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Mandated Agile - A Contrarian View

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Mandated Agile - A Contrarian View

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 There was an interesting exchange recently on Twitter about Agile adoptions/transformations that are mandated. Dan Mezick asserted that:

Between 75% and 85% of all #agile adoptions fail to last. 99% of these adoptions are implemented as mandates. Any connection here?
I responded, asking for Dan's source to those stats. His answer was that it was "pro coaches" like myself. What ensued was a long conversation (such as one can have on Twitter) including people such as Mike Cottmeyer, George Dinwiddie, Glenn Waters and others.

Dan's position is that mandated Agile doesn't work, and his Open Space-flavoured version called Open Agile Adoption is much more inclusive and grassroots-driven.

Just to be clear, I have no arguments against Open Agile Adoption and I'm a big fan of Open Space and how it can be used to ensure that many more people are engaged in the work process. There are a couple of things, though, that bother me about Dan's statements.

First, even if his statistics are accurate, I want to see that his sources are somewhat more rigorous than anecdotes from other coaches. Laurent Bossavit has made a side career for himself of challenging statements such as Dan's, with much of what he's found catalogued in his book The Leprechauns of Software Engineering. I'm not suggesting that Dan's numbers are wrong, just that if he's using them to market his own product or service then it behooves him to "show his work", as a multitude of math teachers and profs told me.

My second issue is with the implication mandated Agile is wrong. Of course it would be better if a change such as that began and grew from the grassroots rather than as an imposition from management. Except... I was among the many who had great success with XP in the early 2000's on a single team, but precious little if any success trying to grow it beyond that point. Forget about management, other teams simply weren't interested, regardless of how successful we were.

There's also another funny aspect to this. If I'm working for a private company and the owner wants something done a certain way, it's absolutely her prerogative to do so! If the head honcho wants Agile and says, "Make it so!", then you're faced with a choice: you either work with the owner to make it so, or you can choose to leave.

While that view doesn't fit the mold of how we believe organizations should be run, it is how 99% of them are. OK, so I just grabbed that number out of the air. :) My experience has been invariably that this is how organizations are managed, for better or for worse.

We hear about the Semco's and the Gore and Associates of the world because they're so different, not because many other organizations are like them. Of course we should take lessons from those companies and apply them! But we also have to be wary of cargo-culting such as was done with the North American auto makers with Toyota's manufacturing model.

In the end, though, most businesses are not a democracy. Good ones are a benevolent dictatorship, and the leaders in those companies are much more inclusive of others in the decision making process. The people in those organizations feel valued and are motivated to do great things.

But even in those companies, every so often decisions are made by the top leadership without consulting the masses. Those decisions affect everyone, and are  imposed via a mandate. If the people trust that the organization's leadership is making these decisions for solid business reasons, then there really isn't a problem. If the leadership communicates those reasons and the vision behind the change, then the people on whom this mandate has been imposed are much more likely to support it.

Not all mandates are bad, and some are necessary. Creating such a false dichotomy serves no one in the long term.

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