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Agile is Not Purpose-Built for Organizations

The progenitors of the Agile Manifesto had a focused goal in mind: building better software. As with any good idea, people began to see applications for the principles beyond software development to product development of any kind. Next, other non-product teams saw the advantages of utilizing Agile practices.

Eventually, the idea of Organizational Agility emerged. It sounds great and seems like something valuable. The sad fact is, Agile wasn’t built for it. There are no provisions in the four values or twelve principles. What has emerged are attempts to glue teams together with frameworks like SAFe and Scrum@Scale.

These frameworks need to comprehend the complexity and nuance of an entire organization. Just because you can organize a picnic for your family doesn’t mean you know how to cater a large event. While some overlap exists, the skills and processes are far more extensive.

Some of the largest business consulting firms have recognized this gap and are filling it with branded Agile services. This is smart on their part. These firms have extensive business transformation capabilities, so adapting them to Agile practices is within their existing capabilities.

Unfortunately, those who can’t afford one of these large firms are missing out. Furthermore, many of the so-called experts in Agility at these companies lack the background in working on truly agile product teams. In this case, “Agile” just becomes a branding word to continue offering the same services they’ve been offering.

My associate, Tom Meloche, calls this a “nightmare.” That word may be overly dramatic, but it is a stark caution that some people who have climbed aboard the Agile bandwagon may not truly belong there. The “lipstick on a pig” metaphor comes to mind.

What is needed is a proper, universally accepted set of Organizational Agile Principles. We can’t assume that the signatories of the Agile Manifesto have the expertise for these. We certainly shouldn’t think that long-time business consultants will magically have the expertise. Very few people are likely to have the necessary skills and experiences to call themselves experts at organizational agility in the context of Agile practice.

Another ski trip may be necessary. The Agile Manifesto has some real gems which can apply beyond software development, but the path to applying them needs work. The existing frameworks, aren’t it. They are highly process-oriented and far too prescriptive. The road to Organizational Agility is long. The changes required to make it work go well beyond the work that most business consulting firms have traditionally offered.

There is hope for the future, but organizations seeking Organization-wide Agility are groping in the dark for now. Hopefully, some will start to emerge with the clear advantages that Agility brings, and we can use those organizations and what they did to get there as a model for how to do it right.

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