Stop Agile Initiatives!

Stop Agile HeadlineI am sick to death of Agile Initiatives because they usually fail. Sure there are some companies where Agile just fits, but the most common case is a culture conflict. Best fix I know is: Agile is NOT the Goal (Workshop)

The core problem is that the typical approach used to initiate Agile is inconsistent with Agile goals of empowerment and engagement.

Paul Heidema and I ran a session to explore this at Agile Open Toronto this Spring and this post is a way to share the key learnings.

This is a great workshop to run with people to help them understand different options for engaging with change.

I Caused Damage By Agile …

My mom used to say: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Here is how I and others have caused damage with Agile:

 I caused damage with Agile by...

Of course you can replace the word “Agile” with any other word such as “Lean”, or “Total Quality Management” or <Fill-in-the-blank>.

 Real Change Happens When…

We then reflected on the times when we participated and witnessed real change and found that it emerges – it’s not forced:


How Change Your Agile Initiative into Something Better

Real success comes from digging in deep on what is important and really valued in the organization – not just jumping on the Agile bandwagon.

Here is are practical exercise you can use to transform your Agile Initiative into something more resilient and lasting: Agile is NOT the Goal (Workshop)


We really appreciate all the folks who showed up and participated in this session. It was awesome.


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10 Things Executives Need to Know about Agile

Slide deck with the top 10 things executives need to know about Agile:

Here’s the list with some handy links:

  1. Agile Is Mainstream
  2. Many Benefits from Agile
  3. Agile is not a Silver Bullet
  4. Agile Fails Due to Culture
  5. Agile Differs from Most Company Cultures
  6. Most Value Comes from Mindset/Culture, not Practices
  7. Adopt Agile Practices that fit Culture (Option 1)
  8. Change Culture through Organizational Transformation (Option 2)
  9. Culture Mismatch will Slow and Ultimately Fail Your Agile Initiative
  10. Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Of course, it is fine to proceed with either option – adoption or transformation – it’s about what is the best fit for the client environment and their wishes.

There are two conversations around transformation that this deck is designed to trigger/encourage:

  • What does break-through organizational culture look like?
  • What does organizational transformation look like?

My Favourite Slide in the Deck

Benefit of Practices vs Culture


I would like to thank the hundreds of people who have attended my workshops and talks over the last two years to help clarify and refine this message.

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How Change Initiatives Damage Organizations and Fail

Change Initiative - ForcesA simple (and misunderstood) way people think of their change initiative like this:

Their organization is just sitting there, ready to change in wonderful ways. We just have to tell people how great our new initiative is and they will be lining up to learn more and make things happen. Right?

Unfortunately, organizations are complex adaptive systems with their own dynamics and forces at play.

Note: we could be talking about the whole organization, a group, or a team here.

Forces Acting on an Organization

In the following diagram, I will use the word Culture to capture the existing forces at play in an organization. The real situation will be of course much more complex with various attractors influencing the system in different ways, but this will reveal the essence of what I have seen with change initiatives around Agile.

Forces on Org Change


Some remarks on the diagram:

  1. It is difficult for a change initiative to make real progress if it runs against the culture of the organizations (as is usually the case with Agile). It’s like trying to roll a giant boulder up hill.
  2. When forces pull an object in different directions, the object is under tension. Too much tension and the organization will be damaged (red squiggles). So, when you notice resistance, applying more force will damage your organization. A few weeks ago, this simple explanation helped a client reduce tension by shifting the blue rather than adding more green.
  3. The change initiative will eventually fail. Why? Energy is required to keep the change initiative going. Eventually, people will just declare victory or give up and move on to the next initiative. At this point the boulder rolls down the hill, crushing supporters of the initiative on the way.

Rolling Rocks Downhill

Rolling down hill - culture A much better way to go about this is to forget about change strategies and work on an organization’s culture so that it moves the organization towards the desired outcome without conflict. This is of course a vastly simplified version of reality, but it helps us stop and consider the root cause of dynamics and forces in an organization.


There is a great exercise on force-field analysis called “May the Forces Be With You” that I learned from The big book of humorous training games.

Olivier Lafontan wrote the insightful post Being an Agile transition coach feels like Sisyphus that inspired the boulder in my narrative.

The phrase “Rolling Rocks Downhill” came to mind from Clarke Ching’s new book by that title.

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Tactics, Strategy, & Culture – A Model for Thinking about Organizational Change

The following diagram is a powerful mental frame to help understand change efforts within organizations. It makes the discernment between tactical, strategic and cultural levels. One way to use the diagram is to position each change item or activity on the line to show what aspect it is focussed on.

More importantly, I use the diagram to engage with clients to explore what they want to achieve, why they want to achieve it, and how invested they are in the outcome.

Some typical benefits are listed above the line. Most importantly, break-through results only come from culture –  not tactical or strategic approaches.

  • Tactics – “How do we work?” is about day to day practices and process elements. These are things that a team or organization can adopt.
  • Strategy – “What do we want to achieve” is about aligning the company around key goals and initiatives.
  • Culture – “Who do we want to be?” is about clarifying the organizations reason for existing as well as it’s values and vision.

Relationship between the levels

Culture is the foundation that Strategy and Tactics sit on. But culture is like an iceberg – a powerful force that is underwater where you can’t see it. Sure it’s possible to work at the levels of tactics and strategy, but that is unlikely to make any lasting change or draw great benefits. Lasting change requires working at all three levels so that the tactics and strategy support the culture.

Relationship to Leadership Agility

Bill Joiner has identified a number of distinct mindsets that can be found with managers/leaders. and his work on Leadership Agility. The following are one to one mappings from types of leaders/mindsets:

  • Experts focus on Tactics: problems and work execution.
  • Achievers focus on Strategy: outcomes and the system.
  • Catalysts focus on Culture: vision and break-through culture.


The deepest inspiration comes from Bill Joiner and his work on Leadership Agility and the different levels of focus. This served as the basis for my model.

I would like to thank a variety of sources for the notion of Culture being mostly hidden – I have seen or read this in a number of places but most vividly from the folks at Crucial Conversations and their book Influencer in particular.

I am grateful for Mike Cottemeyer for helping me understand the difference between Agile Adoption (Tactical) and Agile Transformation (Cultural).

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Book – An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture

I am very excited that I just published my free book – An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture on InfoQ. Agile change agents will find it valuable in helping companies succeed with Agile and avoiding failure.

About the Book

Struggling with Agile? Frustrated that people don’t really get it? Tired of fighting with organizational bureaucracy? Wondering how you could have been more successful? If so, then this book is for you!

The book provides a set of essential thinking tools for understanding Agile adoption and transformation: how they differ and what you need to know to know to avoid being another statistic in the widespread adoption failure. In particular, you will learn how to use culture to work more effectively with your organization.

It is called a survival guide since so many people have found the concepts to be invaluable in understanding their experiences when working with Agile.

This book includes:

  • Identification of causes of the widespread Agile adoption failure
  • A model for understanding Agile, Kanban, and Software Craftsmanship culture
  • An outline of key adoption and transformation approaches
  • A framework to help guide when to use these these approaches with your organization
  • Real-life case studies of what has worked and what hasn’t

Electronic Version is Free

You can get a PDF or ePub version of the book for free on InfoQ. Why free? My primary goal is to change the world of work, and by making it free I can best achieve this goal. Of course, I would be really happy if you bought multiple copies of the print edition to give to your friends and clients to help them succeed as well as support my work.

Thank You

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

I would like to thank Henrik Kniberg who has contributed so much open source material to the Agile community and inspired me to write a free eBook to pay it forward. I also appreciate him taking the time to write one of the forewords.

I would like to thank the attendees of workshops with early incarnations of this material – XPToronto, SoCal Lean Kanban, Agile Tour Toronto, and Agile New England. Your comments, challenges and reflections have helped in immeasurable ways.

Thanks to all the people who read my blog posts throughout 2011 on this topic and provided valuable feedback.

A big thanks to Michael Spayd for first introducing me to the Schneider culture model and for conducting a survey of Agilistas.

For sure this work would not exist but for Mike Cottemeyer’s differentiation of adoption and transformation.

Thank you to the review team for feedback: Chris Williams, Irene Kuhn, Armond Mehrabian, Krishan Mathis, Bernie Jansen, Ed Willis, Eric Willeke, Karl Scotland, Sabine Canditt, Todd Charron, Bob Sarni. Olaf Lewitz in particular deserves distinction by providing an extraordinary quantity of valuable comments, questions and challenges.

I would like to thank those who directly contributed to this work as well as reviewing: Olivier Gourment for contributing a case study; Jeff Anderson, Olaf Lewitz, Jon Stahl, and Karl Scotland and Alexei Zheglov for sharing their challenges and alternate visions in the appendix.

I would also like to thank Alistair McKinnell, Jason Little, Declan Whelan for providing feedback on the Methods & Tools article that formed a chapter in this book and to John McFadyen and Dave Snowden for feedback on the Cynefin section.

I am very appreciative of Jurgen Appelo for taking time out of his busy schedule to write a foreword.

And of course a big shout out for my daughter Scarlett who provided original art with the jigsaw puzzle and butterfly transformation drawings.

Wow! Even a small book such as this benefits from so much help.

– Michael Sahota


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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 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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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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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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