​Business Agility and How to Fail It

Mar 5, 2019, 10:52 AM

Similar failure patterns surface repeatedly in large agile transformations. Nitor Lean - Agile coaches have gathered these patterns during large agile transformations and extensive agile research since 2006.


Consultants have a tendency to look at the bright side of the agile changes and see the success patterns more often than the failure patterns. Often, the failure patterns are more obvious and surface more easily. Here are the top 5 patterns based on our experience and extensive research.

Pattern #1:Executive Leaders are not involved in Agile change

Do you see the business value potential and measure its growth?

Are you as manager feeling the pain of the changing needs?

Agile transformation is about paradigm change, it’s about starting a continuous learning journey. It touches everyone and every function inside the organization. It transforms the company structures from top to bottom. Management should understand how to adapt organization structure, decision making and policies into Agile way of working.

In the most successful changes we have seen, the top managers are acting as role models for the change, being the first ones to change their own behaviour and using a lot of time to discuss, learn, and understand the nature and benefits of agility.

Are you as manages feeling that bi-weekly decision meetings are too seldom?

Do you as a manager require reports or have timely transparency on your customer value progress?

Are you as a top manager passionately changing together with the whole organization or following change program via progress reports?

Pattern #2: Change is seen as an IT or R&D bubble initiative

Agile is a mindset change that starts from customer need and ends by validating the value hypothesis. It’s about understanding how customer value flows fast throughout the entire organization.

In most cases, we have observed that agile change starts at IT or R&D department. The software development methods are evolving faster than the organization as a whole. Then the pressure towards product management and business side has grown so that the rest of the organization has been pulled into the change. In best cases, change has started by understanding the whole system, where the IT/R&D is only one part of the whole value chain.

Do you think that Agile is only about product/service development?

Is your change trapped in IT bubble where business and product resist change?

Is your focus on how IT processes are defined - or what should be delivered next?

Pattern #3: Change is defined as a Project with pre-defined end date and tight budget

A successful change is iterative in nature. The organization starts to learn step by step how to change their current setup towards an iterative one. It is all about a never-ending transformation journey! Change involves everyone, is based on voluntary participation, is embracing transparency and giving authority to persons involved. The change itself is living and breathing agility.

The false certainty that is often requested by us: “Give us a 6 months project implementation plan, budget and outcome”. If you have a profoundly thought-out Agile implementation plan, with resource allocation and project end date decided upfront, you are probably following the pattern #3.

Have you decided upfront how agile implementation will take place?

Have you indicated all major risks in advance?

Do you prefer plans with false certainty or do you admit that the future is unknown?

Pattern #4: The need of new thinking and new mindset is undervalued

"Like fish that can’t conceive of a world not immersed in water, most of us can’t envision management practices that don’t correspond to the norms of our own experience.” (Hamel, 2007, The future of management).

As G.Hamel states you need to experience the new norms. You need to create your own understanding of how the new practices bring value. This cannot be explained by PowerPoint presentations or trainings, although they can give you nice inspiration. You need to change your thinking from resource optimization to flow optimization, in all aspects. Understanding what works in your environment and what does not.

We have seen too many ‘changes’ where only the titles of the persons have changed but not how they think and manage the flow. Too many ‘changes’ where ‘transparency’ means individual level resource follow-up by Jira. Too many ‘changes’ where ‘team’ members change each time a new assignment starts. An experienced coach is valuable to recognize such patterns and offer help to move forward by coaching the organization over the difficulties that can be the real success factors.

Do you find previous project managers in the scrum master roles?

At the point of crisis, do you prefer old familiar way of working – or do you trust emerging WoW?

Do you think that after few days’ training you know how to change your organization?

Pattern #5: Time needed for unlearning old behaviours is undervalued

Change requires time. Unlearning takes time and can be even harder than learning new habits. Learning happens in real work environment, not in classrooms. Focus is on fast learning loops instead of valuing the time for learning. Focus is on valuable output instead of keeping people 100% utilised. Focus is on small validated customer deliveries instead of big batch deliveries.

In the best cases that we have seen 20%–30% of time is allocated for the change, learning and understanding new behaviours for the first 6–8 months. There is no separate ‘change organization’ but the change is driven with real persons doing real work. Some new agile roles are dedicated full time to build the new system.

How many people are helping your organization to move forward full time?

How many improvements have you executed in the last 2 weeks?

Have you declared that “Now we are Agile!” and a new change initiative can take place?

As Lean-Agile coaches we constantly see agile transformations that carry some of these failure signals. Agile transformation does not happen overnight. We are in a mission of making Finland a little bit better place and therefore do not want companies to waste money on transformations that strongly signal the failure patterns.

No one will get credit of being ‘compliant with agile’: it is not a goal in itself. Best credit will come after creating an adaptive and learning organization that delivers new business value continuously with shorter cycles and thus creating more happier end-users!

We hope that your company can benefit from this information and make the right adjustments if so needed.



Kirsi Mikkonen is a versatile Lean-Agile coach. She is also an international sailing champion who switches her sailing shoes to telemark skis when the waves turn to ice.


Marko Setälä is a hard core coach in large lean-agile transformations, leading distributed agile software development in multi-culture environment since 2005.