5 Key Differences Between Agile Adoption & Agile Transformation


A common question that participants ask me during my Agile training courses is what is the difference between Agile Transformation and Adoption. It’s a great question. I see five key differences between the two worth talking about.
But first, let’s agree on our terminology. People frequently mix the terms Agile Adoption and Agile Transformation and use them inconsistently. These are my working definitions for these two terms.

Agile Adoption Defined

The generally accepted definition of Agile Adoption is “a change in process to one that is consistent with the Agile Values and Principles”.
The focus during Agile Adoption is on process change. You can view Agile Adoption as moving from one process, such as waterfall or SDLC, to an Agile process or framework. This might also be called an Agile transition.
The most common change in process is to implement the Scrum Framework (see below). It could also mean implementing Kanban, Lean Software Development, eXtreme Programming (XP) or one of the other agile methods.
Most organizations first experience Agile in this way. When an organization runs an “agile pilot” they are generally referring to Agile Adoption.
I’ve been through a lot of these Agile Adoptions. You can read more about transitioning from Waterfall to Scrum in this related post.

Agile Adoption Frequently Means Using Scrum

Frequently a company with a legacy of using more traditional, plan-driven approaches wants to experiment with Agile. So they decide they want to ‘Adopt Agile‘ by transitioning to the Scrum Framework.
A Scrum Transition involves forming one or more dedicated and cross-functional teams. In Scrum, those teams are supported by a Scrum Master who serves as a process coach and impediment remover. The team organizes all their work into a backlog of features. There is a Product Owner who is the key business stakeholder and takes responsibility for prioritizing the work and making business decisions.
Rather than work in phases, the Scrum team works in timeboxed iterations called Sprints. Within each 1 to 4-week sprint, the team plans their work and delivers small chunks of fully developed solutions.

Statistics on Agile Adoption

A popular report on called the Annual State of Agile from CollabNet/Version One cites “barriers to further adoption”, “reasons for adopting agile” and “benefits of agile adoption”. All of these refer to Agile adoption and provide some insights for others who are in the process or contemplating agile adoption. The CollabNet/VersionOne report doesn’t use the term transformation anywhere.

Agile Transformation Defined

Agile Transformation is the process of transforming an organization’s culture and nature to one of agility. Transformation is about a fundamental change in the way people think and feel. Some people distinguish this from adoption by calling agile adoption “doing agile” and agile transformation “being agile”.

Agile is a Vehicle for Transformation

Agile methods and frameworks are tools or enablers in an Agile transformation. In other words, Agile is a vehicle, but not the destination. The destination will vary from one organization to another, but for most organizations, it is about attaining true business agility – the ability to be flexible, to be responsive to change. Agility also entails the ability to make changes quickly and cost-effectively. It also means a culture where people are empowered and enabled to do their best work.

Agile Transformation Challenges

An agile transformation is anything but easy. They are disruptive, disturbing and potentially very disappointing. The risks of failure are high as you can read about in Most Agile Transformations will Fail. It will take a long-term investment to change ingrained ways of thinking and working, and the company culture. Most organizations don’t have the patience to endure a long term transformation. But the potential payoffs can be tremendous, as we can see below.

5 Key Differences Between Agile Adoption & Agile Transformation

1. Speed of Change

Agile Adoptions May be Quick
Agile adoptions are pretty fast. You can measure it in days or weeks. Training on Agile can take from one to three days. You can adopt Kanban in a day or less. I’ve seen teams begin practicing Scrum immediately, without training, under the guidance of an experienced Scrum Master or Agile Coach.
In one of the first Agile Adoptions I was involved in 6 years ago, I arrived on the client site on a Monday and had the team using Scrum on Tuesday. We used a lightweight training approach where the team got just enough training to begin using Scrum to do their work.
We trained the team on a just in time basis using what we called a team jumpstart. We started with an overview of agile values and principles, then a quick review of the Scrum Roles, Artifacts and Meetings, and then Sprint Planning. Then the team planned their first sprint and began work. It wasn’t pretty, and as I recall the team failed to deliver completed work in their first 2-week sprint. But they had “adopted Agile”.
Agile Transformation Take Years
On the other hand, an Agile Transformation can take a long time. You can measure an Agile Transformation in years. Some organizations begin an Agile journey with a goal of continuous improvement or culture change. Many organizations undergoing transformation feel that they will never arrive. They get stuck or trapped in the messy middle ground between waterfall and agile.
stuck messy middle ground between waterfall and agile transformation
Whoa, by now you are probably thinking, my leaders and stakeholders won’t give me years to work on an Agile Transformation! And they frequently don’t, as you can read about in Agile Transformations Take Too Long.
What can be done instead is to look at this longer program of change and break it up into reasonable milestones and smaller initiatives. That is where having an overall transformation roadmap spanning 12 to 24 months can be helpful.

2. Timeframe

Another key difference between Adoption and Transformation is the reference timeframe. Most Agile Adoptions focus on a completing a project. Projects are temporary in nature and so adoption may be viewed as a short-term, temporary way of working in order to complete a project.
People may see a choice between Agile and Waterfall being made on a project by project basis, and individuals may be on an agile project for a while and then back on a waterfall one later.
It is easy to see how this could undermine buy-in for Scrum or any kind of encouragement to live by the Agile Values and Principles.
In an an Agile Transformation, organizations frequently set up long-standing, stable agile teams that are aligned with customers, products or applications. People don’t switch back and forth between Agile and Waterfall. People don’t get assigned multiple projects and movement between teams is avoided.

3. Productivity Gains

Productivity After Scrum Adoption

Teams can be surprisingly more productive after adopting Scrum. Scrum teams take some simple steps that have a big impact on productivity:

  • Establishing the Product Owner role to set priorities
  • Focus the entire team on one prioritized backlog as their sole source of work
  • Helping the teams work together and collectively own their sprint goals
  • Bringing transparency and short feedback loops so that teams build the right things quickly
  • Avoiding the wastes involved in detailed planning up front, thrashing, work in process, context switching and rework

To the extent that Scrum Teams cross-train each other and build T-Shaped skills, they can reduce bottlenecks and increase flexibility. And teams that use the Scrum retrospectives effectively will learn to continuously improve and get better over time.
My colleague Michael Sahota estimates that an Agile Adoption will boost a team’s productivity by about 20%. Perhaps the teams he was working with were already doing well.
In my experience with helping over a hundred teams adopt agile, I see the improvement as more like 100% or a doubling of productivity. The biggest benefits came from helping teams work in focused and organized ways, eliminating changing requirements, rework and handoffs.

Productivity after Agile Transformation

While the benefits of Agile Adoption are great, the benefits of an Agile Transformation on an organization are significantly higher. I tend to agree with Michael Sahota who states that the benefits of an Agile Transformation are in the neighborhood of 300%. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Employee Empowerment and engagement leading to joy at work
  • More creativity and innovation
  • Reductions in oversight and management layers

4. Impact on the Organization Structure


Agile Adoption Impact on the Organization Structure

An Agile Adoption will rarely have a significant impact on the structure of an organization. That is because the organization isn’t really changed – people are simply pulled from their various functional silos – front-end developers, QA, backend developers, DBAs and temporarily assigned to cross-functional development teams.
Team members still report to the same managers and those managers have the HR responsibilities. The functional silos remain as shown in the left hand side of the diagram above.
In a typical functional organization, managers tend to favor hierarchies and strive to protect their turf, which contributes to silos, local optimizations, and significant inefficiencies. The functional silos that were designed for efficiency are now one of the main causes of lack of agility.
Managers may also slow down decisions and create power struggles while the broader organization misses out on market opportunities and loses market share to more nimble competitors. It’s easy to see the inefficiency but much harder to change.

Agile Transformation Impact on Organizational Structure

The answer to the inefficiencies of those functional silos is to move people from silos to long-standing, cross-functional teams. In a true Agile Transformation, those functional organizations are replaced by groups of teams aligned with customers or internal products. The basic building block for this organization are those cross-functional and self-organizing teams.
This is one of the main reasons that Agile transformation is not for the faint of heart. Agile Transformations directly impact the power and control in organizations. That tends to make people defensive. No one wants to give up the hard-fought turf and spoils of war. No one wants to give up the powerful feeling of commanding a large group of people.
For more details on changing the organization, see this great online training workshop from Gary Hamel on: Hacking the Bureaucracy.

5. Change in Culture

Culture Change in Adoption

In an agile adoption, the agile team and their stakeholders may feel like they’ve changed. The team may feel more empowered and hopefully are being supported to self-organize. With luck, some level of decision-making has been pushed down to those closest to the work. They may be striving to live to the Agile Values and principles.
Agile sub communities can thrive in organizations who aren’t fully transformed. Great leaders can create a subculture of agility within their area. These managers need to actively protect their teams from the culture of the broader organization. See the example of the Ozone layer in the Bank of America Agile Transformation Success Story.
Unfortunately, I’ve also seen Scrum pilots where the culture is not any different from that of the broader organization. Scrum is used more like a weapon and the Agile Values and Principles are not valued or practiced.
You can check out my article on Bad Scrum here or this article on Dark Scrum by Ron Jeffries, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto and a long time agile thought leader.

Culture Change in Transformation

In an Agile transformation, it is actually the culture that is being transformed. Agile is not the goal. Agile is the vehicle to achieve the goal of cultural transformation. Key aspects of this culture change could include:

  • Primary focus on customer satisfaction
  • Respect for people
  • Investment in growing people’s skills
  • Adopting a Continuous improvement mindset
  • Empowerment and distributed decision-making

Getting Started With Agile

Help with Your Agile Transformation

As you can tell from the above, an Agile Transformation is a big deal and a significant program of change in an organization. And we can help. If you have questions or need support, please contact us!

Additional Resources on Adoption and Transformation

Are you embarking on an Agile Adoption or Transformation? You may find some of these related articles helpful:

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Vitality Chicago has helped train and coach over a hundred teams and supported dozens of organizations through their Agile Transformation. Please contact us today for a consultation.
I hope you found this topic helpful. Cheers!

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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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