Agile is the answer to transformation: but that won’t mean transformation will be simple

Agile comes with big expectations. Companies think that by applying agile ways of working, they will instantly simplify their processes and begin to deliver faster, with less people, while at the same time removing costs from the organisation.

But any form of business transformation is inherently complex, requiring not only a shift in the way you interact with customers, but fundamental changes to the way the company’s systems, capabilities, processes and people work. With every new release of a product or service the organisation is constantly being refined, which has a secondary effect on organisational structure and the internal experience.

So why do we think that applying a new way of working will make this process automatically easier? In fact, as agile means delivering more work than before, it may actually lead to more complexity, not less. For instance, moving to shorter cycles and faster releases may speed delivery, but means areas like marketing and customer service may face a heavier workload. Learning to forecast, accommodate, and automate processes where possible demands a change to business culture.


Great (agile) expectations

It’s easy to understand why high expectations of agile have formed. Agile is emerging as a leading process to drive the next generation of business. And with well-known success stories teasing the benefits, many are adopting it with urgency not only to harness the advantages of this new frontier, but to ensure they are not left behind.

But it seems clear that many are pursuing an agile framework without necessarily understanding how it will work in practice in their organisation, and without an acknowledgement of the limitations. This is particularly true when agile is applied in a broader context than just software development to change the administrative (back office) processes of the organisation, which in turn fundamentally changes people’s jobs.

Rushing in without clarity can not only forestall growth but deliver a setback to the whole organisation. Too many businesses get caught up in an obsession with going agile, that they overlook its complexity.

The inevitability of complex agile transformation

Businesses that already run a small and lean operation can find their shift to a more agile existence like turning around a speed boat. It is a different dynamic when it comes to large organisations.

Larger businesses and other organisations are not speed boats, but more akin to cruise ships. Theoretically the power of the engines and resources they have at their disposal should mean a decisive change in direction is easier. But it ultimately takes more time, requires a greater adjustment of weight, and the commitment of a much larger pool of staff to ensure the change is successful. It is why so many businesses don’t succeed as best they could, and sometimes fail altogether.

The tech-centric view of agile is dead — long live agile

When thinking agile, it should no longer be necessary to centre the conversation around technology. It’s fundamentally implied that every part of the organisation will deliver change through technology, but the conversation has to be broader. This means moving beyond the simple digital product creation of a new website or app and considering the end-to-end flow of a customer.

Complex service offerings are underpinned by complex service procedures and roles which means revisiting admin processes is necessary in order for companies to directly impact customer experience. Because these changes can be done without requiring changes to any computer software or system, or at the very least must be done in the same cycle times, non-IT teams need to work in parallel with IT teams working in an agile manner.

This requires a much broader cross functional capability each with a different value set and different priorities. This isn’t just working agile — it’s true cultural change. Toyota understood this when is adopted Lean on the manufacturing work floor. And yet most agile training remains IT development focused, rather than adapting to help those working in this broader world.

People are at the core of change

A business strategy deck can be changed in an afternoon. Changing the mindsets of the people who are required to implement it can be much more complex. And yet people are at the core of business transformation. The way they gain insights, the way they collaborate internally, and their external relationships with customers all need to change.

One of the challenges of agile transformation when it comes to your people is a focus on perception rather than outcomes. The drive to be seen to be doing agile through the optics of the stand-ups, sprints, visualisation of work, showcases and retrospectives can distract from the real aim of agile — doing these tasks meaningfully with a focus on the outcomes.

Attending daily stand-up sessions is easy but acquiring and developing the behaviours you’ll need once you walk away from your Kanban Board requires a steeper learning curve. And yet real organisational agility will only be achieved when you’re ‘being agile’ rather than ‘doing agile’1.


Complex businesses are not of one mind

Just as trickle-down economics works in theory but less so in practice, strategic imperatives agreed at management level are not always effectively broken down and delivered at the team working level where requirements are agreed and managed. While it seems simple to say ‘just focus on what matters’, differences in opinion and prioritisation here have a significant effect on business outcomes, particularly when there are many different product managers with often competing KPIs. In many organisations, there may be a locked in view of who owns the customer and related processes based on a formal structure of functional department and staff roles and responsibility.

For instance, there may be a high-level understanding that some customers are more profitable than others. In a large business, where would this strategic conversation take place and how would this be addressed in the overall program of work? What if some customers were profitable for one product line, but a cost to serve for others? How and where would those conflicts be addressed?

These complex discussions are now being had between people who previously never had the authority to think about what was required and were instead presented with a set of instructions. Now they are owners of the change — but having the confidence to find their agency and work together towards agreement means in many cases relearning ten or twenty years of old habits.

Simply put, achieving the balancing of these complex business outcomes and contradicting measures of business value are not solved just by deciding to go agile.


Agile means uncertainty

With agile, the only constant is change2. Applying an agile approach means accepting more experimentation, rapid iteration and more changes of direction based on feedback from the system. Problems once solved are rarely ever permanent and the constant state of flux means learning to operate in an environment which is rarely stable.

This can be an uncomfortable environment for people used to waterfall levels of certainty. Questions like “When will this project be delivered?” won’t always be able to be responded to with a straight answer. That work being done may be only a slice of the entire project, or it may end up producing a negative outcome (a possibility for any experiment) meaning greater levels of uncertainty for everyone.


Coming to terms with the complexity

If we accept that agile is not going to be a simple solution to the challenge of business transformation, will businesses give up on their transformation goals, feeling it is too hard to handle?

They should not. The benefits of agile, underpinned by lean and agile principles are fundamental to modern business. So rather than seeing the complexity that is created by agile transformation and assuming that it is not the answer for your organisation, the key is to keep aligned to the principles and remain pragmatic about what you expect it to achieve, and by when.

Recognise that agile wants self-empowering teams — give them control. Put together the people who know the customers, the technology, and the business processes and use their collective power to find the best way to solve the problem, rather than providing them with what you think are the answers.

Change will not happen overnight for an organisation seeking to be agile, nor should that be expected. Once again, the analogy of the speed boat and cruise ship is illustrative here. A cruise ship will never move with the pace of a speed boat, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, it has to move with best practice and prioritise not just how quickly it can power forward, but what it needs to deliver. After all, a speed boat may be faster but will never be able to carry over 3,000 passengers on board.

Agile is implemented right in the engine room of the business, supported by the culture and leadership of your organisation. In large organisations this means changing the way your entire organisation works. Asking ‘is the way we are working, working for us’3 can allow you to better understand what is being transformed in your business, what is required of that transformation, and how it should be delivered. After all, no matter how complex, an organisation will always deliver most effectively when it truly appreciates the complexity of its identity


Guest post by former Elabor8er, David Landry.  David has been leading significant technology and business change projects for over 30 years.



  1. Are you doing agile, or being agile?
  2. Bimodal IT: how to allow for uncertainty in your business
  3. Better agile ways of working for non-software development teams