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The Death of an Agile Transformation in Four Acts

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The Death of an Agile Transformation in Four Acts

Check out this epic tale of transformational tragedy, and heed the warning within about neglecting Agile and shunning innovation.

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Friends, I shared this article on LinkedIn earlier this month on transformation failures, and it made me think of a story close to me. This is a tale of a digital traveler: a lean man who had fire in his agile soul, a fire that was nearly drowned out after getting caught in the rush of an unexpected waterfall. This is the story of that dream shattering, his redemption, and a cautionary tale for all the other heroes out there on their own digital transformation quests. Pour yourself your beverage of choice, and settle into your favorite easy chair next to a crackling fire, because I'm about to tell you a tragic story: The Death of an Agile Transformation in Four Acts.

Act One: The Quest to Scale

Our story starts in a large, Midwestern American town, with a bright-eyed young agilist working for a fairly big enterprise company. As the transformation lead, he had a few Scrum teams, a supportive CIO, and a dream. Our hero—we'll call him Wayne (all names have been changed to protect the innocent)—successfully implemented agile at the team level with the support of an open-minded program manager. Over the course of a year, Wayne cultivated his tiny transformation office and coached several Scrum teams into a steady and regular delivery cadence. The digital transformation was starting; it was taking root like a blackberry vine into a rocky hillside, and starting to bear fruit.

While Wayne was pleased with the initial success, he knew that the time to scale was at hand and it would not be an easy sell to the rest of the organization. This was a 50+ year-old company, and even the CIO himself had a rough time going up against the staunch waterfall, command-and-control mindset that settled into its foundation. Wayne had his work cut out for him. He cracked his knuckles, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work. Tackling the transformation of a traditional PMO would be no easy feat.

Act Two: The Leader Falls, and the Villain Rises

About 2 weeks into his scaled agile implementation planning, Wayne got the email from Mr. CIO announcing his departure—and replacement. Almost at the same moment, a meeting invitation popped into his inbox for a "New CIO Meet and Greet." Wayne nervously prepared some questions for the new CIO, because with his primary supporter gone, this could mean grave danger for his transformation office.

It was a stormy Thursday when the new CIO brought the Development organization together. "I'm a traditional gal," the CIO began, "And I like to run my organization in a traditional way. I don't see the point in burdening teams with decision making when I hire managers who can handle all that. I'm all about making sure we have a plan, and perform exactly to the letter of that plan!" Behind him, Wayne heard a cheer rise up from the old guard, who'd scoffed at his ideas about agility scaling in the enterprise. Head hanging low, he shared a defeated glance with the program manager, and didn't bother with his questions. His transformation was toast, and he knew it.

Act Three: The Beginning of the End

Several months later, Wayne sat at his desk with his head in his hands just after getting chewed out by Ms. New CIO. "This scaled agile thing is ridiculous. You keep promising me transparency, more predictable delivery, happier customers, more performant teams. It's exactly the opposite out there. It's chaos, and that's on you and this "scaled agile transformation" you keep harping on. I'm having a hard time funding this little science project of yours." Reflecting on the last two months, he realized all his efforts to engage the hardcore, unmoving waterfallers by introducing bimodality went completely south. His arguments to the CIO fell on deaf ears. Her mind was made up, and Wayne knew it. The company culture was too stuck in this mindset and his transformation was going to get canned.

Act Four: Death of a Transformation

It was a foggy Friday about a week later when the guano hit the fan. "Effective immediately," the email began, "The Company 'Transformation Office' no longer exists. All projects assigned to this office will be spread across the PMO. Any 'Release Trains' or projects within the Transformation Office will be shut down. All resources will be re-organized under this office. We appreciate your cooperation."

Wayne's agile program manager copied him on her resignation. Several lonely months later, this was followed by a number of key developers and QA engineers who couldn't work in the slow-paced, out of sync environment. Pretty soon, Wayne's role was eliminated and he was invited to apply for the position of Project Manager in the PMO. He declined, and as he packed up his desk, he reflected on the positive change that he had been able to make with his transformation success early on. There had to be somewhere he could make the same–or better–difference.

Several months later, I met up with Wayne. I'm happy to tell you all that with his level of dedication and passion for agility in transformation, he landed himself a dream job at a Fortune 1000 company. Right now, he's implementing scaled agile in an experimental, highly dynamic group, and is happier than a horse with a barrel of apples. His former employer hasn't done quite so well–profits are falling quarter after quarter, and they are being crushed by their competition.

As with every honest tale, there's a moral to this story: leaders, listen to the Waynes out there. Digital transformation is no longer optional in any industry, and scaling agile in your enterprise organization is the best path forward. Embrace the change–it could mean the difference between leading your industry, or being left in the dusty paths of the past.

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Topics:
agile ,digital transformation ,leadership ,waterfall development ,cio

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