Why Agile Transformations Fail

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Why Agile Transformations Fail
When we look at why agile transformations fail for some companies, usually the core reason will fall in one of four key areas.    Focus on these four areas to give you a head start.

What’s in this article?
The four watchouts for Agile Transformation – Introduction >
Leadership >
Communication >
Processes >
Mindset >
Ask the Why >

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When we look at why agile transformations fail for some companies, usually the core reason will fall in one of four key areas.    However, it’s never just a single problem.   Everything in business is linked, as we know.      Ensuring your business keeps a focused lens on each of these areas, will help minimize failure and maximize success.

If your company is undergoing an agile transformation (or is about to), take a closer look at each of the following areas, and ask yourself – are we getting these basics, right?  Could we be doing more? 


  1. Leadership
  2. Communication
  3. Processes
  4. Mindset

 Before reviewing these more closely, remember that transformations take time.  Agile doesn’t mean fast.  Agile can mean faster to market, but agile itself is not about speed.  It’s about operational flexibility, culture shifts, and better ROI.   Importantly, it’s about delivering what the customer needs.

I think agile transformation fails when a company forgets that transformation is a journey and that journeys take time. They are setting themselves up for disappointment when they expect the results from a two-year transformation to be realized within 3 months. We need to be realistic in our short-, medium-, and long-term goals,” says Karen Chan, senior consultant in our Toronto office.


Let’s look at these four areas a bit closer and provide some things to consider around each.

1.     Lack of leadership.

If a system is to change, the leadership must also change.

People cannot work differently if the organisation continues to expect old patterns of behaviour,” explains Steve Walton, our principal in Australia.

We are starting with leadership, because without first having transformational leadership, everything else won’t matter.  It’s very likely your transformation will fail if your leaders don’t get it, don’t want it, or don’t lead by example.    Transformational leadership was originally defined by James McGregor Burns (an autobiographer of John F Kennedy).

He and further researchers amalgamated four behaviours of transformational leadership including these four basic principles.  They are an excellent checklist for any leader, and a solid place to begin.

1. Decentralise decision making and unlock intrinsic motivation
2. Inspire and align with mission
3. Develop leaders
4. Lead the change, know the way.

[If you want to dig more deeply into transformational leadership, James McGregor Burn’s seminal book Leadership is still in print, and was followed up 25 years later in 2004 with Transforming Leadership, both of which can be purchased at most online retailers].

Fiona Royall is a senior consultant with ADAPTOVATE in Melbourne.  She believes that leadership buy-in and support is critical. “It’s not enough to say the right things, they also need to be able to walk the talk. Early engagement helps and doing so in a way that is collaborative and with clear communication. Leadership have limited time, so you need to be on point when you do get time with them,” Fiona explains.

Many companies fail because there is a lack of leadership buy-in or the team members are resistant to change. Companies need to be transparent with the agile transformation and give team members the opportunity to give input,” agrees Benny Ko, an agile consultant in Melbourne.

2.     Communication

We asked our own internal team, who have collectively worked with hundreds of clients, what they have observed as the key reasons for transformational failure.   And communication was top of the list. 

In a recent episode of The Backlog podcast Ray Freeman (Project Lead for ADAPTOVATE in USA)  discussed “The Missing Element of Transformation” with Joanna Trotta, Owner of Leaders Edge Inc in Canada.   

One of the main elements that I see, that’s missing, that creates this challenge for positive forward moving change is really about leveraging the combination of what I would call hard and soft skills.” Joanna says. 

She explains that hard skills are from the head – these include vision, strategy, detail to execute the change.   Soft skills – are from the heart.  These include empathy, compassion, behavioral understanding.    “What brings the hard and soft skills together is effective communication,” Joanna explains.

Transparent Communication

Fiona Royall says it’s important to have clear, consistent transparent communication.  She has observed it’s a hard one to get ‘right’. “When do you start communicating, and how?  Too soon and it may feel like the transformation is going on a long time, too late and you have all the background conversations that can create confusion and anxiety.  Effective storytelling can help bring it to life, using examples that are real from within the business and beyond,” she recommends.

Companies can assume that the team members are not “ready” to hear what we’re up to, so they delay communicating the progress to them to avoid panic.  Interestingly, the opposite happens.  “Team members feel more anxious about the progress as they’re kept in the dark, assumptions and rumors start to float, resentment to the transformation starts to build, and eventually, the agile transformation fails due to lack of team member buy-in,” says Mina Gurgis, a senior consultant with ADAPTOVATE in Sydney. 

“Increase communications 10 times,” Mina recommends “Communicate regularly and frequently on the “why” we’re doing this and our progress,” he says.  

Along with keeping up the communication, is providing the right platforms for this to happen.  If people are to work quickly and iteratively, they may need communication platforms to rapidly share and evolve ideas.

If teams are to integrate and deploy as fast as they build, they need access to the right technology environments and tools,” says Steve Walton.

3. Processes prevent change.

This may seem like a paradox, and in some ways it can be.   Some transformations are initiated for the very reason that antiquated processes have slowed down an organisation’s ability to deliver.  However, some basic fresh processes should be easy enough to initiate in order to help transform the more deep-rooted processes.

Steve Walton explains that in many cases, processes drive the actions people take. “Typical areas which often need attention include funding of enduring teams and approval processes to devolve decision making to the right levels,” he says.

So in order to ensure an agile transformation is set up to succeed, often basic processes (approvals for example) that slow things down can be the ones to tackle first.    Caution though, changing any process without buy-in will have a transformation faulting at the first step.   Be transparent and iterate as you test and learn.

Andy Koh says, “One of the reasons agile transformation fail is because the type of change needed in the transformation is misunderstood.”  He continues, “Senior leaders and mid-level managers sometimes think a transformation consists of only process changes. When this happens, leaders and managers direct staff to follow new processes that do not make sense, resulting in a new process that feels like the old process.”

Going back to our comment at the beginning, ensure that all these areas are collectively worked on.    In the next area, we identify why you also need mindset and behavioural change, to capitilise on the new processes.

4. Mindset

An agile transformation requires new behavioural thinking.   It is a change from the traditional ways of working to embrace these concepts and work in a new way. “Things like growth mindset, test and learn, early feedback on work in progress,” Fiona Royall explains.   

“Training and coaching has a big part here to play in encouraging and educating around these behaviours and concepts and why they help,” she says.

Andy says “Focusing an agile transformation on mindset and behaviour change, and not just on process change prevents this scenario from playing out. Harnessing the collective willpower of the organisation can serve to cascade the transformation quickly from team to team, sometimes even accelerating transformation beyond initial expectations.”

With Agile, often the focus is only on agile ceremonies to help an organisation become agile, (sprints, retrospectives, showcases) and the critical part of an agile mindset part is forgotten.

Chelsea Bates, our Managing Director and Principle in Melbourne says, “Focus on embedding an agile mindset which values a test and learn culture and balances solutions which deliver both customer and business value.”

Remember THE WHY.

According to the Annual State of Agile Report, published by software maker, Version One, Culture tops the list for the past 14 years in a row.   Ray says “This data is aligned with my personal experience as well. The best way is to follow some simple advice from Simon Sinek–‘Start with Why’,” he recommends. 

Never move to Agile just because everyone else is doing it. Find your why and make it applicable from top down.   People are more comfortable getting onboard when they know why they’re doing it,” Ray says.   Which comes back to communication.  

Understanding your business needs

Chelsea cautions in taking a cookie cutter approach to ‘agile’.   “Take a pragmatic approach to agile and implement what works specifically for your organisation. What worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will work within your company,” she says.   

This is where a solutions company like ADAPTOVATE and a few others, can be of assistance in working out the right model that fits your business.   Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.

All these areas are linked, and all are possible success hurdles.   Keep focused on them all, to minimize the risk of your agile transformation failing.



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