5 steps for agile transformation: reading this will frustrate you

In the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams in 1985, hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings build a supercomputer called Deep Thought, the second-largest computer in the Universe of Time and Space. Its task is to calculate the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything.”It takes seven and a half million years to process this, and in the end, the result is 42.

“The Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is…42.”
(Deep Thought)

I quote this part of the book to deconstruct a few of the most frequently asked questions when a company starts its agile/digital transformation: “What’s THE answer to problem X?”, “What should I do?”, “Is there a model we can follow?”, “What steps are there for implementing agile in my company?”

I’m sorry to tell you that there are no five steps for agile transformation in your company. I warned you in the title, and the above picture gives you an idea, so if that was your expectation, you’ll probably be frustrated. There are no steps, no guide, nor model (template), nor ONE single answer. You can’t just copy a model from Company A and paste it on Company B.

What follows describes why there are no templates and how we can address this transformation in our own company.

Why are there no cake recipes for agile transformation?

As my friend Raphael Montenegro wrote in the article Carl Sagan and the agile transformation of companies, during our school days, we’re taught to give the right answer. We still live in an educational model created for the industrial revolution (see the video by Sugata Mitra about this topic). Uniformed pupils standing in line, teachers playing the role of “lords of knowledge”, little interaction among pupils, totally passive learning, exams, and tests to check whether the student has “learned”  the subject. There is very little group work and this is usually worth less than exams, and sometimes you hear, “I didn’t do the work, should put my name?”.

When we “finish” studying, we try taking this model to the work market (see the video by Murilo Gun – Schools Kill Creativity). We seek to find the right answer to problems, the step-by-step guide to follow, just like memorizing math tables back in school. When things go wrong, we need to find someone to blame for the wrong answer.

Welcome to the world of VUCA

Clearly the Industrial Revolution was important and brought us numerous benefits.  But we live in the Information Era (somewhere between the 3rd and 4th industrial Revolution). So, just as it wasn’t possible to apply solutions from the Agricultural Revoluti,on during the 1st Industrial Revolution, we can’t apply industrial solutions to the Information Era. We live in times characterized by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and, Ambiguity, the VUCA world.

Volatility

Do you have a plan for the next 5, 10 years? Thou shalt fail (for more about this I recommend reading the books Rework: change the way you work forever by Fried and Hansson, and The Black Swan by Taleb). The world is volatile. Companies come and go; products are created, and destroyed in a matter of days. Today we have a globalized economy and anyone, anywhere in the world, can create a new product that completely changes the context in which your company works.

“In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.”
(Klaus Schwab, CEO, World Economic Forum)

Uncertainty

What are the new products which will start to compete with your company in the next quarter? Will there be newcomers to the market? We’ve no way of knowing. Uncertainty is inherent to this moment.

Having a binary answer in which you’re either right or wrong is no longer possible. The logic is fuzzy. There are better and worse answers to a problem, but given the uncertainties, reaching one right solution is impossible.

Complexity

Take a look at your company. How many people work there? Do these people think the same? Do you have suppliers? Do they work in the same rhythm? Do your customers all want exactly the same thing? Now imagine that all this needs coordinating in order to create and deliver a product or service which is enjoyed by consumers and brings effective results for the company. An easy task? Most definitely not.

Complexity is inherent to the relationship between them, which is why we can say that within our companies, we’re working with complex systems. The larger the company, the higher the complexity.

Ambiguity

When you have plenty of information about your product, service and the market, does that mean that everyone seeing this information will come to the same conclusions? Probably not. Different people with different life stories will have different points of view (even when observing the same phenomenon).

We’ve never had so much information, but creating a common meaning for it is a tough task.

But methods do exist. Right?

You may well be asking, but aren’t there agile methods and frameworks like eXtreme Programming (XP), Scrum, Kanban, Management 3.0, among others? Yes, they do exist and are extremely useful. However, I really like this definition of Scrum:

“Scrum is lightweight, simple to understand and difficult to master.”
(Scrum Guide, 2017)

This is because we live in this VUCA world. Scrum is very simple, Its guide is just 22 pages long (including the cover, index, acknowledgments  etc.), but your company finds itself in a specific context, is made up of the people working there, and that makes it unique. So the strategy and form used to adopt Scrum in your company will be different from the strategy and form I used to adopt it in mine.

You don’t install an agile method but adopt it. This means that to achieve agile transformation, we must think strategically by taking a look at our current state, the organization’s ailments, seeking points of leverage and adopting practices that relieve any pain.

Cynefin Framework

Maybe you’ve seen other articles which do promise to deliver agility in 5, 10 steps. These do exist, but you need to watch out.

Let’s take a look at the framework Cynefin, created in 1999 by Dave Snowden. The idea is to support decision-makers in getting a sense of “place,” from which they can think of better practices for deciding about a determined topic. The framework is shown below.

It is made up of these five domains of decision-making. If you’d like to know more about this content, check out the article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.

Obvious

The first is Obvious (known as Simple until 2014). This domain is characterized by stable situations, tight constraints, and no degree of freedom. Here the recommendation is the use of best practices where one understands (feels) the problem, categorizes it, and responds mechanically.

Complicated

The second domain is Complicated. Here, to find an answer, those with experience in this context must observe the situation and analyze the cause and effect relationships. There are numerous possibilities for resolving the problem before finally using good practice as a response.

I often joke that this is the Batman’s Utility Belt Domain. You look at the problem, check your belt for the solution to use and apply it.

Complex

The third is Complex (remember VUCA?). Here we no longer have a script to follow. The cause and effect relationships can be deduced by looking at what we’ve done in the past, but we don’t know whether they’ll work for the current problem. For example, in the past, I’ve used the Root Cause retrospective with a team, and it worked fine. Does this mean it’ll work for a different team experiencing another reality? I’ve no way of knowing beforehand.

Before providing a solution, we must sound out the team, their problems, and the situation they find themselves in. Then we can get a sense of what’s going on and finally draw up a response. Practices will emerge to resolve problems, provided we have a Safe to Fail environment. Otherwise, like a baby trying to fit a square in a triangle in a toy, we’ll be trying to apply good or better practices in a situation that isn’t suited to these.

Chaotic

In Chaotic, the relationships of cause and effect are entirely unknown. We don’t even have the past to help us. So, acting is more important than just thinking about how to reach the best possible solution, which will probably involve BDUF. In this context, we need to “… act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities” (Snowden, Boone 2007). Disruptive practices and innovations usually emerge from problems in this domain.

Disorder/confusion

In the center of the framework we have the fifth and final domain: Disorder or confusion. In this case, the context is so disorderly that it is unlikely a solution will emerge. We need to slice the problem so elements can fit into other domains and thus resolve it.

Cynefin in transformation

Most of the decisions which need to be taken in a company during a transformation process will lie across the complex, chaotic, and possibly disorder domains. This is why we shouldn’t believe in ready solutions. Taking the market’s best practices and “installing them” in your company won’t work.

So are we alone in the world, adrift?

No. There are general recommendations that you should use to facilitate your transformation. The values and principles of the Agile Manifesto are a good start. Also, some of the lessons others have learned are always welcome. But here’s an important warning: instead of applying the same steps used by someone in learning something, try to understand the why, what was done, and what results were achieved. All modern science is based on this paradigm.

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”.
(Isaac Newton, 1643-1727)

General learning tips

Short experiments based on metrics

If we’re using Agile Methods, it is fundamental we build the product or service in an interactively and incrementally. How short should the experiment be? It depends on the context. Days, weeks, fortnights, month. Each case is different.

Furthermore, each delivered increment must-have metrics so that we know what happened with the product or service. Metrics will help us bring problems in the chaotic to complex, or even complicated domains. Metrics are also fundamental for understanding whether or not we’re delivering value to our company and our consumers.

When we say that in agile methods, we deliver value in a short space of time, this value shouldn’t be an imaginary thing, much less abstract. Value is an effectiveness metric for your product.

Always consider scientific method as the basis of Agile Methods: Form hypotheses, prepare experiments, carry out experiments, collect results, analyze, create knowledge, form new hypotheses…

Let’s make mistakes

Many teams try to find and analyze all the possible mistakes before starting development. As Taleb describes in The Black Swan mentioned above, this can be a useless exercise. We humans are really bad at predicting the future. The more distant in time our predictions, the greater the uncertainties and fewer the chances we have of being right.

If this is a fact, then we already know we’ll make mistakes, and the question is how. If we do long-term planning with far apart deliveries, we’ll make catastrophic mistakes. If we do short experiments, but don’t use metrics, we’ll only find out we took the wrong path when it’s too late. If we make mistakes but this produces no learning, it’s like walking towards a precipice knowing we’re going to fall and crash down below.

Let’s make mistakes, but in short cycles, using metrics that create learning so that we are successful in building the next cycle (read the article Continuous Improvement: today’s pain is tomorrow’s success).

Involve people…

Another important characteristic of human beings is that we enjoy taking part in decision making. No one likes passively being given orders without having any say. Involving people in a problem, with discussions and decisions, creates a sense of belonging to a tribe (or in this case, the team) and also creates a feeling of ownership of the solution (product or service).

…but not everyone or all the time

But beware. Have you ever been in meetings where you kept asking yourself: what am I doing here? Have you ever received an e-mail and asked yourself: why am I receiving this? Don’t trying involving everyone all the time. Don’t be your company’s generator of Spam.

Like the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf, by Aesop (620—560 B.C.), when the problem any people make up a group which is too big? Depends. Each case is different.

Continuous improvement

There is no agility for those who don’t do continuous improvement. Cross out the phrase “this’ll never change, it’s always been like this” from your vocabulary. Continuous improvement isn’t optional. In the video by Murilo Gun I mentioned at the outset he asks the question: which of you has finished your studies? The answer is, none of us ever do. You can always learn new things and improve as an individual or team.

Consider that being in pain, knowing it can be resolved, but accepting to live with it, is also a decision. But it will lead to self-destruction.

Continuous improvement makes you and your team gradually overcome challenges and achieve ever better results.

Think

At school, we learn that there’s someone who holds the knowledge (the teacher). We try to replicate this logic in the work of managers. We’re used to not having autonomy and receiving orders (even if we don’t like it). It gives us a certain amount of comfort: after all; it’s always been like this, let’s not change the status quo.

Lies. You’re a homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”) and, as such shouldn’t be sidelined from decisions, simply waiting for pearls of wisdom from managers, coaches, or consultants. These people can help you reach a solution, but you’re the co-author of the agile transformation in your company, and this is work which should always be done by four, six, ten hands.

Gauging the scenario, critical reasoning, systemic thinking, knowing how to learn, these are all fundamental attributes in this VUCA world.

Conclusion

There are no cake recipes for carrying out the organizational transformation. Mistrust anyone who has a ready-made plan for your company to become agile. We must have short cycles for delivering value in which we can experiment, learn, perfect. Remember the tip by Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“I checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
(Deep Thought)

If you enjoyed this article, check other similar ones:

The Challenges of Agile Transformation

Top 5 TED talks for Agilists

Resilience is fundamental!

Avelino Ferreira
Avelino Ferreira

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