Becoming Agile Without Help?

I was recently asked how successful can organizations be in transitioning to agile on their own. My immediate response was to evoke the response from a team of helping-handpanelist. When asked what is the most important thing they did to be successful in their transition, four panelists from across industries and organizational sizes all said essentially, “Getting some good help.” 

I’ve been pondering this question for the last couple days. I’m sure it is possible to self-transition, but I’ve never seen it done. I’ve seen new teams start out promoting agile, but in practice employ cowboy coding. I’ve seen teams implement agile tools and use them only to track the completeness of feature requests. I’ve seen teams take over agile practices from a third party and start out using agile well, but drift away from it as they short circuited fundamental principles that were not well engrained or fully understood. I’ve heard tech leads discuss how they tried using agile after some research and found it did not work well in their organization. I know I did it wrong before getting training and having more than a few learning cycles under my belt.

I tried searching Google and a number of blogs last evening to see if I could find any references to no-help, self-done, successful agile transitions. I couldn’t find any. Now, you say “sure, the pundits are in the business of helping others.” But I expected to find at least a few contrairian posts. Nope. Either I’m not searching well, or it is indeed rare. 

The best result from this quest was a quote from a presentation by Clarke Ching at Scottland IS that listed this as a reason for agile failing: “Trying to transition to agile without help OR outsourcing the transition entirely to ‘experts’.”

The second part, I agree with. You cannot be successful by hiring someone to make you agile. It takes action on the part of the those that will execute the new process. It needs to be practiced. It needs to be refined through retrospection.  And, perhaps the best reason why outside help is so common, is that it needs to be internalized – not just by a champion, but by everyone that will be using it. Building that kind of organizational wisdom in short order (before the initiative fails) is perhaps near impossible.

I’d love to hear examples of where it’s been done without outside education, guidance or coaching. Please leave a comment if your organization has been successful, you know someone, or know someone who knows someone that’s done it on their own. I know at least the first team did it without help. Let’s find others.

2 Replies to “Becoming Agile Without Help?”

  1. I’ve never pondered this before, but it is a great point. At first I thought of a few examples, but I immediately remembered some form of outside help each received after getting started.

    Is it possible that agile is rooted so tightly in softer skills and philosophies (communication, transparency, self-management, accountability, quality) that it has to be experienced to be understood? Most of these types of lessons are learned through experience or role-playing because they aren’t so tangible. I wonder if Linda Rising would have some interesting insight on this (based on her human nature and tribal concepts).

    I would recommend taking this debate to Agile 2008 in two weeks. If you will be there, drop me a line in advance because this might be a great evening or open session topic and I’d love to participate. (if not, let me know and maybe I’ll find a way to raise it)


  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Unfortunately, I have a family wedding the week of Agile, so I will not be there. Please do raise the question and I’d love to hear the results.

    PS: The one skills we both failed to mention is “trust.” Trust both in the approach and team members.


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