7 vital differences between Agile adoption and agile transformation

In my experience working with organizations that are transforming how they work, many people misunderstood what the goals of the transformation are. This is often the result of not understanding the difference between an Agile adoption and agile transformation. In this post, I’ll explain what an Agile adoption is, what agile transformation is, and seven vital differences between the two.

What is an Agile adoption?

An Agile adoption occurs when a group of people adopt practices, processes, and frameworks that resulted from the Agile software development movement. If an Agile adoption is done well, it involves adopting practices, processes, and frameworks that live up to the values and principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, and the adoption results in a change in the way people do work.

The goal of Agile software development was to bridge the gap between customers and developers by building trust through collaborating frequently, getting quick feedback, responding to customer’s needs, and frequently delivering quality, valuable solutions.

The scope of an Agile adoption focuses on the teams that build things because they are the ones that need to adopt new practices and tooling to increase quality and work more closely with customers.

What is agile transformation?

Agile transformation occurs when a group of people holistically revolutionizes the way it delivers value to better serve customers. The purpose is to grow a sustainable culture that improves the ability to respond to change by building stable delivery teams, shortening delivery times, increasing quality, and being hyper-focused on delighting customers. Agile transformation builds the agility necessary to remain relevant.

The goal of agile transformation is to increase organizational sustainability and profitability by being able to better react to market opportunities and threats as well as better respond to internal organizational changes. Agile transformation holistically addresses key components of agility – cultural agility, process agility, business agility, technical agility, and change management agility. Agile transformation often involves adopting practices from Agile software development, but it doesn’t require it.

The scope of agile transformation is usually an entire organization, but it could also be a product, department, or any other holistic area of an organization that is transforming the way they get work done.

The differences between Agile adoption and agile transformation

An Agile adoption involves just that – adopting new things. Agile transformation is metamorphic – it means revamping the way people work. An Agile adoption is like stapling wings to a caterpillar. Agile transformation is like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly.

1. Agile adoption involves using other people’s practices. Agile transformation involves creating your own.

The Spotify model is a great example of what occurs in most Agile adoptions. Spotify gained a lot of popularity for their model around 2012 because Spotify was very trendy in tech at that time, and many saw Spotify’s model as the solution for Agile adoptions. Spotify’s structure was quickly coined the ‘Spotify model’, and people started copying it in their own organizations. However, Spotify is constantly evolving their structure and processes. The highly publicized Spotify model was just a snapshot of Spotify’s model at one point in time. This was even called out in the most popular paper on the Spotify model in 2012:

“Disclaimer: We didn’t invent this model. Spotify is (like any good agile company) evolving fast. This article is only a snapshot of our current way of working – a journey in progress, not a journey completed. By the time you read this, things have already changed.”

–  Henrik Kniberg & Andres Ivarsson in Scaling Agile @ Spotify

Teams that are trying to copy the 2012 Spotify model are going through an Agile adoption. They are copying what another organization did and trying to make it work for them. At the time the Spotify model gained popularity in 2012, Spotify was undergoing agile transformation – morphing into what was needed to innovate and respond to market conditions.

2. Agile adoption requires changing the way a team does their work. Agile transformation changes the way an organization gets work done.

Agile software development has always lived at the team level, and an Agile adoption involves adopting Agile software development practices. Those practices require a team to learn new skills and change the way they think about work. They will also change the way stakeholders engage with those teams, but it won’t fundamentally change the way stakeholders work.

During agile transformation, people holistically look at how your organization delivers value and seek to optimize it for rapid innovation, fast value delivery, and quick market validation. Delivery teams will need to transform the way they work, but so will marketing, finance, operations, and anyone else that impacts the quality of innovation and the speed of delivery and validation.

3. Agile adoption focuses on practices. Agile transformation focuses on results.

Test-driven development, pair programming, user stories, iterative development, emergent architecture, the Kanban Method, and Scrum (among other things) resulted from or are tightly coupled to the Agile software development movement. Agile adoptions are concerned about getting teams to understand and better use those practices.

I’ve worked with many organizations that initiate Agile adoptions without clearly articulating the ‘why’ behind the adoption. In its absence, people almost always assume the ‘why’ is to ‘work like other Agile software development teams.’ They start using JIRA, begin calling all requirements user stories, and change the titles of their business analysts to product owners.

What’s missing in those Agile adoptions is a vision for the future. What will be different as a result of changing the way people work? How will you measure that difference? How responsive do you need to be to your market conditions and internal organizational disruptions? What risk needs to be mitigated? What is the business value in increasing organizational collaboration and innovation? How will you quantify and measure increases in those things? These are the concerns of agile transformation.

4. Agile adoption involves learning from experts in Agile development. Agile transformation requires learning from experts in agile organizational design.

One practice that teams commonly adopt during Agile adoptions is creating user stories for requirements. To learn how to create user stories, most organizations seek the help of an expert to train their people. Sometimes that means making everyone read a Mike Cohn book. Other times it means bringing in someone to run a user story workshop. Either way the focus is on transferring knowledge from an expert in an area of Agile software development to the people building things in the organization. Most Agile software development experts are really good at just that – Agile software development – and we already learned how Agile software development is inherently delivery team-focused.

Agile transformations require working beyond delivery teams. To succeed in agile transformation, an organization needs the help of people with expert-level knowledge of how to structure and create an agile, adaptable organization that breeds a culture thrives in continually changing environments.

5. Agile adoption is executed by Agile coaches, Scrum Masters, and Agile software developers. Agile transformations is led by experts in agile change management.

The predominant way an Agile adoption is executed is by hiring or contracting an army of Agile coaches, Scrum Masters, and experts in Agile software developers that lead the charge on adopting Agile software development practices. As discussed in #3, this will only get you so far.

Agile transformation is led by people in an organization that have the power, influence, and skills to navigate the murky waters of convincing people to work differently than they’ve worked in the past while keeping people focused on the goals of the transformation. Agile transformation requires changing the way an organization delivers value, and it involves rejuvenating culture, process, and tooling. Doing that well requires excellent leadership and execution in change management.

6. Agile adoption is short-lived. Agile transformation has a longer horizon.

Agile adoptions are fairly linear. You have to identify the new skills and behavior a team needs, provide training, mentor and coach a team in their real-world context to successfully apply what they learned, and consistently reinforce the importance of those new skills and behavior. For one team, this adoption of new skills and behavior can be as short as one month, although it typically takes 1 – 6 months for a team to begin to stabilize with their new working patterns.

Agile transformation is not as linear as an Agile adoption nor is it as predictable. There are more variables at play during agile transformation – more people involved, more customers impacted, more products affected, and more processes that will need to change. And beyond those variables – the very nature of agile transformation means shifting the culture of an organization. Not only does that mean that the time horizon for agile transformation is longer, but it also means it is more unpredictable.

7. Agile adoption increases team productivity. Agile transformation increases organizational sustainability and value-delivery.

Because Agile adoptions are focused on teams, they make teams more productive. That could have an impact on the organization’s profitability and sustainability, but that impact will be limited as only a small part of the organization has changed.

Getting teams working well is good, but the benefits are localized and more limited than a holistic agile transformation. It’s like dropping a V8 engine in a 2000 Honda Civic. Yes, the car will be more powerful, but everything surrounding the engine will also have to be upgraded to take advantage of the new powerful engine. This is the realm of agile transformation – holistically upgrading your organization to gain benefits at an organizational level.

Conclusion

Agile adoption is like when taxis started adding credit card terminals to their cars – the credit card terminals added a more convenient way to pay and (sort of) kept up with advances in technology. Agile transformation is like what Lyft and Uber did to the personal transportation industry. Ride-sharing revolutionized how people get around in cities.

The goal of agile transformation is to not be stuck holding a taxi medallion when ride-sharing enters your industry. You want to be equipped to effectively respond to changing environments. Agile transformation is done by revolutionizing the way an organization delivers value to better serve customers through faster value delivery, increased quality and, ultimately, better serving customers.

Jordan Job

Jordan is a Managing Advisor with Responsive Advisors and a Professional Scrum Trainer with Scrum.org. He specializes in agile change management, engagement management, and Professional Scrum adoptions.