An Agile Adoption Survival Guide: Working with Culture

Hi All,

Wanted to share my latest slide deck from my presentation at the Atlanta Scrum Gathering on working with culture. About 70% the same as earlier versions.

As FYI, the book is planned for May release on InfoQ and print.

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What’s the first Decision? Implementing Kanban vs Scrum

Guest post by Michael DePaoli

If your development team or manufacturing team is considering moving to using Kanban vs. Agile Scrum, one of the biggest decisions is choosing the right agile development methods for the job. Let’s discuss the realities of implementing Kanban and some of the fundamentals that hold back both Kanban and Scrum implementations.

On paper, Kanban is certainly easier to kick-start from a change management perspective because you can leave current roles and processes largely intact; you just need to get commitment from the business to adhere to three basic principles:

  1. Provide a high degree of visibility/transparency of the state of all work queued and in progress
  2. Establish and respect WIP(work in progress) limits in the value flow
  3. Commit to execution in a ‘pull-based’ manner from the prioritized work queue

Yeah, just get commitment and practice of these three things… Much easier said than done in my experience because they are frequently outside the circle of influence of those driving the change to implementing Kanban!

Usually it isn’t that the agile software teams are unable to execute under Scrum; the fundamental issue is that the business isn’t willing to accept a “pull-based” execution model (required for Kanban and Scrum).

Businesses continue to make irresponsible commitments to customers and investors. This only perpetuates crystal-ball thinking, fixed-date, fixed-scope and fixed-cost projects. It’s the classic sales-driven model we see all too often where the sales arm doesn’t respect the capability of its product development group to produce predictable value for the customer in a timely manner, and with an agreed-upon level of quality. After all, quality is a business decision.

This irresponsible action ends up causing organizations to be unpredictable in their delivery, have lower quality, and to burn out their teams. These outcomes in turn destroy brands, ruin company reputations on Wall Street, increase the percentage of each investor dollar serving up technical debt (in lieu of adding new value to products), and causes instability in the organization’s systems due to turnover.

Bottom line, if an organization can’t make the commitment to respect their product development system’s proven delivery capability at the current level, neither Kanban nor Scrum will provide predictability. But even in the face of this dysfunction, agile methodologies like Kanban and Scrum can still provide faster learning to teams, which allows them to test their assumptions faster and provide more value to their customers by delivering what they actually need.

In conclusion, I leave you with this advice: ignore the myths and hype about Kanban. Before you can make any decisions on the Kanban vs Scrum debate, you must first evaluate:

  • Your organization’s product development and sales culture,
  • The nature of the demand for service from product development,
  • The competency of your organization to plan and execute change, and
  • The degree to which you’re willing to face the truth

Only then can you choose the best agile software tool for the job.

Michael DePaoli Bio

Over his 26 years in IT, Michael DePaoli’s experienced has included serving in different
traditional roles in highly respected companies. The roles have included analyst, software
engineer, quality engineer, development manager, project manager, Director of Engineering,
VP of R&D, CTO and Consultant in companies, such as American Express, Sprint, Deloitte
Consulting, Sapient, Knowledgepoint, Adobe Systems, AOL, NetApp and VersionOne. Michael
works as an agile / lean coach and product consultant with the VersionOne services group.

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Agile Culture and Adoption Survival Guide – Full Video!

I am very grateful to New England Agile (and Ron Verge in particular) for videotaping my presentation. For those of you who haven’t heard me speak about culture and adoption, I believe this is a crucial message for anyone acting as an Agile change agent. Enjoy.

Agile Culture and Adoption Survival Guide from Agile New England on Vimeo.

P.S. I am actively working on an eBook for those who prefer print. Drop me an email if you want to help review it before it comes out.

P.P.S Slides are here.

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Agile Failure and Corporate Culture

Last week I presented Agile Culture and Adoption Survival Guide at Agile New England. My message was around needing to understand corporate culture before undertaking Agile adoption or Agile transformation. The message resonated really strongly with participant and I received many personal thanks from people afterwards. The purpose of this post is to share additional data from that session.

Agile Failure

I did a hand vote to see how much failure people had seen with Agile adoption they were involved in. See photo on the right: most of the group rated their experiences with Agile success at 3 out of 5.

The results were pretty much consistent with the other times I have  run this: about 50% failure. I guess we can call this one – Agile is heading for the trough of disillusionment. But I haven’t given up – it’s time to up our game and turn this around.

Culture at Participant Companies

 Participants were worked in small groups to discuss what was the dominant culture at their company using the Schneider Model.  The photo below shows a histogram of the dominant culture. The peak is 30 participants identifying a control culture. It is interesting to note the relatively high 16 for Competence culture (vs. previous workshops) that represents the high density of hard-core engineering companies in the Boston area.

Closing Thoughts

Maybe the 50% failure is because 50% of the companies are control culture. Probably not entirely true, but this may be a helpful meme that allows us to change our approaches and behaviours to succeed.

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Agile Culture and Adoption Survival Guide @Agile New England

Here is the latest version of my talk that I will give at Agile New England – minor updates and tweaks since the Agile Tour Toronto version last month.

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Agile Culture and Adoption Survival Guide (Presentation)

I am very excited to share some learnings over the last 6 months on culture and transformational leadership. Here is the presentation I am giving tomorrow at Agile Tour Toronto and in Boston (@Agile New England) next month. Enjoy.

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How to Incubate Transformational Leadership

Jon Stahl had an enlightening talk at Agile 2011 where he walked through his process for incubating transformational leadership to achieve an Agile mindset.

Confused about adoption vs. transformation?  Check out ways to make progress with Culture Gaps.

Agile Mindset – Do you want it?

Jon shows the following short video of IDEO design group to illustrate the Agile mindset and the type of servant leadership needed to support it.

After watching the video with executives who want Agile, he checks in with them:

  • “Is this what you really want?”
  • “Are you prepared to change your own behaviour to support this?”
  • “Are you ready to go first?”

The approach outlined here is to go big or go home. Go big means to help transform an organization or division. Go home, means that rather than help adopt a few Agile practices that may disrupt the organization, to stop work and looks for clients who really want Agile.

Leaders Go First!

The remainder of the presentation is about how leaders can go first by adopting Agile principles as a management team. Jon summarizes this as:

  • Live the values
  • Lead by example
  • Be as transparent as the teams they lead

Here are some example activities for the management team:

  • Public display of values
  • Visualize projects and plans
  • Visual management of key information: people, technology, etc
  • Daily stand-up meeting in public place
Check out the groundbreaking slides for more details:

Thank you Jon, for sharing this at Agile 2011.

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Exploring Agile Community Challenges through StrategicPlay® with Lego®


Last weekend, a group of local Agilistas got together for BBQ, drink, and to play with Lego. Well, not just play, but StrategicPlay® – with a purpose. And wow, what a result! The outcome was some deep insights into the Agile community that we’d like to share with you.

Setting the Stage

After a brief introduction and practice with StrategicPlay® model building and sharing, everyone proposed a topic for the session by building a model and explaining it. After voting (with little wee Lego coins), the group decided on the model/topic show to the left: it contrasts the low level of connection within the Agile community and outside with other communities with the ideal/future state where there is a very powerful coherent tower of strength in the community.

Individual Visions of Agile Community Challenges

Now that the topic was establish, everyone built their own model of it and took turns explaining them. Below, for example, is an individual model. Even though it was by the same participant who created the topic, the process of listening and sharing resulted in a dramatically different model. It tells the story of seemingly growing success of Agile as a movement, but coupled with a disconnect in making a difference with much of the corporate world. The possible elephant in the room is that perhaps Agile is and always has been about innovators and early adopters.

Here is another one – showing factions arguing with each other in order to produce commercial success while the great challenge of waterfall waste is left largely unchallenged.

 A Shared Vision of Agile Community Challenges

The next challenge was for the group to work together to create a shared model that:

  • Represented the most important concept from each person’s individual model, AND
  • Everyone felt comfortable will all parts of the shared model
After a period of intense collaboration and negotiation, they created the shared model:
Some of the key take-away messages are:
  • The community consists of factions and talking heads with increasing importance on commercial success. (photo left)
  • Many customer are still trapped with bad IT.  (White man under cargo net in the middle)
  • Within the community, there is a common sense of purpose to help people reach a meaningful improvement (Green on right)
  • But there is a difficult bridge or chasm to cross to get there. Interestingly, the bridge in this model was unstable.
  • By creating rich connections and communication including transparency it is possible to illuminate the way forward (top, middle)
Watch the video. It really tells the story.

Although I only facilitated the process, I felt a strong connection with the model and ideas in it.


Credit for the model goes to : Alistair McKinnell, Jason Cheong-Kee-You, Jeff Anderson, Siraj Berhen, Todd Charron, and Sam DeBoni. Great work!

StrategicPlay® looks powerful – What can I use it for?

StrategicPlay® is great for working out solutions to complex problems. The more complex, the better.

It has a wide variety of applications from: team building and organizational change to product innovation to developing company strategy.

If you are curious to learn more about applications or the science behind why this stuff works so well, please read a more detailed description.

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Agile – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Slides

I was thrilled when I had a chance to turn my Agile Culture Series and conclusions into a session to run at XPToronto (my local Agile user group). Slides are below.

There were some interesting results that came up in the workshop component that I will share in upcoming posts. As well, I am thinking of doing a screencast of this so I can get my message out better.

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Agile – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This is your chance to hear about the Ugly harsh realities, the Bad news and the Good opportunities for Agile. In many ways this concludes the past months series on Agile Culture.

Stop reading now if you want to take the blue pill and ignore the harsh realities of the Agile industry.
Along with a menagerie of problems, the vast majority of so-called “Agile Coaches” are unconsciously incompetent with respect to adopting and transitioning to Agile and a wider toolkit is called for in many situations. But there’s hope for us all: we can stop the madness by changing our outlook and learn the tools at hand to turn this industry around.

The Ugly: Harsh Reality

Failure is now commonplace

There is a lot of failure and no shortage of lesson’s learned. Check out Google for top 10 lists on failure.  And then of course there is Ken Schwaber’s infamous quote: “75% of those organizations using Scrum will not succeed in getting the benefits that they hope for from it.” (I am in fact misquoting him but will do so anyway since he understates the problem). Of course there is my own informal study.
Agile is an idea, not a product
Many of us in the community have misunderstood that Agile is largely an idea disguised as a process (See Doing Agile isn’t the same as being Agile). Transforming companies to a new mindset is much much harder than adopting a process. Real success requires more than an accidental approach to adoption.
Post-Chasm Most Companies want a quick fix
Agile is post chasm and it’s painful (See Post-Chasm Agile Blues). Rare and far-between are the companies that have a strategic focus in adoption Agile where top company priorities are tied Agile delivery success. Often there is little buy-in to make undertake changes to really make Agile work.
Agile only fits in some company cultures
The sad truth is that Agile doesn’t fit all company cultures. Agile is about collaboration and cultivation while many companies are dominated by control culture. So, many Agile adoptions in progress right now are going to fail for this reason.

The Bad: Wake-up call for Coaches

Unconscious Ingnorance – where the majority of coaches are right now

As the ranks for so called Agile coaches has grown, I would argue that many do not really understand Agile very well (due in part to Semantic Diffusion). This is sad, but there is something worse: Among those who understand it reasonably well, the vast majority are in what I consider to be unconscious incompetence with regard to helping organizations with Agile. This is not a random insult, but a wake-up call.
If we consider “helping organizations with Agile” as a skill, then we can apply the Conscious Competence Learning Model to understand this. See levels in diagram below.

It could be argued that many are just at the Su level of Shu-Ha-Ri, and there is no need to be so negative. However, there is a step before Shu where someone does not know about or have interest in a particular skill – accidental is perhaps a more gentle word than unconscious incompetence.
I thought a lot about where to draw the red line. I think that mostly the community is is at the unconscious incompetence level with only a small number beyond this. Although there are some thought leaders sharing valuable insights, there is no coherent message that people agree on. We need to shift the curve to the right perhaps through a shaping meme in the Agile community. My hope is that this post will help with this.
Looking from a perspective of culture and the levels of failure, I think strong language is required for a wake-up-call and call to action.
The days where we pretend that Agile is the greatest things since sliced bread and we can just drop it in to any company are over.
Sorry, you need more tools
The skills required to be a good Agile Coach are immense. The best coaches are constantly learning and know that they have to be very selective in what knowledge to pursue. For example, see Agile Skills Project for skills just needed to use Agile, not to coach organizations. Mike Cottmeyer has a very broad list of tools that go waaaaay beyond Agile in 12 Key Knowledge Areas. What’s missing in all this?
Although there is a lot of talk about coaching, there is not much discussion of consulting effectively with Agile or no coherent story around organizational change. Interestingly the Certified Scrum Coach designation (which I have and think is valuable) has among other things clear requirements around Advisory and Consultation skills as well as Organizational Development. So, it’s time to read books like: Leading Change, Facilitating Organizational Change, Secrets of Consulting, and Flawless Consulting. To ease the load of learning everything, my recommendation is to work in teams.

The Good: Tools for success

First step is understanding

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao-tzu. And that first step is to honestly reflect on what is happening in your world. For many, this will be a red pill, blue pill moment – except that this time its about you and not your client.

Look at the big picture

Understanding the company culture using the Schneider Culture Model or other model is critical. This can be used to inform whether to use an adoption approach or a transformation approach. Israel Gat argues that “Long-term Agile sustainability requires all four dimensions — benefits, risk mitigation, strategic business value, and culture — to be addressed.” (Concise Executive Guide To Agile). Work towards making Agile one of the top 3 company priorities or stop. Agile readiness assessments play a big part but this body of knowledge still needs development.
Use an Explicit Transition Model
In an earlier post, I outlined different adoption and transition models. It is critcal, that everyone know and understand the approach that is used and what the goals are.
Consider Kanban and Craftsmanship
Kanban is a great way to start chipping away at years of process atrophy and dysfunction. It fits well with control cultures that dominate the IT scene. This is a good thing and meant in a positive sense - Kanban is like an Oreo Cookie: Dark Crunchy Control on the outside, but Sweet White Goodness (collaboration, cultivation and craftsmanship) on the inside!  So for those hard-core Scrum-heads or Agile zealots – let it go – Kanban is the only way to help many companies. And attempting Agile in those places will just bring harm to all involved.
Competence culture has always been part of eXtreme Programming (XP), but has been washed out of Agile culture by the success of Scrum. Much of the technical emphasis has subsequently been developed into the Craftsmanship movement. Many companies are well suited to improving technical practices, so why not start there? Yup. That’s the opposite of Scrum.

Just Say “no”

With the understanding above about what successsful Agile is and the conditions for success, it is clear that many Agile adoptions may be better off halted and others not even started.
For people who work professionally as coaches and whose livelihood depend on maladapted Agile, the way to help themselves and to help their clients is to do something different that will work or stop.

Quo Vadis?

Agile makes the world a better place

Agile is an important way to bring joy to work and make software creation a humane activity. There is a revolution happening in the world of work where people are beginning to realize the economic value of play. For example, Stuart Brown: Why play is vital — no matter your age and Jane McGonigal on why gaming can make the world better. And this is part of an even bigger movement of creating a democratic workplace – checkout WorldBlu – this is a must see.

What’s your play book?

For a change agent or coach, where are you right now? Where do you want to be in 3 months? What are you going to do to get there?
School me!
For sure some readers will be thinking “This doesn’t apply to me, I’m in the consciously competent category!”. In this case, please share your stories of success and how you get there.
Thanks for taking the red pill …

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