Why do People and Organisations Struggle to be Agile?

Many organisations are trying to become more agile. Some succeed, but in many cases they struggle. Even though they might use  a process like Scrum, have things called Backlogs and people called Product Owners, when they compare what they are doing with the past, they aren’t often actually delivering different outcomes.

The post Sliding Doors – A Tale of Two Agile Teams describes one project and shows how teams (in this case, the Blue team) can appear to be agile, but not actually be agile – they could have delivered their prototype using traditional development approaches. But this doesn’t just happen in small teams; it is also evident at an organisational level, particularly when organisations try to make Programmes more agile.

Craig Larman is a respected agile thought leader, and the author of various books on scaling lean and agile approaches, including developing the LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) approach. He has a theory on why adopting a cultural change like agile is difficult – He calls it Larman’s Laws of Organisational Behaviour.

Larman’s Laws state that “Organisations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle and first level manager and “specialist” positions and power structures“.

Furthermore, he goes on to state that change initiatives will end up being manipulated (probably by those managers and specialists) into “redefining and overloading the new terminalology to mean basically the same as the status quo“. His main message being: culture follows structure, which is similar to the quote (often attributed to Peter Ducker) of Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.

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Sliding Doors – A Tale of Two Agile Teams

Movie poster for Sliding Doors

In the 1998 movie, Sliding Doors, Gwytheth Paltrow experiences two very different storylines in parallel because of one small difference. In one version, she leaves work early, catches the tube and arrives home to find her boyfriend in bed with another women; in the alternative version, she is slightly delayed, just misses the tube, and doesn’t catch him. The movie plays both versions side by side, switching scene by scene between them.

This blog is based on a real life project, where we were asked to help automate some manual business processes. As we began exploring the problem space, it turned out that another team had also been asked to do the same, but were taking a different approach from us. While we were thinking about business and user goals, they had decomposed the problem functionally.

This story describes how these two approaches differ, particularly with the outcome, tries to explain why goal decomposition is better, yet despite this, is still relatively rare to see.

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