3 Key considerations for a successful agile transformation

3 Key considerations for a successful agile transformation

2019, Mar 08    

Transforming your organization into an agile one by adapting to the fast-paced high complexity of modern-day business is an art. But running a successful transformation depends on several factors such as the people involved, the culture and leadership. Here are three key aspects to consider that tackle culture, strategy & tactics; and to ensure a successful agile transformation.

Since the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (MASD) was drafted in 2001, more and more organizations have changed their course and applied agile practices and processes. For each successful agile journey, there are plenty of undocumented & failed attempts. They either were stopped completely, mismatched their initial goals or just got stuck in the mud somewhere along the road.

Through the years many agile coaches experienced many failures in inculcating an agile mindset. The most common pitfalls that I have come across are:

  1. Having the wrong goal
  2. Being at odds with culture
  3. Picking the wrong approach to start the journey

Let’s see how we can tackle each of these pitfalls, so your agile journey becomes a successful one.

1. Clarity in your goals

Being agile is not a goal on its own! Agile is the means, not the end.

Seasoned experts like Michael Sahota, author of the survival guide for agile transformations and experienced leadership coach, often says in his certified agile leadership trainings:

“[…] Agile is not a goal. We are not seeking to Do Agile or Be Agile. Of course we will likely use Agile to help us achieve organizational goals. > […]” – Michael Sahota, Leadership Trainer and Coach

What many leaders (also managers) in organizations are failing to recognize are their true intentions for attempting an agile journey. There are many reasons for choosing agile. It could be for increased productivity, accelerated delivery of value to your customer, coping with rapidly changing needs and priorities or harnessing employee motivation. According to the 12th State of Agile report, agile is meeting up to the expectations. All these goals are true and valid, and you need to be aware of these objectives. In fact, it is not just the initiators of the agile journey who require this awareness, everybody within the organization needs to share it.

Outline the organizational goals that you want to achieve by being agile. Make sure that everyone understands the goals for the transformation and why being agile will help address them.

2. Address all 3 areas of change

I’ve seen my share of agile transformations and consultants/coaches brought in to focus on introducing practices and processes. I’ve even been through these transformations myself, and walked many miles in their shoes. A common thing I experienced on both sides was that these changes rarely survived in the long run. Retrospectively, I must admit that the quote attributed to Peter Drucker puts it right:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and strategy eats tactics for afternoon tea.”

Well, I cheated a bit. I added the part about tactics and the afternoon tea. My own experience taught me that introducing practices (= tactics) which do not match with the goals (= strategy) and do not comply with the prevailing culture (= sum of explicit and implicit behaviors & rules) is a wasted effort. Obviously, if you introduce the practice of bi-weekly sprints when you are only focused on making the numbers for the quarter—because that’s what the big boss expects and we all want to please him—the sprints will be more of a hindrance than a boost to performance.

Inconveniently, the three areas of practices or tactics, goals or strategy and culture are highly intertwined. Investing in new tactics and strategies will, of course, give you a boost of up to 20 or even 50 percent.

However, it will decline and eventually starve without a matching culture.

Culture, Strategy and Tactics

To generate a lasting change with a large impact you need to invest in all three areas continuously. You must decide how much energy you put into what tasks at a time, of course.

First, it will help focus on transforming processes and practices on a tactical level. It is necessary to further adapt goals and the organizational structure on a strategy level to sustain and reinforce the change. And to sustain and reinforce such changes on the strategy level, you will need to invest into the culture and the organizational identity as well.

It also works the other way around. Invest in the culture by crafting a compelling vision, and let honest, authentic values shape the strategic long-term thinking and practices in the end. Of course, you can start in the middle as well by introducing customer-focused goals. Adapt the processes to focus on it, while influencing the organization’s identity.

Where you focus on in the beginning is less relevant in comparison to making sure that you invest in all three areas at the same time. Figure out what amount of energy you will invest in all three of these areas during your transformation, alongside the short and long-term goals for each area.

When you set the sliders for one of these areas to zero energy invested, you are likely to get stuck along the way. Neglecting an area will result in diverging views on the matter. This lack of aligned constraints creates a resistance that will involve considerable investment. At that point many transformations result into nothing. So, plan investments and action in all three areas throughout your organization.

3. Map Your Approach

Now, that you know what you want to achieve and where you are going to invest, it is time to think about how to execute. In the past, I’ve noticed this step to be omitted quite often. A lot of transformations, which I have seen and heard of, omitted this step and followed “best practices” that advertise simple road maps for complex change. The bad news here is that there is no “silver bullet” approach that can fix everything.

Depending on the timeline that you have in mind, your willingness to take risks and the current state of your organization, there are four basic approaches you can take.

Revolutionary (Kaikaku)

Take a reformatory approach where one (or more) major changes are accompanied by active coaching and training at all levels. One can achieve radical structural changes and produce visible changes quickly. The focus is on the strategic level which paves a wat to move to the tactical level with training and coaching. Only in the medium to long term you reach cultural change with “learning by doing”. However, the disadvantages are obvious: A reform step to focus on goals strategies and practices that are not supported by the prevailing culture are unpleasant, require consistent & disciplined (not: disciplinarian!) leadership to keep the course, great confidence, and intensive work, after the big change. For example, the SAFe® Implementation Roadmap takes this course of action.

Evolutionary (Kaizen)

The primarily focus is on establishing a culture of improvement with gradual changes that drives processes and practices as well as suitable long-term thinking. This is the approach preferred in the Lean Kanban world as well. The advantage here is that the effort required is less. In return, it takes a very long time for real changes to become visible, which requires consistency and an active role model. This culture first approach requires leadership that puts the employee, quality, and constant feedback in the foreground. A further “problem” that can occur with such an approach is that one cannot work focused on a target image. Through evolutionary change and optimization, the organization becomes better at what it does and at achieving its goals, but it is difficult to work towards a strategic or process-based blueprint. At the end, it is a matter of tactics following strategy and strategy following culture.

Organic (piloting/shooting star)

The basic idea here is that in a small area (e.g. a team or a department) that is fundamentally interested in ideas, new ways of working should be established and strongly promoted at all three levels simultaneously. When this “new world” becomes successful, one begins to actively communicate the successes and to make the way of working strongly transparent. Thus the “outside world”, i.e. all those who are not in the culture bubble, sees that this way of working is more successful or pleasant and slowly begins to adopt it. As a change agent, you follow the path of least resistance: As soon as a team runs and others are interested in how this has worked, you start to copy and adapt or implant the working methods (= to put people from the “new world” into the “old world”). The result is an interesting pattern that has a very organic effect. On the time axis this approach lies between Kaikaku and Kaizen. With a small team you can quickly show first results, but the overall change is long-term. A disadvantage on the other hand, however, is that this organic spreading is not predictable and does not necessarily lead to an overall transformation. So, it may be that only some areas are addressed, while the rest of the organization remains “old”. Analogous to the biological model, we have to reckon with immune and rejection reactions.

Innovative (Kakushin)

This is the approach where we totally leave what we are used to do on a holistic tier. Choosing an approach like this, you think about diverging completely from what you are used to. You will aim to completely replace existing structures and culture. This is a treacherous territory for an agile transformation. It often goes hand in hand with a profound change of not only company culture, but also the business model and revenue generation streams. A business transformation itself. It is disruption of your own business on a high level. A transformation operating in this way exerts high risk and investment. It is similar to ING Belgium flipping a switch and adapting the Spotify Model with all the consequences. I would rarely recommend doing an innovative agile transformation on the highest level. Taking this road on small (e.g. team) units, and exporting success to a higher level, will be more akin to using the organic or revolutionary strategies.

Stack and fold approaches continuously

All these approaches can and should be stacked on each other or folded into one another. For example, your overall approach might follow the organic pattern like starting in a single team. But within that team you take a reformed (kaikaku) approach and rapidly swap waterfall with scrum. And as soon as you see progress, you layer an evolutionary approach on top to drive the cultural change via long-running; less-directed initiatives to foster an overall organizational identity.

The success factor in choosing an approach is to not select one and stick with it. Start with one or maybe two folded into each other. After you started the transformation, analyze its state, success and well-being regularly. Then adapt the approaches in place. You need to react on the changing system and reconsider the selected approaches without hesitation.


To be successful in transforming your organization you need to consider three steps before starting:

  1. Where you are heading: Express your organizational goals clearly to align yourself to a direction.
  2. What are you going to invest: Decide on how much you are going to invest into each of the three areas to identify initiatives on every level.
  3. How you are planning to do it: Lay out and map your approach to transformation by folding and stacking basic strategies to decide on action plans for the initiatives.

It is not so much about the actual investments or the planned approach. You need to invest in all three areas, be aware of the implications of the chosen approach and, most importantly, inspect and adapt your strategy during the transformation.