principles in your own organization, if you tweak them a little bit to suit your situation. We call this the Agile mindset. In fact, it is a different pair of glasses that you use to look at the world. And I consciously write ‘world’, because I see it as a switch that you turn on in your head. That switch is the paradigm shift, which means that you cannot look at the world differently anymore once you’ve flipped the switch in your head. The manifesto has thus become a set of life rules. Even more so for me, is the contemporary translation into Modern Agile. I apply this in everything I do and it is about personal agility: growing and developing myself towards a more meaningful life.

Disclaimer: paradigm shift is necessary

I think this video is a nice metaphor to clarify what I mean. It takes the man in the video 9 months to learn to ride a bicycle that goes to the right when you steer to the left and vice versa. To do this, he trains for 15 minutes every day. It involves a lot of trial and error. When he’s finally able to do it, he finds out that he can no longer ride a normal bicycle. He then states: “Knowledge is not understanding.” And that is exactly what Agile is: knowing what Agile means in theory is not the same as really understanding it or putting it into practice in your daily life. So my advice would be to keep training your agile mindset until you’re able to do it instinctively.


“Scrums” don’t exist

In this day and age so it may also be difficult to admit that you do not yet fully know what Agile exactly is. Major banks, and with them many other organizations, started an Agile transformation a few years ago and have propagated what they’ve been doing in the rest of the world. Yet agilists recognize it immediately if you do not really understand Agile, and that is because of the way you use certain agile jargon. When, like the change agent above, you say that you have done “a number of Scrums”, we can tell that your knowledge of Agile is limited. If you say you want to ‘implement Agile’, we already know that you don’t really understand it (yet). And if you write, as the Chamber of Commerce recently did, that you award your tender to parties that have ‘an endless array of Agile certificates and ISO certifications’, we know that you are not truly ready to start an Agile transformation.


What about Scrum then?

Scrum is one of many Agile methods. It’s the best known and the most used. It is a framework: a well thought-out set of roles, gatherings and rituals. At first glance, these do not look complicated. But nothing lasting will come from using Scrum if you do not also develop the appropriate mindset. All Scrum values ​​can be linked to the Agile manifesto. Scrum is a very powerful framework because it can help you get results more quickly than any other method you’ve tried before. And while it’s quite fun and interesting for a while, unfortunately it can also evolve into zombie scrum (i.e. soulless)l if you don’t take the next step in Agile development. It is not without reason that we call ourselves Agile coaches: we coach individuals and teams towards more agility. In addition, Scrum is not suitable for every type of work or issue and therefore not for every team. You can’t “do a few Scrums” either, just like you can’t do a few Lean Six Sigmas or Prince2’s. The good news is that the Agile principles and values can always be applied to any kind of work. This puzzling and exploring of how it will work for you, is precisely what makes it so interesting.

Agile working is team-centered working

That brings me to what Agile also is. In addition to focusing on customer value, short-cycle learning, creating said customer value and making work mor

e visible, it’s also about multidisciplinary teams. In my opinion, the best team is a dedicated team, with different kinds of expertise and experience.This team is responsible for end to end value. I think I should explain that: you want to be as independent as possible, because being dependent on others slows you down. That means that you take care of one part of the total value chain with your team. Plus, you don’t want to be changing team members all the time. A dedicated team means that you work with the same people in the same team all the time. This has much more benefits than constantly changing team members, because dedicated team members are more willing to transfer knowledge to team members and learn new things, which ultimately increases productivity and value for the customer.


Team interest comes first

Once you have formed the teams, you are not there yet. In a team, the individual interest is subordinate to the team interest. By that I mean there is no room for big egos. You put yourself in service of the team. In a good team there is psychological safety, you can be who you are, say what you want and you are seen and recognized. A team thus offers shelter and at the same time brings responsibility: together you create customer value. If you are well attuned to each other, you can move mountains. Nothing is more motivating than doing a challenging job together. Being part of a good team creates good energy. Generally speaking, achieving this team feeling does not happen automatically and requires clear frameworks, but also coaching on mindset and behavior.


Bringing work to teams

In addition, we bring work to the team, instead of what organizations normally do: create task force teams related to specific work, tasks and projects and then splitting the teams up when the work is done. Bringing work to the team puts the team in charge of the amount of work it can handle and it helps the team focus on the work at hand. Focus helps to progress, fragmentation slows down. For example, our vision on purpose-oriented work is also based on this idea. In The Netherlands, purpose-oriented work is a term mainly used by public institutions to address their way of organizing work. It is an answer to delivering value to society whilst dealing with complex challenges, such as climate change. Instead of putting people from different departments together in a temporary project team, a dedicated team is formed to address the challenge. That doesn’t sound complicated, but it is one of the toughest steps to achieve in the average bureaucratic hierarchy. Freeing up a few teams to focus on part of the value chain or a task is truly revolutionary in some organizations.


Scientific substantiation does not guarantee success, but an eye for people does

Agile is largely based on empiricism and although empirical research is part of the academic research tools, many agilists do not find it all that interesting. We are prone to quickly test hypotheses and develop them further. Scientific research simply takes too much time and does not necessarily lead to a model that works for your organization. Agile is meant to promote nimbleness and adaptability.


Focus on measurable and noticeable results

In a way, Agile working is also a plea to trust in people and belief that they will do what it takes in the customer’s best interest. This also makes it an indictment against anything that is only rational and cognitive. It’s more of an “also”; As in, rational thinking is great, but also follow your instincts. Don’t just follow the facts, but also listen to the wishes and opinions of your customers.


The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. — Albert Einstein


As a society, we have been viewing every organization as a factory and the people who work there as cogs in a large machine. Many leaders have learned in their MBA to use spreadsheets to keep control over what is happening in the organization and thus avoid risks. That does not go well with Agile organizing. Agile organizing requires that you aim for noticeable results in addition to being measurable. Indeed: a feeling, which cannot always be expressed in numbers. What if focusing on KPIs such as handling times, conversion and duration of telephone calls doesn’t actually lead to a higher customer satisfaction at all? What would happen if you offer employees decent and fair conditions to do their jobs? What if this would actually lead them to achieve the best results? What if you turn it around and start making your own people awesome, as Modern Agile intended. And that happy employees really lead to happy customers? Don’t you want the best people working for you, because you’re such a fantastic organization with inspiring vision, that encourages autonomy and has an eye for employee happiness? If you see Agile as social technology, then you must not forget the social aspect.


Agile is a comprehensive way of thinking and working

Agile helps the workplace to work differently. Yes, that’s right. Agile frameworks such as Scrum or Kanban often work well in the operation. It motivates people, provides guidance and results in higher productivity. But how do you coordinate and align teams? By which I mean: how do you scale Agile working? What does that mean for the role of managers and the way they manage? What conditions must be created by HR? How does long-cycle budgeting compare with the great speed at which teams budget? How do you ensure alignment between the multi-year strategy and the sprints of the teams? Compare it with a knitted sweater: you pull one thread and before you know it you no longer have a sweater but a bunch of wool. An Agile transformation is complex and at the same time a fantastic adventure for your entire organization. During that adventure, you will look for the answer to all these questions, and more. You will find answers that suit your organization, context, people and customers. This is what we call an Agile transformation.


Wake up call: change realistically

Do you find this to be a terrifying story, and are you thinking: “Yes, hello, we are a company, not a commune of hippies and we are not going to do these kinds of experiments. We just have to make money.” Then my answer is very simple: don’t do it. Don’t get started. Especially because there is something else I have not told you: Agile affects everything and everyone, even if you think you are experimenting a bit with a few Scrum teams. The tipping point for social change is 25%. If a minority of this size commits to the change, there is no way around it and you will have to commit to said change yourself.


Maybe this story discourages you. But it is the truth about Agile transformation. It’s the realistic story I think we should tell more often. A transformation is an organizational development process of years. And even then, you are never truly done, because in reality it is an ongoing development. Which lasts forever when done right. (Please read Simon Sinek’s ‘The Infinite Game’ for more on this.) Agile is much richer and deeper than is often thought of. It is not a form of work or occupational therapy. It is a fundamentally different way of organizing. This yields enormous benefits: employees who effortlessly dedicate themselves every day to do the best for the customer, enthusiastic teams who enjoy delivering value intermediately, a responsible and congruent organization that works on realizing its purpose and thus contributes to a more meaningful world.


Do you dare?

Starting with Agile requires a clear vision of where you want to go as an organization, what you stand for and which principles define the way you want to work together. It also requires something else: the unstoppable desire to organize radically in a different manner because it can be done so much better. Above all, it requires a lot of guts and courage to jump in the deep end and go on a thrilling adventure.

Nienke van de Hoef

Co-founder & agile coach
Ik heb de overtuiging dat de publieke sector zoveel beter kan functioneren en zet me daar elke dag vol energie voor in. Complexe vraagstukken vragen om een eigenzinnige oplossingen. Mijn hart voor de publieke sector en ondernemersgeest gebruik ik voor duurzame en, waar nodig, radicale organisatieverbeteringen.