Pizza Is Not Dead, and Neither Is Agility

Agile transformation is often a major investment for companies, both in terms of time and money. But it is not a one-time investment that you make and then forget about it. Just like sport. Doing it once doesn’t get you into shape, and being in shape once does not mean you’ll stay in shape forever. It requires regular exercise to get fit and stay fit. In the same way, agile transformation and agility need constant exercise, practice, and review to ensure they are at their best.

Some companies have therefore decided to really look at themselves under the hood additionally to the sprint processes that have become somewhat routine to get a deeper understanding of how they work, and how agile they really are.

Falling into agile hibernation

But what causes teams, departments, or even entire organisations which have once set out on the path of genuine agile transformation to fall into a state of agile lethargy or hibernation? What was once a mindset of embracing change has become stagnant. The structures, roles, and meetings that were introduced back then remain but feel more like museum pieces, reminding us of a time that was, rather than drivers of a culture of innovation, progress, and dynamism to explore new solutions, ideas and markets.

I was lucky enough to debate these thoughts with transformation team leads, agile coaches, ScrumMasters and other agile practitioners at recent events. It became clear that we share comparable experiences, and many familiar patterns emerge.

Here are some lowlights:

  • Teams are being told what to do and how to do it.
    It’s tough to give away control. Even if management delegated control in the past, it doesn’t mean they will in the future. Management can develop a tendency to want to manage with a heavier hand, in particular when ScrumMasters fail to intervene and leave gaps. Rather than being enablers who remove roadblocks and illuminate the destination, these managers want to choose the route and be the backseat driver. For many teams, this does not leave space to initiative and innovate. Not to mention that self-fulfilment and motivation suffer as a result.
  • Tech experts (re-)take over and build their silos.
    Nothing wrong with being an expert in a certain technology, but when experts start defining what the users need, we are not on the right track. Even if a user perspective is involved, having tech experts holding onto their solution rather than seeing the bigger picture is equally worrying.
  • Teams that were once aligned to strategic objectives and solutions have lost their focus and clarity.
    In other words, they have not revisited objectives because there was no importance put on that, or perhaps no clear strategic direction. It seems illogical that what was once accomplished, ends up being considered definitive for the future. Specific reasons vary but can be clustered under the low ability to live with and embrace change, or the lack of absorption of practices that were once used to ensure alignment into the DNA of an organisation.

How to deal with it?

I have not been an advocate of agile maturity checks, and the internet is witness to some of my raging about the topic because agile maturity checks are often treated like beauty contests. However, they are needed in this case to help identify the pain points.

Rather than doing a survey or conducting a few interviews, it is important to bring a whole area/department closely together and do a comprehensive retrospective that is given its due time. This is not something that you need to do once a month (although, if you are not numbering 100 people, it is conceivable) but should happen at least once a year.

Bring in ScrumMasters who will be confident in challenging teams. The most difficult scenario is when the entire team (SM, PO, devs) goes into agile hibernation together. They have their routines and feel nice and cosy in there. You need to get SMs that will not set the whole place in flames instantly and build teams to fit their own template. You need those who will get through the fog and insulation that develops with routines. Rotating ScrumMasters between teams or departments is one way of doing it. Getting ‘new blood’ into the frame brings additional drive and new experiences.

Additionally, the ability to ask tough questions at the level of “Is our transformation going the right way?” or “Are we as agile as we like to think?” takes maturity. To answer these kinds of questions, or not be able to answer them and still find a way forward, brings even more maturity.

Finally, a thought for those who have written and said much about the end of agile in the last months. Sceptics have taken turns to proclaim its end and label it as ultimately failed. I would challenge every one of those sceptics to really look at the ‘agile’ contexts they are familiar with and reflect on how genuinely agile they really are.

You can compare it to pizza restaurants. There are plenty of them around, but only a few that are very good. It does not mean that pizza is dead.


Photo by YaroslavKryuchka / istock

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Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic


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