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Corporate Culture in Failed Agile Transformations

16 January 2018

Much has been written on how Scrum works and how to make it succeed. But there are few talks about why it fails. It doesn’t fail because of any inherent processes in Scrum itself; it primarily fails because people incorrectly implement it by committing a SIN (Scrum in Name). I have worked with several teams who underwent the Agile transformation by adopting the Scrum framework, and I have had a chance to talk to colleagues and friends from other organizations about their experiences. One thing that is common among transformation failures is the “absence of an Agile culture.”

C-level management

In most cases in traditional top-down organizations, when a C-level executive initiates the Agile transformation across the organization, business unit, or line of business, it cascades down the corporate ladder to the root-level development and operation teams. When such organizations are in the process of becoming Agile, the transformation is mainly driven by management, because they are inherently top-down in nature. Here’s where mid-level management plays a crucial role. Success or failure during Agile adaptation in large organizations is primarily attributed to the employees in those mid-level management roles.

A comparison of middle management types

Based on my observations and discussions, mid-level managers fall into two categories in such large organizations. Category 1 includes managers (actually leaders) with a penchant for technology and agility (as in having the Agile mindset for adapting to change). They envision eventual success and aid their teams in becoming truly Agile. Category 2 includes managers who are nonadaptive to change and are either nontechnical (sometimes pretending to be technical) or purely resource managers. The Agile adaptation is challenging because they need to break out of their comfort zone and eventually expose what they know and what they do in their role. In my experience, here is how these two types react to different challenges that come with an Agile transformation.
  • Transparency: The Agile framework creates transparency, which is a critical success factor, especially for category 2 people. For category 1 people, transparency is an implicit, day-to-day reality.
  • Self-organization: Category 1 managers promote the self-organizing team culture, whereas category 2 managers try to drive things on their own, with Agile in name only.
  • Impediments: Category 1 grants more power to the team and addresses their impediments. Category 2 most often becomes the impediment to the team’s growth.
  • ScrumMaster role: Category 1 types can step into the ScrumMaster’s shoes with the proper mindset of not having the team report to him or her and acting as a true servant-leader. Category 2 types remain managers in Agile (an oxymoron).
  • Story-point estimation: Category 1 individuals encourage teams to provide estimates in story points by using tools such as Planning Poker.® Category 2 individuals provide estimates in days and on their own, without minimal or no input from the team.
  • Stakeholder alignment: Category 1 bring the teams and stakeholders together and keeps them on the same page all the time, whereas category 2 prefers to deal with stakeholders on their own behind closed doors, keeping them aloof from the team.
  • Flexibility: Category 1 follows an open-door policy and moves flexibly to different teams, assuming new roles as needed. Category 2 prefers to stay in the comfort zone and many times feels insecure. I heard of an example in which a category 2 person was forced to take part in a Planning Poker activity, and he ended up copying the estimate from a fellow team member.
My intent is not to disparage or criticize category 2 individuals. They can be a valuable asset for the organization — with the proper change in mindset. They may need support to become more adaptive to change. If they cannot, there are many other roles in which organizations can make use of their services. The success or failure of Agile in the organization depends on how soon such individuals are identified and eventually transformed or moved into other roles that are right for them. Continuing as a category 2 manager in Agile teams makes the whole team dive into a downward spiral and become overworked, confused, frustrated, and dissatisfied.

Simply doing Agile is not correct; one should become Agile. This happens only with a change in the organizational culture and each individual’s mindset.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.3 (8 ratings)


Jesse Fewell, CST,CEC,CALE,CTC,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 1/17/2018 6:36:06 AM
Rajesh, I believe there is a better way to frame this challenge. YES, middle management layers tends to make or break an agile transformation. HOWEVER, simply placing each of those managers into a buckets of "agile" vs. "not-agile" loses sight of the personal transformation expected of EVERYONE.

Instead, I would like to expand your description to say that everyone exhibits BOTH category 1 and category 2 tendencies. Even myself, and if you're honest, even yourself as well. To your point, some people exhibit one category more than the other. But if Agile is a journey, then even the most change-minded leaders have room for growth.

The successful change agent (coach, ScrumMaster, manager) is one who highlights a shared past (we've all experienced the same pain), a shared vision (to become the best we can be) and shared assignment (examine yourself for where you feel your Category 2 habits are getting in the way of your Category 1 aspirations)
Tim Baffa, CSM, 1/17/2018 7:55:51 AM
While the article does a decent job differentiating between practices that promote an Agile mindset, and those that do not, I believe the article misses the mark oversimplifying only two categories of middle management (those that help, and those that do not).

The Agile transformation challenge is far more complex than how it is laid out here.

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