Be Radical, avoid Big Bang

Let use English: the language of one the best reference I know about management that goes with Agile: Radical Management (see below)

Lots of big companies look for embracing Agile to maximize ROI (Return of Investment) or simply to beat their competitors.

Agile could be a true way to foster innovation. Even you are in strong B2B predictable context with almost no interaction with end users ( keep looking to create an opening for customer interaction and getting more fun) fail fast truly enable you to embrace the highest quality standard.

For sure, as a result that will increase companies benefits and put far more fun into the doers troupes. This sounds magical ?

That is not Magic at all.

The path could be quite difficult, if you come from traditional way of doing business which have its roots early in the 20th century with Frederick Winslow Taylor scientific management which focus on improving the system for mass production. Agile looks for delighting customers. This requests a deep cultural change: A change that is not just about few guys making software (or Hardware) development in a war room fully decorated with colored stickers . It will affect all individuals inside and outside the ‘Agile zone’: indeed, this will affect somehow the entire company. HR, Purchase, Lawyer, Quality Assurance, and all other supporting groups.

Saying that. One frequent question I have is:

Could we transform from waterfall ( or whatever ) to Agile by continuous improvement ( Kaizen)?

Even if tempting to say yes, I  believe the answer is no:

Let me introduce a pure fiction character (a persona) :John


John works in a large company, and has a long record of success as a manager and project manager. He knows very well what is good for business and how to motivate his team.

John is ‘black belt’ in continuous improvement, masters PDCAs and RCAs. Months after months he has introduced many Engineering practice such as CI, TDD, Peer programming, and then automated test reaching huge gain to the system (John Boss estimate that John has a record of about 50% of productivity gain by this continuous improvement). He has also introduced stop and fix allowing maximum of one critical CR at a time.  Then, he got a training on agile-scrum and ask the team to go in training then practice scrum: all ceremony are done, and sticker appear on the wall of a dedicated war room.

John knows about  situational leadership,  So he knows he could rely on few expert: they will be driving the team. On continuous improvement John could still help the team trying things  sprint after sprint. This is not first time John re-organize team to get more efficiency.

John is of course considered accountable by his management. He needs to be able to ask team members (the experts) to take few emergency tasks, or to join some crisis call (John management has always find John staff high skilled professional): John is a pragmatic person.

This was cool… But this was just not working: John notice that no action were taken in retrospective when he is out even if some stories were not done as « committed ». This  starts to put him under suspicious eyes of a laisser-faire  attitude (actually John style was middle of the road) by his management. And worse, some team member was not really following: One already left because he felt just useless compared to 20% expert who take 80% of the job. After all pareto always apply and all transformations face resistance. This is true for a collection on individuals… not for a team.

Yes, John has failed to really help the teams fully transform from a collection of individuals to into a high performing teams full of connexion between individuals. In fact this was still busy-ness as usual but without John daily expertise in project management, John being best at seeing risks and to provide the gold estimate. His Boss will probably ask him to forget that fancy democratic style and come back to past success soon: predictability is important for almost all businesses, even when uncertainty is high.

Agile really means transfer main operational decision from Management to truly self-organized teams: The doers. Of course you can work to delegate step by step or delegate to expert, but which manager felt comfortable by making the last step (as John thought he did); purely rely on teams and support decision even if you think this is not the right decision. Do not dream, John is seen as the guilty guy if this turn wrong: after all, this is exactly what delegation is about.

What really makes Agile work is « Fail fast and learn early »  towards not only all team members, but through the entire organization. And there is two loops; the daily and the sprint (John start by 4 weeks and hope that continuous improvement will reduce with time). Let me reuse Craig Larman and Bas Vodde image: this really mean  following the baton and not the runners on a relay race.

So Is that just an easy continuous improvement or is it a ticket to hell ?

This is a radical change.

The change really deals with a management change.  it deals with going from Top down to bottom up. Which mean that management will change hands… and not only management need to transform themselves, teams need too. Doers cannot effectively learn the minimum needed management skills especially if no trust or mutual respect is not in place: In early description of agile, John introduce fun with the Pig and chicken  story.  John loves practicing self-derision presenting himself as the chicken.  Issue was that John is still considered as a pig and by the way he is committed.

Does that mean going to agile is a big Bang: No either.

The right question is not How much but How many?

John Bill and Big Bang_NEW

By chance, Bill a VIP of John’s company, see how competition now deliver significantly faster with better quality. Those competitors has no secret. On the opposite they are absolutely transparent. They named themselves Agile Company . Bill met some Agile Gurus, and understood that this could be done within a few month for his few thousand organization. After all, Bill see Scrum is just a popular lightweight process and Bill know his company has adopted far more difficult and heavy boring things in just few months. This include John engineering practices coming from XP an other agile ‘methods’: let’s train everybody and start doing that … BIG …. BANG……  Big Bang

Big Bang mean asking  a huge group of people to go Agile within few days months or even years. Some companies succeed in but many fails for 2 reasons:

  1. This ruins the  small batch rule ( Mathematically proven to reduce cycle time and increase predictability under uncertainty): Sun Tzu explains in Art of War  that one should attack enemies when half of them have crossed the river by foot. So why getting that exposure for a long time?
  2. Even in small batch agile suppose teams go through Tuckman stage.  Expert, and Champion will probably start directly in Norming, but agile is not reserved to only few high potential. (Do not confuse that at the end Agile allow you to raise almost all people to expert, that is not the cause but the consequence) . So you will need a minimum transaction time with enough coaches. Your Bottleneck will be the number and the quality of the coaches.

All of a sudden, Bill remember Don Reinertsen book ( See article on Prinicple of product development flow ), « Is not it just another queuing case. Work in Process limit will just work ? »


Here come Lara: Lara

Back to John. John got coaching from Laurent who explained him that his role is no longer to interact in the value chain but to observe, support and help on demand.  As Captain Marquet ( see reference section) he only got the ultimate button which is not the deadly shot but the right and duty to re-engineer teams in a slow and smooth pace.

John took the decision to use that tool once: he hires Lara, as scrum master. In fact his former scrum master agreed: He was actually very happy to come back to his expert role (he has never really gone out of it anyway). Lara was trained by Jeff sutherland and she succeeded to get buy in from the team to trial a one week sprint ( instead of 4) and adopt lots of radical practices and metrics Jeff is teaching to whom is wise enough to understand the fundamental reason behind it. As this start to be a success. John now could help other teams and spend most of his time peering with other manager. He has discovered that coaching one’s own team is very difficult and start coaching other teams instead.

John and Lara work starts inspiring other and they ignite an organics change.If it works for them why not for us ?

Bill works closer with coaches on defining a set of very limited Kpis even if he always take more seriously what he see in his Go and See practice and give examples of fail fast and learn: Yes Bills gets wrong few time, reorganized and rearrange some roles, bringing HR talent in the game. He also change few coaches and personally often recall the sometime forgotten right side of the agile manifesto.

Success does not happen in days or month, but first transformed business already started beating their competitors. By the way this first business is supported by a quite new named leaders who’s name is …. John.


So excellence in managers is not an option. Of course coaches are needed to make collection of individual becoming a team faster. Having to coach both teams and management at the same time will make coaching companies very rich and will probably let you half way a long time. And remember art of war, being half way is a nice opportunity.. for your foes.

Luckily, If you have transformational management in place, I can bet you will beat your competitors. But if you truly understand radical management, this would a consequence of your real and consistent goal with suits with delighting the customer.

The good news is that transformational management could probably be learned by continuous improvement…. As time is the 21th century paradigm, is that the fastest way ?

References :

How Great Leaders Serve Others: David Marquet at TEDxScottAFB: Captain Marquet from United States’ Submarine Force, completely turned around the submarine, which went from being « worst to first. » thank you to Laurent Sarrazin from Rupture(21  to push that link.

Stephen Denning : ISBN-13: 978-0470548684 The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century

Donald G. Reinertsen ISBN-13: 978-1935401001 The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development

Charles A. O’Reilly, Jeffrey Pfeffer: ISBN-13: 978-0875848983 Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People : 

Hidden Value

Craig Larman and Bas Vodde Lean primer

Dave Rooney blog   ( I have found that so nice I want to believe since Agile might also mean bad agile):

You like it ? join on Twitter : @colibir21th @ycharrei


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