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Agile vs. the corporate immune system

Agile methods

Agile methods, in which dedicated teams work in rapid iterations, consistently produce better results and happier teams. But Agile faces an uphill battle against corporate culture. This post looks at why that is, and how to approach it.

I first encountered Agile methods 14 years ago, when my team decided to manage a web site redesign using Extreme Programming (XP). Since then I’ve been involved in many Agile projects and transformation efforts.  Even when our implementation was flawed, we consistently produced better results and happier teams by following the Agile principles of rapid iteration, empowered teams and collaboration.

As a result of our experiences, other teams we worked with would decide to use Agile. Adoption would start to grow in the company – but it would usually stall when, as a colleague put it, “we provoked the corporate immune system.” Sometimes the larger organization would push back, but more often people would simply incorporate “Agile” into their vocabulary of buzzwords. Soon Agile terminology was everywhere, but most teams were just going through some of the motions. A lot of them thought that’s what Agile actually was.

I’ve been thinking about these experiences again because I recently read a terrific piece by Ben Edwards and Sol Sender. They describe symptoms of this phenomenon: “Agile” teams that are not dedicated, lack co-location, and operate in organizations where direction comes from above.

What’s behind these symptoms? The 12thannual State of Agile report, released last week by CollabNet, offers an answer. The report is based on a survey of almost 1,500 Agile practitioners across a diverse set of companies. When asked what challenges they experienced in adopting and scaling Agile, the respondents’ top three answers were:

  • Organizational culture at odds with agile values (53%)
  • General organizational resistance to change (46%)
  • Inadequate management support and sponsorship (42%)

This rings completely true to me. You can get a team, or a few teams, to be Agile and they’ll love it. But if you try to change the organization at large, you’re challenging the company’s culture – its deeply entrenched behaviors and ways of thinking. Changing a culture is hard: As Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Why is that? It’s easy to say that companies are stodgy and people are set in their ways – but let’s not. Let’s assume, as I do, that most of the people who resist change are actually smart and well-intentioned. So why do they behave this way? I think there are three main reasons:

If you work in an average company, you get a steady diet of trendy initiatives from senior management – new tools, new slogans, new transformation projects – and most of them come to nothing. Here’s how it works: Project Shibboleth is announced with great fanfare. It has eight workstreams, each led by a vice president. (These vice presidents already have full-time jobs and several other projects, but never mind.) Thousands of person/hours are spent defining and communicating the project … and yet somehow, six months later, no one mentions it anymore. Its demise is never announced; like Douglas MacArthur’s old soldiers, strategic initiatives never die, they just fade away. This pattern makes people jaded:  Why invest energy in a new way of working when it probably won’t last long? It makes more sense to just wait it out.

Being effective in any job requires more than subject matter expertise – it also requires knowing how things work in the organization. How to get things done. Anyone who’s been around for a while has internalized those norms, especially if they’re in leadership positions. These folks feel in their bones that Agile won’t work, and if they try it they’ll fail badly. On an even deeper level, they may fear that Agile threatens their jobs: If one of your core skills – maybe your primary skill – is knowing how to work the system, then a completely new system is not good news.

Muscle memory
Internalized norms are powerful even for people who aren’t afraid of change. Destin Sandlin of the educational video series Smarter Every Day says, “If you have a rigid way of thinking in your head, sometimes you can’t change it even if you want to.” [My emphasis.] Check out the video below. Sandlin tries to ride a bike that’s been modified so that you have to turn the handle bars right to go left and left to go right.  It’s simple, isn’t it? Just turn the handle bars the opposite way!


If you didn’t watch, the punch line is that no one can ride the modified bike without months of practice – because steering a bike is something we don’t think about. We do it unconsciously and automatically. Many of our work behaviors are like that, and Agile is a lot harder to grasp than “turn the handle bars the other way.”

The takeaway
Agile is absolutely worth it – but you have to go in knowing that cultural and behavioral change is difficult. You need management support for the long haul. You’ll encounter problems immediately (many of them already existed, but suddenly they’re obvious). There will be uncertainty and missteps. That’s why I love Edwards and Sender’s conclusion that a sign of Agile health is humility: not declaring that you’ve got it all figured out, but rather saying “We’re getting better at it … I think.”

If you’re leading an Agile transformation, don’t just anticipate these hurdles – tell everyone they’re coming!  Let the team know it will be hard, and everyone will make mistakes, and that’s OK. Agile is far more open, collaborative and humane than traditional ways of working. It may take time for Agile methods to gain traction, but you can embrace those Agile values – openness, collaboration, human-centricity – from day one.  If you do, it will go a long way toward overcoming people’s skepticism and fear. They’ll want the change – and they’re the ones who will ultimately make it happen.


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