You are currently viewing The Stages of an Agile Transformation

The Stages of an Agile Transformation

In my foundation Agile training and coaching sessions, people often ask me what to expect during the transformation from the current state to an “agile” state. I give an open-ended question like that a “it depends” response however I know that they are asking me to give a measurement of team or organization performance now and compare that to “when we are agile”. Okay, now I know where you are going, and where your mindset is.

First, some clarifications…

First and foremost, let me make clear the following: agile is a journey, not a destination. The phrase “we are agile” triggers me. Anyone can say they are agile or not agile. Even the term “agile transformation” to me sets other alarms in my head, and that term needs another meaning.

It’s all about response to change. Without resilience, an organization experiences culture shock. That’s very accurate, because agility can be seen as a foreign body in an organization that has not experienced, for example, transparency, a fundamental pillar of agility. Some see transparency as scary or an unnecessary component to progress, where agilists might see this as the first step to change. How do “foreign” bodies, like agility, affect team performance?

The Satir Change Model

I often refer these curious minds to the Satir Change Process Model, developed by Virginia Satir, a pioneer in family reconstruction therapy. I was first intrigued by her work when I tried (and failed) at an agile transformation myself, and refer to this model as an ingenious way to encompass the effects of people’s feelings, thinking, performance, and physiology in a simple graph of performance over time. Organizations that start their agile journeys experience these very same stages. Some might say that this graph represents the Shu in Shu-Ha-Ri.

Initial Stages

The Satir Change model as depicted by Stephen M Smith

You start with an initial status-quo, or Late Status-quo. This is everything that is familiar, no matter how painful or progressive. The ups and downs happen with little change. Now introduce the Foreign Element, like agile, into the organization. There is some resistance, but once the agile movement happens, the next stage is chaos, and it is very painful. In my experience, chaos always ensues in the beginning of an agile movement. Performance suffers here, sometimes greatly. Many rapid changes happen. The changes are necessary or not, expected or unexpected, lengthy or short-lived. They may show some progress. However the degree of progress usually never reaches back to a height before the late status-quo. The pain can be so intense in this stage that some organizations spend their efforts to claw their way backwards to the old way, and dump the ideas of agility all together. My experience with these orgs is that clawing back more painful than chaos (which is why an org needs to make a careful evaluation if they are ready for agility). However chaos is vital to the transformation process.

Rise Away from Chaos

This chaos will go on until a Transforming Idea, or ideas, occurs. In my experience the ideas are different and specific to the culture. Some learn to face fear effectively. Also, people see failure as a tool to immeasurable progress. Awareness of self and others become new concepts. Whatever and whenever this Transforming Idea is, the stage of rapid growth and response to change is shorter than the chaos stage. The flow of agility starts. Some see the value of a shared understanding. It’s an exciting time, and it feels awesome! People actually want to come to work. The organization then experiences the Integration Stage. What I say about this stage is that the ideas “spread like wildfire”. Perhaps this comes into some practices like ATDD or DevOps.

I feel that organizations that experience the New Status-quo stage have embraced learning and experimentation over creating the fear of delivering or not delivering. It’s what makes managers into true leaders, and when people understand that the value is not in the products, but instead in the shared vision that is realized and establishing that flow of continuous delivery. It’s the stage that allows us to embrace change rather than fear change. I do think that the term New Status-quo and the graph is misleading, though. I feel there is no longer a plateau, but think that comes with the learning as well. Also, a journey, like agility, has no plateau.