This past weekend was the annual Toronto Agile Open Space hosted by the Toronto Agile Community. If you read about Agile at all, you’ve probably noticed the emphasis on processes and tools…which seems to be at odds with something that I just can’t put my finger on!

Kidding aside, for centuries people have passed on traditions through storytelling, while developing rituals and traditions. Sometimes we over complicate change and get bogged down into the details of various process frameworks, when we might be more well served to focus on a different approach by leveraging ideas about change actually happens. If you’ve read our latest report, you’d know that there are two main reasons why Agile fails:

  1. Failure to change culture
  2. General resistance to change

If you’ve followed any of my posts at, you’ll know the greater organizational change and change management communities have known for decades what the Agile community is starting to discover. That is, once you move out of the team level, there are substantial organizational barriers to Agile. Perhaps we’re putting too much emphasis on treating our Agile Transformations like big projects, when we should be considering Agile Transformation to be more about inspiring a series of small, well-timed social movements.

So what does this have to do with the open space?

Well, there seemed to be a vibe around building communities within our organizations. There was a session on community building within Toronto, and I did an adhoc session with a handful of people where we explored a few ideas that are part of our change workshop. We’ve worked with enough large organizations to see patterns in how they typically approach Agile Transformation:

  1. Someone gets excited about Agile for some reason.
  2. Someone in the existing hierarchical structure becomes responsible for it.
  3. Rollout team is created.
  4. Rollout plan is created.
  5. Organization becomes paralyzed by how to measure it.
  6. Consultants are fired.
  7. Organization scratches its head.
  8. VP of Agile is hired.
  9. Repeat steps 3 through 7.
  10. Organization gives up, or institutionalizes some form of Agile that is unrecognizable to most Agile practitioners.
Sometimes change doesn't need to be as complex as we make it out to be.

Sometimes change doesn’t need to be as complex as we make it out to be.

The interesting thing about this pattern is that it’s exactly how social movements happen:


Perhaps before we decide to repeat steps 3 through 7, that is, make someone responsible for the transformation, create a rollout team, and a rollout plan, we need to rely on building communities instead:

  • establish a budget to allow people to connect to the global Agile community.
  • use informal Lean Coffee sessions to find innovators and early adopters.
  • encourage disruptors to run amok in the organization and then watch how the dust settles.
  • encourage people to work on the transformation from the ‘side of their desk’
  • avoid creating too many rules and restrictions
  • all hands on deck monthly retrospectives and open spaces
  • if you’re a large organization, live with the chaos through all of your annual ceremonies (annual budgeting and planning, audits, performance reviews etc)
  • visit other organizations
  • connect your senior leadership with other senior leaders who’ve been through it
  • host meetups in your office

During Social Ferment, or Emergence, you have a whole pile of unknowable unknowns. The best way to work though this is by creating more frequent feedback loops. Yes, it’s going to be chaotic, but social movements have a way of working out the way they work out.

I’m sure that sounds scary to those who value stability, and planning. There will be temptation to get things under control, and you can choose how much structure to put around your transformation. Once you’ve decided on that, you’ve moved through Social Ferment and Popular Excitement, and now you’re in Formalization. This is where the desire to fight off chaos becomes strong, and you run the risk of installing Agile the same way the centralized PMO installed the PM methodologies that people aren’t following.

Once you choose this path, Institutionalization is unavoidable. This is where the movement enters decline. Some practices might stick, but more often than not, Agile is installed using the old values of the organization. That is, if the organization values structure and stability, Agile becomes a set of new processes governed by a central body. Another possibility is outright failure or Repression. Repression simply means that the organization falls back on the old way of working.

We will be releasing a new publication in the coming months about how to Rethink Agile Transformation by using techniques from how social change happens, as well as how strong communities are built. If you’d like to learn more about it, you can sign-up for updates here.

Until then, try some of the tips I mentioned in this article. It’ll help you find the people who are motivated to move Agile forward, and it’ll definitely stir up some dust in your organization. That said, if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep getting what we’re getting.

Get updates on our upcoming publication