Transformation Constipation: Here’s What the Doctor Orders

Have you found that your agile transformation has become… stuck?

Sure, things went well in the beginning. You fed your organization a steady diet of sprints and ceremonies, with user stories and a burndown chart-chaser. And you saw lots of positive results—at first.

But now, you can’t seem to get things moving again. You have what we call transformation constipation.

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Symptoms of transformation constipation include:

  • Organizational irritability—There is an increasing level of frustration, even anxiety, around the transformation. People are beginning to realize that results are falling far short of expectations.
  • Transformations “repeating” on you—The organization seems to be in a constant state of transforming, with starts, stops, and re-starts.
  • Loss of appetite—Team members are fed up with agile and agile transformation. The drive to see it through is no longer there. Teams begin to say “I guess Agile just wasn’t for us.”
  • Searching for the “magic elixir”—Stakeholders are constantly on the lookout for “that one thing” or “the missing ingredient” that will get things back on track and flowing again.
  • Lots of finger pointing—Everyone has someone they blame for the lack of results. Unsurprisingly, the finger never points to themselves.

Diagnosis: What causes transformation constipation?

As fun as it is to riff on medical ads, our purpose in diagnosing transformation constipation comes from our experience helping companies who have themselves been, “stuck.” We have found that, for many companies, getting started with agile was not the challenge—but sustaining the transformation, and seeing it through to the end, was incredibly difficult.


Part of it has to do with the nature of organizational transformation, especially when it comes to early wins. And part of it has to do with a misunderstanding of the scope of what needs to change.

Early Wins

Let’s start with the nature of organizational transformation. When initiating a transformation with wide scope, some things will be easier and quicker to change than others. For example, setting meetings for sprint planning and retros is fairly easy. Rethinking the entire company’s org chart, not so much.

What we have noticed is that easy things get changed first, and this delivers some early wins. Maybe delivery gets *a little* faster. Maybe the customer provides some key feedback that prevents a lot of future re-working. Whatever those early wins are, they make everyone think, “wow, this agile thing is easy!”

Pretty soon, though, that low-hanging fruit is gone. The organization has digested all the easy changes it can…but it’s not enough. The harder changes are not so obvious, and the transformation begins to slow down. After the euphoria of easy wins, this slow down creates anxiety and frustration, and things begin to spiral and stagnate.

The Scope of Transformation

The agile philosophy grew out of the world of software design and development, and that continues to be the focus of much agile re-organization today. Because of that, too many leaders assume that an agile transformation happens, for the most part, on development teams.

It is true that development is the lynchpin for many transformations—but it represents only a third of what needs to change. Your leaders, business teams, and delivery teams need to be a part of the transformation, too. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen teams in an organization make a great transition towards Agile, only to be hamstrung by managers and leaders who continued to put constraints on them based on an older work model.

Indeed, there is an entire “value chain” involved in delivering products to your users, and your developers are just one integral part of that chain. Our webinar on this topic gives you a simple tool for inspecting this value chain—highly recommended as a first step in diagnosing where your transformation is currently “stopped up.”

After all, there is only so much development teams can do by themselves. If the rest of the organization does not change with them, the transformation will be largely incomplete, and no further changes with the development team will be able to move things along.

“Doctor Says…”: Prescription and Prognosis

When agile transformations get stuck, organizations don’t see the benefits that such a transformation promises: Adaptability, customer satisfaction, quicker time to market, etc. Those who brought change to the organization struggle, hoping to find the magic elixir that will make everything better again. Those who aren’t as invested give up: “I guess Agile just wasn’t for us!” they say.

To avoid this fate, and to get your transformation moving again, we recommend getting a handle on a few things:

  • Don’t just treat the symptoms. A lot of medicines will make you feel better for a short while, but unless you treat the underlying cause, the same symptoms will keep popping up over and over. Same goes for an agile transformation. It’s not enough to just get a Kanban board (for example). You have to do the hard things that get at the root cause of your problems.
  • Change your diet. If you keep eating junk food, you’ll stay stuck until you get a few vegetables in you. That goes not just for people, but for value chains, too. For example, if you keep ingesting the same sorts of requirements, you are going to get the same sorts of results.
  • Try some healthy cultures. Agile transformation isn’t just about different kinds of meetings or team structures. It requires a cultural change. This is difficult, but necessary; else, people will be incentivized to do things the old, non-agile way.
  • Get checked out. Have a severe case of constipation? Get it checked out. Just as a doctor has special tools to see what is going on inside of you, the right agile coaches and trainers have special tools to diagnose what, exactly, might be blocking further agile uptake and transformation. Again, you can see one such tool in action via our webinar.

Remember, transformation constipation can happen to anyone. Get checked out, make a few lifestyle changes, and you will soon be on the road to recovery.

Why Your Company is On Its Third Agile Transformation

Lee Cunningham

Lee is passionate about helping organizations deliver great products and services through the practical application of lean, agile, and systems thinking. He works with people at all organizational levels – from executives to team members -- providing insight and practical guidance in meeting the challenges of change...

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