Five Facets of the Agile Organization: Holistic Change for the Serious

If your organization is attempting to become more agile or lean, you are likely experiencing some common challenges—challenges which, left unaddressed, may result in either failure of your change effort or gradual reversion.

You Have Good Reasons to Change

I’ve worked with many companies of diverse size and industry who have decided to do such things. They’ve all had legitimate challenges and/or compelling reasons to change. Here are just a few examples—you may be able to relate to one or more:

  • Delivery has to get faster to keep up with the pace of change & uncertainty or to meet critical dates. The old way isn’t going to get us there.
  • Our customers are dissatisfied. It takes us a long time to get stuff done and we want to improve this.
  • We want to shift more towards a product model from a project model.
  • We’re experiencing an increasing amount of technical debt and are having trouble scaling our delivery as a result.
  • We don’t have enough information about how things are going until it is too late.
  • We are not good at managing large, complex programs. We need a simpler way, with better information sharing.

And the list goes on…and on. All are good reasons to do something differently—the world is changing in very unpredictable ways, and these reasons to change (among others) are becoming all the more compelling.

I’ve got a Fever….and the Only Prescription….Is More Agile!

For the challenges above, and many similar ones, approaches like agile, lean and others present compelling cases for their introduction. Phrases like maximize value while minimizing waste, iterative and incremental, voice of the customer, finished software every two weeks, greater productivity, and more. Who wouldn’t want some of that?

What usually follows is the introduction of the improvement in some team or group. Initial excitement, hope and buzz of the new way quickly generates momentum and grabs attention. Success of new kinds is realized—those involved are excited.

System Response…the Hidden Enemy of Change

But, eventually — mysteriously — things slow down in time. The energy wears off. The excitement and buzz subside. Rumors of challenges spread throughout the organization. The champions of the new way become known as zealots — allegedly difficult to work with and unwilling to compromise in their zeal to make the new ways work for us and our culture. The result: reversion. The reversion can take the form of a hybrid approach of some kind — blending the rules of the past with the new approaches — or standardizing approaches that need to be customized in different contexts, or perhaps even rejection (e.g., “Agile didn’t work for us”).

Teams can see the beginnings of this reversion. It is evidenced by fatigue, stress, the diminishing marginal improvement of team capability, and more. Agile teams are, as one colleague put it “like canaries in the coal mine for an organization’s systemic issues.”


What’s Happening?

Your organization is squashing your transformation. This phenomenon is referred to by many names in the organizational change world.  “System Response” is one such term- it refers to the tendency of organizations to develop immune system-like responses to new phenomenon.  There is a huge amount of information available about the reasons changes fail, but in this article I am focusing on one:

You’ve introduced an improvement that has holistic implications without having a holistic approach and strategy.

What’s Needed?

Simply put, significant changes should have a holistic strategy. From your goals to your approach, understanding the impacts across your organization can mean the difference between a fizzled agile introduction and an energizing evolution towards greatness.

Over many engagements with clients in vastly different industries, we’ve noticed that there are several aspects to holistic change that need to be considered to be successful. Neglecting any of these aspects—these facets of the agile organization—results in predictable challenges. The facets are:

  • Execution – The foundation of success; how we get work done. The combination of skills and capabilities of individuals and teams, including the ability to collaborate. Includes practices ranging from analysis and design through engineering and testing.
  • Delivery – The capability of teams and groups to get valuable services and product to customers, including the ability to do this at scale. Approaches such as Scrum and Kanban as well as scaling approaches such as SAFe improve this capability.
  • Product and Business Model – How able are we to determine the “right” business model and product to strive for, and how to innovate across these? Approaches such as business model generation, Lean Startup, design thinking, and more are part of this facet.
  • Organization – The capability of the organization—its structures, rules, and culture—to be what it needs to be to enable success of all of the above. Continuous improvement, lean thinking, Theory of Constraints, and other such approaches are organization-level concepts.
  • Leadership – The lever of change, leadership is the enabler of change. By orienting around shared vision and environment design, catalytic leaders create and influence situations in which desired behaviors and change emerge.


I will be speaking on the topic, “Five Facets of the Agile Organization: Holistic Change for the Serious,” at the Better Software Conference in Las Vegas this week.  In this talk, I share very common examples of these predictable challenges, such as:

  • Overlooking Execution: “Failing by Success” – the rapidly growing company neglecting improvement of execution capabilities for the sake of meeting increased demand for more product
  • Overlooking Delivery: “Great Idea…Now Let Us Get Back To Work” – when improvements are focused on one area, but not others. In this case, innovation approaches like Lean Startup are applied to an innovation group, while delivery capability is not improved to become fast enough to keep up.
  • Overlooking Product & Business Model: “Project Success, Product Failure” – when delivery capability is improved (say via agile methods) while product strategy and innovation capabilities are not.
  • Overlooking Organization: “Making Agile Work for Us” – where improvement methods are modified to fit the constraints of the organization (hybrid methods), resulting in marginal improvement.
  • Overlooking Leadership: “Go Forth and Be Agile (as Long as I Don’t Have To)” – when leaders declare that teams will improve, but make no changes themselves or don’t take part in the change effort.

What Can You Do Now?

So many things to consider. So many things that you can barely influence. How can you even get started?

Start simply. Consider each of these facets of the agile organization. For each, ask whether your change effort has any focus on that facet. If there is any level that is being neglected or overlooked, consider yourself at risk of experiencing some of the common challenges.

Begin to establish a simple change strategy. Consider the capabilities your organization needs. Reframe your agile introduction in the context of these capabilities. Determine what needs to happen across the 5 facets to enable success.

Establish a basic “build-measure-learn” feedback loop for changes.

For more information, watch my session on this topic live at SDWest.   A public webinar will follow shortly thereafter.

An Exercise for the Reader: Substitution!

Substitute the word “agile” above with 1 with any other improvement paradigm or process change (e.g. lean, lean startup). With only slight modification, this article can be made appropriate for many types of improvement efforts.