Accomplishing Organizational Transformation

Scaling Agile across the Enterprise attracts a lot of attention these days. There are a number of models suggesting ways to organize Agile development inside a sizable organization with a lot of teams. I suspect that all of these models share the same basic flaw—that you can do something the same way across a large enterprise. Even if your policy manual says exactly how to do something, people are people and there will be variations in understanding and execution. And how does a team self-organize in a prescribed manner?

Beyond that, there’s the problem of getting from current state to a future state that resembles the model. It does not work to “install” a new way of working across a large system composed of people and their interactions. Some people suggest starting the transformation with management, as that’s the “highest leverage point” and the “system’s major influencers.” Others suggest starting with the teams, because without competence at building reliable software (or other systems) in short cycles of small steps, you’re not going to get the benefits of Agile Software Development. I don’t think that either of these starting points work.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” — John Muir

In an organization, everything has influence throughout the organization. That influence is muddled in with a million other influences. While it’s true that upper management is charged with making the “big decisions,” when they’re candid they’ll admit that they have less control over how things happen than they’d like. They’re not even aware of all the things going on. It’s far too complicated for one, or even a small group of brains.

Organizations are self-regulating toward maintaining the status quo. When you try to change one part, to the extent it’s connected to other parts, it resists the change because of the influences of the other parts. To the extent it’s insulated from the other parts, it changes more easily but has less influence on the other parts. It’s a dynamic balance, ever-changing but quite robust.

Given this, how do you institute change in an organization?

I think you have to start with multiple levels, simultaneously. Every relationship in the organization is an equation that has to be solved. All of these equations are inter-related, and they have to be solved simultaneously. Each influences the others.

When trying to help an organization change, I start with every point where I might have influence. With each person who will engage in conversation, I try to understand what are their personal goals within the organization. I help them develop their own vision of the transformed organization. I offer alternative actions that they might not have considered. I urge them to have influence with those whom they have a relationship. I try to light a little fire of hope and change for the better.

And I try to light these fires in every place I can—among the development teams, the first line managers, the directors, and as far up the chain as I can reach. When there are important constituencies outside my direct reach, I encourage others to reach out to those constituencies. Or I ask them to bring us together, so I can have direct conversation. When working with other coaches, I depend on them to reach people that I have failed to reach.

These many small fires can result in major changes. Simultaneous changes in multiple parts of the organization can breed powerful synergies. The change goes in a direction influenced by the energies of the people engaged in the change. It’s not under any one person’s control, but shaped by the collective vision, action, and engagement of all.

3 Replies to “Accomplishing Organizational Transformation”

  1. You’re onto something here – great post! I think that when corporate turnarounds happen quickly (i.e. under a couple years) it’s because the top person is able to ignite enough “little fires” and others relay them along.

    We had a very good talk by Ahmed Sidky recently at Agile New England where he also spoke about organizational change in this way. The video is here:

    Thanks for the great post, George.

  2. George,

    I agree with what you are saying. In my higher education experience, the best role of the president is to set direction and establish a positive culture. Our best quality improvement successes have been in small teams working on a well defined project. It was my job to facilitate these teams and communicate their needs to management. This model worked well and we have had many successes.

    Great Post!


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