Einstein's Theory of Agile Transformations...?


“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

I’ve had this Einstein quote rattling around in my head for a few days…and I keep ruminating on the agile transformations I’ve been part of/privvy to. It seems to me that one of the big repeating stumbling blocks that I’ve encountered is:

  1. organization decides to transform to agile delivery
  2. organization spins up a project to do so
  3. org staffs project team with their brightest waterfall minds (under the guise of maximizing odds of success)
  4. project team very quickly begins working like they’re running a project (metrics in a tool, status reports, public naming/shaming)
  5. teams become disillusioned/demotivated as they thought “this time will be different…”

I’m starting to theorize that the best way to maximize your transformation success is to:

  1. Hire an outside resource to be the head of your transformation (externally, with a healthy CV of proof of being agile, not just doing)
  2. Said resource should be empowered to build a team of like-minded practitioners to help increase the odds of success (external hires preferable)
  3. Said team should be empowered verbally(and LOUDLY)/visually by Leadership to do whatever they have to in order to “get it done”, and that message should be cascaded down to the middle mgmt layers as well. Maybe throw in the 3 F’s in that message (Front, Follow, or F**K out the way).

This is a very unrefined take, as it came from a ruminating session yesterday, but I wanted to throw it out there and see what people’s thoughts are…same situations? same observances? am I completely off?


So… I’ve kind of been that person in the past few jobs… either the first brought in to drive the change, or the 2nd. The difference is that my experiences were in small startups, not “enterprises”.

But yes… it’s not a bad idea, just a hard sell (because it can be an expensive time/money mistep if you get the wrong person). The main challenge with this approach is that there has to be balance between the new voice from the outside and the voices existing within as that new person has to learn the culture and why’s behind odd behaviors. I’ve seen too many new people come into an organization and rock the boat too hard and change things to a break point because they don’t have context yet.


Yup, I’ve been that person before. I’ve never seen that work.

Senior managers need to change their behaviors and then how they think. If, for example, they believe in resource efficiency, any agile approach will never ever work.

They then train the middle managers by helping them collaborate and change how they think. Along the way, all the managers will realize they have too many managers. If HR doesn’t get involved to support the culture transformation, it will fail here (if not before).

The teams are almost never “the” issue. Team (if they are teams) often have incentives and measurements that are at cross-purposes to an agile transformation.

An agile culture is about the managers, first, second, and third. Maybe last. (Yes, I’m writing more management books. What a surprise :slight_smile:


I think the impetus for this opinion is the observation that it’s very difficult to enact a successful change and make it stick when the poeple you make responsible for coordinating said change have a solid waterfall mindset and ways of working. They maybe dip their toes in the agile water, but they equate “doing agile” to “being agile” and they let their old PMO habits come to the front (using rally/V1 reports to name/blame/shame, emails I stead of phone calls, blind status reports, etc.).

There’s a concept of Cerberus the change champion being necessary for all successful, lasting change (internal champion, external champion, executive champion) so maybe that’s the secret… Find these 3 ppl, couple them with the agile working group (h/t jorgen hesselberg) and unleash them on the org.

Im really curious to see how many transformations fail and/or sputter out with no demonstrable lasting change.


I think you’re onto something, with a bit of a different twist.

The typical approach as described is essentially treating Agile Transformation like any other top-down, CnC mandated (read imposed, not invited) corporate initiative. That type of initiative feels like…“We’re from corporate and we’re here to help”!!!

IME, brining in a person or three (a PERSON, NOT a resource!) from outside who can PARTNER with people who know the organization’s history, culture, strengths, strategy, and political hotspots is the most effective approach. This partnership must be a collaboration of equals that quickly develop mutual respect and a working relationship that enables them to lead the organization through the turmoil of transformation.

That Agile Leadership Pair builds a team of qualified pairs or triples of incumbent and outside, experienced non-dogmatic practitioners. This group MUST WALK-THE-TALK and live the gospel they preach.

100% agree with the Leadership loudly and visibly empowering the Agile Leadership Pair and their people. If high-performing managers or executives are not willing or able to get on board with the transformation, Senior Management must either help them truly get on-board or find them a different place (within or outside the company).

Sniffing out incumbents from PMO or Management that are open to a new mindset is also critical, combined with painting a clear vision for the management folks as to how critical they are to the company’s continued success. Those that are not open to a new mindset are better served being offered a different role they are better suited to (ref. Unlocking Agility by Jorgen Hesselberg Chapter 5)

Lastly, I’ve come to believe that real, lasting transformation is only possible when people opt-in. The typical “transformation” described above feels very top-down, mandated. People don’t resist change, they resist being coerced or forced to change and being told what to change to.

So in summary, yeah, the typical approach is unlikely to have meaningful, lasting impact. Fusing open-minded incumbent people with outside expertise can help navigate the turmoil while respecting the people in place in the organization.

Oh yeah, BTW, those external folks don’t need to be around forever, as the incumbents gain knowledge, confidence, credibility, and real-life stories, the external folks can move on to other parts of the org or other organizations.