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Why Agile Transformations Fail — Reason #4

By May 7, 2021May 26th, 2021No Comments

Imagine asking managers and other professionals in early 2020 on where they will stand in a year’s time –none of them would have guessed right.

While the covid-19 pandemic painfully showed all of us, how fast and dramatic market surroundings can shift, it also made one thing very clear: Surviving in times of turmoil is often a matter of reacting fast and agile for companies. Obviously, not all companies operate on a level playing field when it comes to currently differing rules for many industries. Yet, what can be controlled by every company, is how they want to react to changes in order to survive in these challenging times. Agile transformations have proven to not only be an “en vogue” research topic in recent years, but to actually present crucial insights for businesses that are striving to persist throughout changes of their environment. However, these positive effects can only be realized through successful transformations towards agility.

This article is part of a 13-piece blog series published by Verena Zoehrer and Paul Anders, innovation consultants at viable — innovation consulting and rapid prototyping.

“13 reasons why agile transformations fail” presents the findings of innovation consultant Verena Zöhrer, who conducted interviews with people working in companies of different sizes and industries. Following up on the first three reasons — spending months on planningpostponing IT implementations and trusting that merely applying a tool is enough — this article will cover one of the earliest factors of agile transformations:

Reason #4: Lack of communicating the reason why.

When asking interview partners for the reasons of agile transformation of their companies, answers varied widely. While faster product development, becoming more customer-oriented and being more attractive to future employees was stated by some interviewees, others focused on surviving in the long term, keeping up with digital-giants and keeping pace with fast changing market surroundings. It is interesting to observe, that all mentioned reasons for transformation derive from originally external factors. Apparently, none of the businesses decided to undergo an agile transformation out of self-purpose. This general reasoning also found affirmation, as one interviewee stated: “A company is an organization that wants to survive at the end of the day and to survive means for an organization to make sustainable profit. This means that the organization itself can only make sense out of an agile way of working if it has a long-term effect on turnover or costs.” Besides the fact that reasons for agile transformations usually lay outside of the company’s sphere of influence, it is obvious that they differ depending on who you ask and what the company’s industry is. All these different perceptions of reasons for agile transformations, should eventually lead us to one conclusion:

OPEN COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Creating transparent, open and clear communication is not only vital when establishing a common understanding of the reasons for an agile transformation, it also helps with spreading a feeling of inclusion throughout the company. Only this way, employees will reach a clear understanding of why this integral change is necessary and have the motivation to participate in the transformation with a feeling of urgency. What is more, this way of communicating openly already represents one of the first steps of an agile transformation itself. Creating a safe space, where bidirectional discourse is not only possible, but needed, and where open feedback is part of the daily business, represents one of the most important characteristics of agile operating companies. To give a brief insight into the diverse opinions on this topic, the following statements represent quotes from the interviewed practitioners and agile experts.

  • “The reason why should also be part of the corporate strategy. You want to have it with all the consequences. (…) I believe that it has to be part of the strategy. The board has to carry it too, not only the employees. (…) Maybe we could have communicated that earlier, why is that change necessary, what does it mean. We always said yes we are too slow, but we should have communicated it earlier, more elaborated and in a broader sense.”
  • “Everyone has to know why they are all here, but also the business purpose, what do we want to do, how can we be successful as a company and as individual and why does it need agility. That is the most important thing to enter into this dialogue in order to give each individual the opportunity to feel and understand what it is about and what it means for me.”
  • “A little less hype and a little more reality. It’s all about how people work together and how people treat each other and that you have a common goal to which you are also committed and where everyone makes a contribution. For me, this is the key lesson from agile work.”
  • “First, there has to be a basic understanding that this (transformation) is not just fashion now, but something that is really necessary to survive in this market in the future. This is very important. If this is not there then people have so many factors to talk about why this (transformation) should be avoided.”

GETTING EVERBODY ON BOARD

This topic also found the attention of past research. Authors strongly emphasized on the importance of communicating reasons for agile transformations openly in order to create a sense of urgency and get the understanding, commitment and support of stakeholders. Without creating this clear understanding, the company could eventually face severe problems. Neglecting open communication will potentially lead to a lack of motivation and commitment, that can result in a return to old patterns or even clear resistance from stakeholders. Yet, there are simple ways to get an indication on whether necessary changes will be met with acceptance due to a common understanding of the need for the transformation, such as the following: Implementors can try to simply stroll through the company building and ask 10 random employees about their perceptions of the reasons behind the imminent agile transformation. In case the implementor receives 10 wildly differing responses, a need for better communication is evident. Even though this method might appear to over-simplify things, valuable first insights can be gathered through this approach.

While having an inclusive culture of open and bidirectional communication is often seen as self-explanatory, it can still present a hurdle that needs to be overcome. Ultimately, the positive effects of clearly communicating the reason for an agile transformation should not be underestimated by businesses, as the lack of it represents one of the most common reasons for failure.

Dikert, K., Paasivaara, M., & Lassenius, C. (2016). Challenges and success factors for large-scale agile transformations: A systematic literature review. Journal of Systems and Software119, 87–108.

Dyer, L., & Shafer, R. A. (1998). From human resource strategy to organizational effectiveness: Lessons from research on organizational agility.

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Luecke, R. (2003). Managing change and transition (Vol. 3). Harvard Business Press.