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Ep. 76: How is an agile transformation different


The episode differentiates between agile and digital transformations, emphasizing the need for organizational participation and a clear understanding of the reasons behind the change, with insights from Simon Sinek's Golden Rule.

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podcast recording


Dave Sharrock and Peter Maddison explore how an agile transformation is different from a digital transformation in this week's podcast.

This week's takeaways:

  • Identify what you need to change first.
  • Leadership alone won't make it. They need the participation of the whole organization.
  • Understand why you are making the change.

Simon Sinek - Golden rule-

We love to hear feedback! If you have questions, would like to propose a topic, or even join us for a conversation, contact us here:


[00:00:00] Peter Maddison: Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of definitely Maybe Agile with your hosts, Peter Madison and David Sharrock. How are you today, Dave?

[00:00:07] Dave Sharrock: Peter, I'm doing very. Good to be chatting again. What is on the agenda for this afternoon's conversation?

[00:00:14] Peter Maddison: Today we're going to be talking about how an agile transformation is different from a digital transformation. Continuing our whole digital transformation season here.

[00:00:23] Dave Sharrock: Well, an extension perhaps of digital transformations or a specific case of a digital transformation, is what we're thinking of here.

[00:00:30] Peter Maddison: Yeah. It's really about that organizational change. I think you made a very interesting comment before we started that these days, when people say, "Hey, I wanna do an agile transformation", it has something of a different connotation.

[00:00:42] Dave Sharrock: Certainly. If we look back, agile transformations were about the people. In fact, you can hear this now in conversations going on where something is somehow missing. And I think what we're seeing there is more of a natural maturation of that whole agile transformation conversation. In those early days, agile transformations were about people, about teams, about how to get closer to the customer, how to collaborate. How to break down the walls of process and documentation that had begun really slowing down product development. And freeing it up so that people were really, more aligned and in tune with how they could get product out of the door, and enjoying the time working with them.

[00:01:23] Peter Maddison: Yeah. That entire change in approach to it, is critical. From this idea of moving away from the big T agile transformation. We're going to reorganize everybody. Everybody re-apply for their jobs. We're going to put you all into Scrum teams now. We're going to give you a whole bunch of new titles.

[00:01:41] Dave Sharrock: What you're describing there is where it's gone. It's moved away from how do you collaborate on a team? How do we create a team of individuals collaborating and working together to get stuff out the door quicker, just closer to what the customer wants. Into: "Hold on. That's a great idea, let's re-org, let's do that transformation piece". This is what we talked about in earlier episodes, which was the process transformation. There's nothing particularly wrong with the process transformation concept itself, as we discussed. But the challenge is that, especially in an agile context, we're needing, let's say it's 50% process change, 50% mindset change, but it's a lot of mindset change.

[00:02:21] So we're not just introducing a new process for booking vacations or expense reporting. We're really changing how people interact and work together. That combines process transformation with an organizational transformation. And I think that's the bit that makes agile transformations really quite unique. Or a particular breed of transformation. They're combining that organizational, the people side, coupled with the process side. Nowadays, I would argue definitely with a business side in there as well.

[00:02:52] Peter Maddison: When you try to do all of this, all at once, the impact to the organization is too large. The organization's ability to absorb that.

[00:03:00] Dave Sharrock: The unintended consequences. When you make big changes, when everything shifts, the unintended consequences for big changes is big unintended consequences. This is the headache of it. As you're pointing out, there are too many moving parts, too many levers, you're not going to be able to necessarily end up where you were hoping to.

[00:03:19] Peter Maddison: How does all of this relate to digital transformation? And all of the types of digital transformation that we've been talking about?

[00:03:26] Dave Sharrock: When you look at agile transformations, we need to roll back to why are we doing these things? And again, anytime I'm starting to talk about why I'm going to point at Simon Sinek and his Golden rule. This is why I brought the business piece in earlier on. I think in the early days of agile transformations, the Why was, because it's there. That's an early adopter mindset. Whereas today, we are recognizing agile transformations, the scale of them and what we're trying to get to, requires an investment. So you better know why you're doing it. The outcome has to be pretty clear.

[00:03:58] The second thing that makes agile transformations pretty interesting is the impact of the people. We talked earlier on about organizational change combined with process change. I had a really interesting conversation earlier today with one of our clients, and they made just a quick comment, which is really so true. When we start coaching people, it feels like the change is slow. When we view it, it feels like we're really slowing things down. But actually as those process changes come in because you've got the buy-in, the adoption happens really, really fast.

[00:04:34] The opposite, starting with a process transformation: this is where we are, this is where we need to get to, here's the plan to get there. Pushing that through, without bringing the people on board, might appear to be quicker. We make lots of progress about the planning and where we want to go. But the moment it hits the people in the organization, what you often find is it skitters off and stops. It doesn't really affect the change. And again, what was interesting about the conversation, is they were talked about a major transformation. Realignment around this is where we want to go, and the buy-in was totally absent. You heard the plan land. Then everyone waited to see what they needed to do and then carried on, as they normally do.

[00:05:17] Peter Maddison: I think there, we can start to link the adoption of an agile mindset. The adoption of the ability to think and break things in small parts. To learn and realize that the learning is the important part of this. How can I learn from this? How can I iterate and get better at this. That is in turn, one of those pieces that will make your digital transformation successful. Being able to think that way, being able to look at this massively complex change to your business model, look at that and say, there's just no way. We are not going to be able to get there. But, if I've started to adopt some of this agile thinking, started to think about how can I look at the first steps, the first things that I need to do. What is the first thing I need to do? What action can I take, that I can learn from, that will move me towards my goals? That's the type of agile transformation where we see the value come in.

[00:06:08] Dave Sharrock: Of course we're in wild agreement in many of our conversations. That's one of the fundamental differences in many transformations in that, agile transformations, at least at their heart, right from the outset, are about small changes. They're about kaizen rather anything bigger and scarier than that. The reason being, there are many different things coming together through experience, I think as much as anything else. Any of us who've been involved in that, have learned that there's no point trying to get a big lever and a move the whole organization. It has to snowball up. The reality is we have to take our time and snowball things up bit by bit, small piece by small piece, because so much of it is dependent on the buy-in, the acceptance, the curiosity, of the people in the organization.

[00:06:50] Peter Maddison: Inspiring curiosity. Lovely way to put it.

[00:06:54] Dave Sharrock: What would you say the difference is in that sense? We sometimes hear the talk of small T versus large T transformations. Where does an agile transformation sit in that? Or, how would you bring those two together?

[00:07:05] Peter Maddison: I Would argue that if you are doing an agile transformation with a large T, if you are going out and saying "Okay, we're going to go agile, and on Monday everybody re-apply for your jobs, you'll now have new titles, everything's totally changed.", then you're doing it wrong. At the heart of it should be what are the smaller increments of change that I can start to bring in and introduce, so that I can learn. What worked somewhere else isn't necessarily going to work here. I better understand the context of my environment, in how I work, in what we do. And that part of it is missing very often if going to blanket one size fits all. That's where things start to fall apart, and the wheels come off the top.

[00:07:43] Dave Sharrock: I'm going to try and reframe that whole big T, small T. The large T transformation, top down, supported by leadership. Whereas small T may be bottom up only. I think, in those contexts we actually want big T transformation. A lot of studies show, if executive leadership aren't recognizing that their role is going to change as a result of that change.

[00:08:05] Peter Maddison: And not only their role, but their behavior.

[00:08:07] Dave Sharrock: Exactly. It's that inspiring curiosity piece. How do you inspire curiosity in your executive to have them be interested in how change of behavior is going to influence the success of a transformation. I think we both argue that, the transformations that move quickly, that are predominantly successful are big T transformation supported by the executive who are fully engaged, understanding their behaviors can change, coupled with the ground swell of support that you're getting through incremental, iterative approach to that change.

[00:08:43] Peter Maddison: Yeah. I think we have two slightly different definitions of Big T and little T in there. But I think both of 'em are very valid. I completely agree. You need that leadership buy-in. They're moving the authority to the information, rather than the information to the authority. How would you sum up what we've talked about today in three points for our listeners?

[00:09:01] Dave Sharrock: Number one, agile transformation is a triad. You need to know what you're trying to change on the business side, that's going to drive things. There's a process change in there, but there's also the organizational, people, cultural side.

[00:09:14] The second thing I want to pick up is reflecting back to what you just talked about. Big T, small T transformation. For a successful transformation, we need leadership, but we need the organization to buy-in. I think that's one of the key things. It's a little bit like a seesaw, you're going backwards and forwards, and there's balance between leadership's involvement, commitment, contribution, and the organization's. What would you add?

[00:09:38] Peter Maddison: I could sum it up as the leadership will make it or break. It could be rephrased as leadership alone will not make it, but it will break it.

[00:09:46] Dave Sharrock: We touched on very briefly. But knowing why you are making that change. When you're early in the adoption cycle, it's because it's there. Organizations are coming to the table and they need a pretty clear, compelling narrative with which to pursue that change.

[00:10:01] Peter Maddison: Awesome. I loved the conversation. I look forward to the next conversation.

[00:10:04] Dave Sharrock: Looking forward to. As always Peter, thanks.