You could spend several days non-stop reading opinions about both why and how “Agile” has “failed”. I used to react to these articles with anger, even contempt, particularly in the first decade that I participated in the Agile community of practice, because I found them so utterly cynical or misleading or downright dishonest. It took me that long to begin to interpret those articles more generously and to reframe the situation in way that makes room for progress instead of merely giving in.

Confirmation bias guarantees that some authors look for any opportunity to stop the spread of Agile, while some others have simply come to the end of their tether and feel like Agile “didn’t work” and that the time has come to pack up our tents and move on. I don’t see it that way. On the contrary, I believe that after a quarter century of mostly playing around and blaming our poor results on others, we still have the opportunity to benefit more from the lessons of Agile software development. We’ve spent most of this time learning a million ways to fail. I’ve chosen to frame that situation in a way that can help us get off the merry-go-round of half-hearted adoption and blaming others when we don’t get the results we’d expected.

Let me start here: lasting change demands alignment. I choose the word demands here quite carefully. To some this seems “true but useless” or even tautological, but even those who agree with it often underestimate its awesome power. We often cling to survival through denial: significant alignment doesn’t come easy and in high-stakes situations where you don’t have it, you feel compelled to move forward and hope for the best. Marriages1 (and their social equivalents) slowly burn to destruction over this! People detect a serious misalignment in values early in the relationship, but not early enough, and so since they already feel committed, they push forward. (The Sunk Cost fallacy wields tremendous power.) If it happens in our deepest and most-cherished personal relationships, then what chance does the environment of our day job have?! Without sufficient alignment, attempted change results in temporary compliance at best. We experience the illusion of change. Eventually—and often seemingly suddenly and without warning—the illusion disappears and we snap back into old patterns, sometimes with disastrous results.

One Obvious Consequence

We need, therefore, to seek explicit alignment while we adopt changes in how we do our jobs. We don’t need total explicit alignment before we start changing anything, but we need to recognize and heed the dangers of inflicting change without cultivating explicit alignment. I don’t have a repeatable formula for engineering alignment—I would have some billions of currency units in the bank if I did. Approaches fill entire sections of bookstores. Viewing human networks as complex adaptive systems guarantees that we can never find reliably repeatable associations of cause and effect. At most, “we can dance with the system”. Even so, we can find places to start.

Books like Switch, Made to Stick, and Influence helped me begin to collect some techniques for gaining alignment by better understanding how others think and behave. Books like Nonviolent Communication and The New Strategic Selling combined with the work of Virginia Satir helped me shift the focus away from trying to change others towards becoming genuinely interested in understanding them. This shift in focus helps me build trust, which helps us build lasting change together. I now see gaining alignment as an ongoing process of convergence where progress feels alternately impossible and sudden. Rather than falling into a pit of despair, books like Thinking, Fast And Slow and Risk: The Science of Politics and Fear remind me how much people need to fight with themselves to think and reason clearly, while books like Managing Transitions, Leading Change, and Fearless Change offer me practical techniques for taking steps forward while working on the larger problem of converging towards alignment.

If we want change to last, we can’t spend all our time figuring out how to “make them change” but we also can’t let alignment become an impassable barrier that prompts us to give up. If we want change to last, we need to seek alignment while we try to adopt practical changes in our everyday jobs.

One Less-Obvious Consequence

You might find yourself blocked from seeking explicit alignment in your organization. You might decide that you have no idea how to get started. You might choose to spend the next several months reading some books and learning the ins and outs of cultivating alignment. You might, but you don’t have to! If you don’t know how to create alignment or you sense that you won’t succeed—at least for now—then simply narrow your field of view.

I don’t suggest that you lower your expectations, but rather turn your attention to a smaller system and work to introduce change there. Here you can practise cultivating alignment where you encounter resistance more within your capacity to meet. Here you already have enough influence to introduce experiments or guide others to do so. Here you can take more risks, recover less-painfully from negative outcomes, while feeling significant pride in positive ones. When my clients feel despondent about not managing to spread positive change throughout the organization, I encourage them to make the changes they want and to do it for themselves. Yes, this carries its own risks—making others look bad, creating excess inventory, fooling themselves into believing that they’ve already fixed everything—but they can use this as a conscious strategy to build the energy they need to learn how to break through the larger problem of seeking explicit alignment. Many well-meaning people burn themselves out by labeling themselves as failures for not breaking through the brick wall. Give yourself some time! Let yourself enjoy some localized success so that you can build energy and focus it on increasing your chances of succeeding more widely next time. I don’t see this as giving in, but rather as consolidating your resources to make the next attempt more likely to succeed. When people resign themselves to doing it for themselves, they tend to feel bad about it; when people decide consciously to do it for themselves, they more often see it as a step on the path towards achieving a bigger positive result.

Choosing A Strategy Does Not Mean Giving In

I’ve seen people burn out (and I’ve done it myself) by trying hard for months or years to introduce change, then watching it fizzle out or never quite take off, and then feeling defeat. As a result, they either give up entirely or they resign themselves to playing the role of big fish in a small pond, working by their own rules while continually looking anxiously over their shoulder at a larger organization that would tell them to stop it if they ever bothered to look closely. Well-meaning people in this position often end up at a Morton’s Fork. Some label themselves as a loud, public failure. Others internalize the quiet humiliation of becoming the nail that never sticks up so that no-one will hammer it down. They never feel comfortable with their position, never feel settled, and always wonder “what if?” They label themselves a failure, which manifests at least in their self-talk and often in burnout or depression. I would like to help you avoid this fate by framing the situation a bit differently.

If you believe that you have the energy to seek alignment with the organization around you, then go for it! Use every tool and technique at your disposal. Approach this project as many of us learn to approach meditation: as long as you respond to distractions and setbacks by starting again, that is the practice. Here, you decide consciously to seek alignment alongside guiding people to change, because you think you can do it or you want to sharpen your skill or for some other arbitrary reason that drives you. You don’t need to “make sense”; you merely need to sustain yourself enough to keep going.

If, however, you don’t see how to gain any significant alignment, then decide consciously to focus on something within (or very slightly outside) your grasp. Accept the limits of your impact on the organization. Make peace with the notion (from the Theory of Constraints) that you might even hurt the results of some larger part of the organization while you improve your local results. If you need to burn your excess inventory (throw uncompleted work away), then do it if it helps you persist in trying to improve. Don’t fall prey to The Responsibility Virus by becoming over-responsible: if alignment seems unlikely to happen here in spite of your best efforts, then you don’t bear responsibility for that. Use this opportunity to improve your personal practice or your immediate group’s practice. Maybe you set a good example for others in the organization to follow and that leads to better alignment over the long term; maybe you merely prepare yourself to have a greater impact in your next job. Rather than feel bad that you failed to have more impact, decide consciously that you probably won’t manage to achieve that here and refuse to feel guilty about it. Take the opportunity to increase your own capacity to try again somewhere else, either because you feel better prepared to try or because you notice the potential for stronger alignment there than you noticed here. Where some might see this as copping out, I see this as honestly assessing your situation and choosing not to survive by denying it.

What About Agile?

Even after 25 years, I believe in the potential and benefits of Lightweight approaches to working, such as Agile software development. I believe that they can produce great results in a way that fits how I want to live. I’ll never forget first reading “What’s the least we can do and still deliver great software?” Not everyone feels that way, which led me for years to feel the ways that I’ve described here about introducing change.

I found myself banging my head against brick walls less when I began to insist on having this conversation about alignment openly with clients and co-workers. Following is a short list of key points on which we need to align in order for an organization to operate in a Lightweight manner:

  • We value cash flow over long-term investment
  • We recognize the need to converge towards solutions instead of trying to figure everything out early
  • We commit to noticing what we don’t need to do, then choosing to stop doing it
  • We build structures that recognize human needs, rather than merely push humans to act more like mechanical centers of production for our convenience

When people talk about the nebulous “Agile mindset”, I believe that many of them mean something very much like this. When they talk about the need for “executive/management support”, I believe that many of them mean to seek explicit alignment on points like these. When a client wants to adopt more Lightweight approaches to their work I start to look for alignment in these areas, and when I find the opposite, I warn the client of the likely consequences. I guide them to undertake some combination of cultivating alignment and narrowing their expectations. Wherever they land on that spectrum, whatever they do, when they choose a strategy consciously, they become significantly more likely to succeed, even if the organization never really changes.

References

I didn’t read all these in one summer, so don’t feel overwhelmed. Just start somewhere. I also read some of these 10-20 years ago, so you might prefer some more-recently-written alternatives. I can only recommend the books I read.

Chip and Dan Heath, Switch. A collection of stories and theories about how to influence people to change their behavior. I adopt the practice of combining a visionary change with a few concrete, smaller changes.

Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick. I used this book to learn how to present ideas in a way that makes them more likely to “stick” in the receiver’s mind. In particular, it helped me learn how to craft more-compelling presentations, but I also used it to help me articulate ideas in a more compelling way one on one.

Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. An older survey of psychological results that try to explain what might cause people to change their behavior. I used these ideas to better understand what makes me pliable and to better notice others’ attempts to manipulate me.

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication. Connect with your unmet needs and communicate those directly as a way to improve your relationship with other people.

Robert B. Miller and others, The New Strategic Selling. I learned a model for debugging “failed sales” from this book. It also introduced me to an ethical mode of selling in which we seek alignment between what they need and I can offer, rather than using psychology tricks to increase sales.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. I had learned about “survival rules” from Virginia Satir through Jerry Weinberg, but this book deepened my understanding of the role of subconscious judgment in how people navigate the world.

Dan Gardner, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. This book helped me feel more genuine compassion for people in the ways and extent that fear interferes with reasoning.

William Bridges, Managing Transitions. A manual for introducing change that addresses not only operational concerns, but also the respects the strong influence of emotions.

John Kotter, Leading Change. Another manual for introducing change that offers a model to those (like me) who appreciate that way of organization new information.

Linda Rising and MaryLynn Manns, Fearless Change. Another manual for introducing change using the structure of patterns, in case that way of learning fits you better.

Roger Martin, The Responsibility Virus. A collection of stories about the danger of ignoring imbalances in responsibility.

J. B. Rainsberger, “The Importance of Aligning Authority With Responsibility”. Beyond imbalances in responsibility between people, we need to consider the risks associated with not matching authority to responsibility.

Eliyahu Goldratt, The Goal. The classic introduction to the Theory of Constraints. Optimizing a smaller system bears the risk of hurting a larger system around it, but you can mitigate the risk by preparing yourself to throw away the uncompleted work you create in the act of trying to increase your capacity. I would rather increase the capacity of the larger system, but we can’t use that as an excuse to stand there and do nothing.

Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour. I enjoyed this as a first book on the nature of complexity and the limits of our influence on complex systems.


  1. I’d really rather use a word for this that carries less sociopolitical baggage, but I couldn’t think of one. If you can suggest a word or two-word phrase (nothing longer, please!) to replace the word “marriage” here, I’d happily consider it.