Is your agile transformation in deadlock?

by Bee Heller
October 26, 2017

I think leading an organisation through an agile transformation has parallels with trying to improve customer service in a retail environment (stick with me on this one!)…

If you were running a retail chain and were desperate to improve customer service in your stores, what would you do? Investing in customer service training seems like a pretty sensible idea right?

This is exactly what a client of The Pioneers had been doing. Over several years they’d invested £millions in customer service training for their front line teams. The only problem was over the same period service hadn’t improved at all…

So what was going on? We spent time observing behaviour in stores and identified competing influences on team members’ behaviour. It became apparent that it wasn’t a lack of ability or willingness to provide good customer service that was the main driver of their behaviour. Instead, the pull towards tasks such as filling in forms, restocking shelves and safety checking products, was simply greater and seen as higher priority. Continuing to invest in customer service training had actually made the situation worse. Taking team members out of the operation for training days exacerbated the task burden on those left behind and created a backlog of tasks that needed to be caught up on when team members came back into the business.

For this retail company, the best way to improve customer service was not to spend £millions investing in training but to find ways of reducing the volume of tasks team members had to complete so their time was freed up to spend with customers.

I think you find this same behavioural tension in organisations going through agile transformations. According to Version One’s 10th Annual State of Agile Report, the leading cause of a failed agile project is: ‘company culture or philosophy at odds with core agile values’. 46% of respondents reported this as a problem while only 27% of respondents cited ‘insufficient training’ as a problem.

This suggests that for many organisations it is not a lack of training in agile ways of working that is the issue but a clash of agile practices with the way organisations have always done things. If you think this might be the case in your organisation, continuing to invest in Scrum training (or whatever your chosen flavour of agile might be) may actually be hindering your progress.

The more you focus your organisation on adopting agile practices, the more you increase the tension between agile and more traditional ways of working. If you’ve reached this point, the only way to make progress is to release the tension by finding ways of reducing the pull towards traditional ways of working. You need to investigate the influences on people’s behaviour and identify those practices that are reinforcing the way the organisation has always done things. It’s only by reducing the pull towards these that you create space for the organisation to move towards more agile ways of working.

In the same State of Agile Report, the most commonly cited barrier to further agile adoption was the ‘ability to change organisational culture’ (55% of respondents). If this statistic resonates with your experience and if you’re interested in the ideas in this blog and want to discuss them further then feel free to book a call with me. Myself and Simon Reindl also co-facilitate full day workshops that enable you to understand your organisation and how to successfully influence wider adoption of agile ways of working. You can find out more about our workshop and enquire if you’re interested in booking it here.

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