As anyone who has tried to do it knows, changing an organization is painful. Though Agile is intellectually quite simple (the application of empirical principles to software delivery), it can fundamentally challenge deeply held beliefs that have gone unchallenged for years. Challenging these beliefs can be deeply unsettling; it can undermine confidence and close off career paths. When we ask people to embrace Agile practices, we may be asking them to abandon a world view that, while not perfect, may seem to them better than the next best alternative. The core of our mission is to show them that Agile is not just different but better. We are only successful in our mission when their beliefs change.

In order for us to do this, there has to be cracks in their world view that can let new ideas penetrate. I have found that the following beliefs establish the possibility that an organization is open to change. The greater the degree to which people in an organization affirm these beliefs, the more open they will be to embrace Agile principles. Conversely, when those people do not affirm these beliefs, their organization’s cultural inertia may be too strong to overcome.

Belief #1: “If the organization does not change, it will cease to exist.”

There is nothing like imminent demise to make an organization willing to try something new. Plenty of organizations find themselves in this position today; upstart digital innovators are breaking old business models at a pace that traditional organizations cannot match. When an organization’s leaders believe that their current culture cannot produce the innovative products and services that the market demands, they are open to changing anything and everything.

The problem that many organizations face is that they don’t see that the world has changed around them until it is too late, that is, if they see it at all. They can powerfully insulate themselves from seeing the truth. When they do finally see it, they can succumb to despair or finger-pointing. Neither is productive. In order for an Agile transformation to be successful, they must come to believe that Agile is a way out of the crisis in which they find themselves.

Belief #2: “The path forward cannot be planned or predicted without experimentation.”

Even when they believe that they are in trouble, people may still cling to the belief that traditional, predictive planning will save them. They may believe that if they can just deliver the “competitor-killing” new product that they have on the drawing boards, they will be fine. The problem with this belief is that when markets change, assumptions change along with them. Traditional planning approaches are chock-full of assumptions about markets, features, and customer needs that have never been tested or validated. As long as the organization believes that “the business” knows what customers want and that they just need to deliver it faster, they will continue to cling to traditional delivery models.

If they believe that they already know what they need to deliver, they will see no benefit in working iteratively, delivering working software, measuring results, and refining their definition of the right solution. They will believe it is reasonable to expect a detailed plan on when those requirements will be developed and tested. They must first come to believe that their understanding of customers is imperfect, that they really only have theories about what customers really need, and that they need to form and test hypotheses about those needs in order to achieve success. Once they believe this, they are ready to embrace an empirical approach.

Belief #3: “Delivering business value is more important than individual employee utilization.”

Knowledge work in the 20th century came to be characterized by functional separation into roles and job categories, based on the assumption that work is specialized and that the best way to reduce costs is to keep expensive resources as busy as possible all the time. This usually means that people work on lots of different projects at once to minimize idle time. Since almost everything modern organizations do requires people to work together, the result of this is that everyone waits on someone else to get things done. More multitasking means more waiting on others, which leads to more multitasking and more waiting. The result is that delivering even the simplest change can take a very long time due to waiting and hand-offs.

Delivering value faster to customers means reducing wait time, which means reducing role specification and dedicating resources to focus on product delivery. The Scrum team does this by having dedicated multi-skilled resources that reduce their dependence on resources external to the team. This minimizes wait time and improves time-to-market. Until organizations value time-to-market more than employee utilization, they will be unable to improve their ability to deliver value quickly.

Belief #4: “The organization’s leaders believe that their teams are capable of making decisions and of doing the right thing.”

Traditional organizations reward and promote based on the ability for individuals to get things done. They reward initiative and results. They celebrate “heroes” who single-handedly rescue troubled projects from disaster. The underlying belief is that teams are incompetent on their own, and without a strong hand guiding them they tend to be hapless. Unfortunately, this tends to be true in organizations that punish mistakes and do not encourage learning and innovation. Leaders in these cultures use phrases like “accountability” and want to have “one throat to choke”.

Unfortunately, when the work is complex, these “heroes” usually cause more damage than they fix. Delivering software or designing complex physical products that involve software is a complex team activity, and not the result of individual heroic acts. When the work is complex enough to require a team of professionals to deliver the product, managers must trust that the team is capable of making important decisions. Managers can set goals, ask questions, and clear impediments, but they must accept that they don’t understand the work and can’t effectively direct it. This realization can be an emotional punch in the gut and is one of the hardest transitions a manager has to make when adopting an Agile approach.

When leaders believe in teams, they are tolerant of mistakes. They ask questions that help the team to learn from empirical data. They use retrospectives at multiple levels to help the organization learn and improve. They DO NOT look to lay blame or punish mistakes. They DO help the team clear roadblocks and make sure they have the resources they need.

Belief #5: “The organization’s leaders believe that innovation is more important than efficiency.”

An organization that values efficiency over innovation believes that it knows its customers and that it is building the products those customers want. It also believes that it is doing it better, at least in some important dimensions, than its competitors. An organization that values efficiency over innovation believes that it will differentiate itself through lower costs, or it believes that its prices are good enough and it simply wants to increase its profit margin. An organization that thinks efficiency is more important than innovation will never successfully embrace Agile principles.

An organization that values innovation over efficiency does not yet know what its customers want, or it seeks a new set of customers with unknown needs. It also does not yet know what it needs to do to meet those unknown needs. It relies, instead, on an empirical approach, on forming hypotheses about what customers need and what will satisfy them. It values fast delivery of high quality solutions, and it values and acts on feedback. Agile approaches help organizations systematically create solutions that test these hypotheses and adapt based on results.

Recommendation: Understand your organization’s belief system and choose where to start carefully.

A simple visualization tool, the “Agile readiness” radar, can help identify areas in the organization that are more ready for change (see Figure 1).


Figure 1 – An “Agile readiness” radar.

The figure plots the relative priorities of a person or group of people on the 5 dimensions expressed in the beliefs described above. The closer a group of people is to the outer edge of the figure, the more “ready” it is for the changes that an Agile approach will require. No person or group will be ideally ready in all dimensions, but if they are more unready than ready, a wise person will look for more fertile ground elsewhere.

Large organizations are complex societies with subcultures and pockets of nonconformity. Even small organizations can have subcultures. If you’re trying to introduce Agile practices into an organization, focus on finding small enclaves where the traditional belief system is being threatened by forces from the outside—an emerging market segment or one that is threatened by digital competitors. Build Agile success here first (see Figure 2).


Figure 2 – Parts of the organization closest to customers are often the most ready for an Agile approach.

Success in these areas will get attention from other parts of the organization that are also similarly threatened and ready to change. Over time, as more and more parts of the organization become comfortable with the new set of beliefs, Agile change is met with less resistance.

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Kurt Bittner

Kurt Bittner is Vice President of Enterprise Solutions at and a leading expert on Agile and iterative software development approaches. A former Forrester analyst covering Agile and DevOps, and an accomplished public speaker, Kurt has spoken at many conferences and is the author of three books: "The Economics of Iterative Software Development", "Use Case Modeling" and "Managing Iterative Software Development Projetcs."

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