Untangling Adoption and Transformation

WRITTEN BY Mike Cottmeyer

A few weeks ago I agreed to help Brandon Carlson as a reviewer on his Adoption & Transformation stage. Last night I went through about 20 proposals and learned that I think about adoption and transformation significantly different from many of the aspiring speakers. The problem, like many things we talk about, is that these words are overloaded. It seems there is almost a tendency to use adoption and transformation interchangeably… somehow as if adopting agile practices necessarily results in transformation. The insight I had, getting out of bed this morning, is that our use of these words might actually be THE problem. We seem to have equated adoption and transformation when they are really two very different constructs.

Some of the proposals I read last night were about transforming yourself to be more agile. The sessions were about leadership and understanding yourself, letting go and empowering your team members. The supposition was that personal transformation was a necessary precursor to agile software development. Some of the talks were about transforming what we do in our jobs. One proposal was about helping the people doing business analysis learn how to do business analysis on an agile team. My session proposal reflects the perspective that transformation is focused on the larger organization. We need to align our business objectives, management structures, and practices to support agility.

All three perspectives are valid, they are just all really different ways of understanding the words agile transformation.

On the other hand, adoption seems to be focused on choosing the practices we plan to put in place. How do we start doing pair programming? How do we start doing iteration planning, sprint reviews & retrospectives? The talks I reviewed last night, seemed to be more focused on stuff like the top ten things that can go wrong when adopting Scrum or the seven signs you are doing it wrong . From this perspective, adopting agile is about practices… learning how to do TDD, the importance of continuous integration, or how a Product Owner can work more effectively with the team.

So, here is my a-ha moment this morning:

1. Transformation is about changing the ‘agile being’ side of the equation
2. Adoption is about changing the ‘agile doing’ side of the equation

When we confuse the doing side, and the being side, and make them the same thing, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Adopting practices in isolation won’t necessarily help you have an internal disposition toward agile leadership. Likewise, adopting practices in an organization that is not in alignment, either physically or metaphorically, with those agile practices, may or may not have any impact on your overall business outcomes. But… coming to the table with a heart for agile, and the most agile disposition in the world, might not help you get a build out in two weeks. Taking a 2-day ScrumMaster course might make you really excited about servant leadership, but if you come back to a skull crushing, command and control, waterfall organization… I bet it doesn’t last that long.

What this all means is that we have to have adoption and transformation work together to create sustainable change. These have to happen both incrementally and in parallel. A little adoption, a little transformation… a little transformation, a little adoption. Have some success? Let’s try a little more of both. My bias is clearly toward the organization first… I want to make a few structural shifts, create the environment for agility, get folks working, teach them principles, show them how and why this stuff works, and then change hearts and minds. I will acknowledge though, if I don’t have a leader that recognizes the importance of agility, I probably never get the chance to make that first change.

So anyway… thanks for sharing in my ‘moment of discovery’ this morning!

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25 comments on “Untangling Adoption and Transformation”

  1. Bob Hartman

    Mike, excellent points. Several times last year I presented a topic I called “Doing Agile Is Not The Same as BEING Agile!” In looking at your post this morning I can see that I really was presenting the difference between adoption and transformation. This insight will definitely make that presentation stronger for me in the future.

    This wasn’t really an aha moment for me as much as it confirmed something I thought I knew. Now I’ll be able to express it with different terminology and I think it will be much more valuable that way. I think I may start using this in my sales process as well… “Are you just interested in agile adoption or do you really want to do an agile transformation? You don’t know? Let’s talk about the difference between the two in both the short-term and the long-term results…” Sounds powerful to me.


    – Bob –

  2. Mike Cottmeyer

    Exactly Bob. If we focus on adoption without transformation, we may have to modify practices to accommodate a non-transformed organization. Scrum-but, but maybe better than they were doing before. If we can sell transformation along with adoption, we have a better chance of being successful. I learned something from your comment, thanks for sharing.

  3. Prem Ranganath

    Mike – great post and thanks for differentiating adoption and transformation. It’s a topic that I really care about and forms an integral part of my mentoring/coaching toolbox. When I work with teams, I also talk about sustaining adoption or ‘living’ agile. I extended ‘being’ to ‘living’ agile because it is important for the teams to continuously adapt, improve to sustain the benefits of transformation. My perspective on ‘living’ stems from the fact that agile has to be weaved into the fabric of the organization and teams should not perceive agile as more thing to do. People should also be constantly look for areas of opportunity where agile thinking and practices can help.
    I’d like to get your thoughts.



  4. Mike Cottmeyer

    This strict delineation is somewhat new to me in terms of how I think about this. I like the doing/being separation and the idea that adoption is about doing, while transformation is about being resonates with me. Like I said in the post, I tend to approach agile, less from a human transformation perspective and more from a organizational transformation perspective… if the systems in the organization make sense, then it creates space for being and doing agile at a personal level. For me though, i have not had much success convincing people to be (or live) agile until the environment around them support it. When it does, people can be safe to try something new. The organization, the people, and the practices have to be in alignment for this to all work.

  5. Nilesh

    Nice post Mike. I fully agree with you that people interchangable use adoption and transformation. I think you made a very vital point about adoption and transformation stages going in parellel to create sustainable change. Usually people tend to go for a big bang changes and most of the times they are not aligned properly resulting in unwanted and unexpected results.

  6. Andrew

    Great distinction. People often think that if they get clear about what they want to Have, then they’ll know what to Do, and that will lead them to Be the sort of person that Has what they want.


    It’s the other way round. It starts with making a decision about who you’re going to Be, so that you’re the kind of person that would then naturally Do the things that would lead to Having the result you’re after.

    Agile is a Culture! A collective way of Being. It’s an ontological (ooh!) thing. When a team adopts that culture, the frameworks of Doing all make sense, and the results – the Haves – naturally show up. Makes sense eh?

  7. Sellers

    This is a great distinction. I just realized that I am in an organization where adoption has perhaps outpaced transformation. Which leaves me wondering, how to you go about changing an indvidual , team or organization’s way of being.

    • Mike Cottmeyer

      Understand the desired end state, create a transformation plan, create a change management plan, execute the transformation and change management plan in parallel. There are some principles I would apply to create all this, but this is the general approach.

  8. Luiz Claudio Parzianello

    Great post Mike. My two cents contribution …
    The first two principles behind the Agile Manifesto are all about business (“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” & “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”). If we first understand our business needs (or customer’s needs) and construct a future scenario based on desired results, Agile Adoption can be a solution for the business transformations we expect to achieve. So, business needs should pull business transformations (organizational strategy) that should pull Agile Adoption IF valuable software & competitive advantage are really needed.

    • Mike Cottmeyer

      Thanks for the comment Luiz. My experience is that the current structure and prevailing attitudes in most organizations work against the introduction of agile practices. What I am working through is the alignment of structure, and attitudes, and practices to get to greater business agility. I understand it, the problem is finding language to unambiguously communicate it ;-) Thanks much for the feedback and insight.

  9. Bob Marshall

    Nice post! I agree that the two ideas (adoption, transformation) get unwittingly mixed up far too often. And yes, there’s mileage in teasing them apart and addressing each separately. In the longer run, successful agile adoption is contingent on radical transformation (of the whole enterprise).

    – Bob @FlowchainSensi

  10. A Tour of Agile Adoption and Transformation Models

    […] Tweet(function() { var s = document.createElement(‘SCRIPT’), s1 = document.getElementsByTagName(‘SCRIPT’)[0]; s.type = ‘text/javascript’; s.async = true; s.src = ‘http://widgets.digg.com/buttons.js’; s1.parentNode.insertBefore(s, s1); })(); http://www.agilitrix.com/2011/04/a-tour-of-agile-adoption-and-transformation-models/EmailIn light of Agile adoption failures and awareness of cultural challenges, the purpose of this post is to review current models that are applied to adopting Agile and transforming with Agile at organizations. Worthy background reading is Mike Cottmeyer’s post on Untangling Adoption and Transformation. […]

  11. Adrian Wible

    Good stuff. I like this distinction. I have often referred to the “being” side as philosophy or approach and the “doing” side as the collection of practices. I think many folks emphasize the practices because it’s easier to nail down and convey via PowerPoint (e.g. “30 day sprints” and “15 minute stand-ups”). I think you can’t really *teach* the being side … it requires a predisposition or attitude of a sort, and *coaching*.

    I’ve also seen attempts to “measure” agility through checklists and surveys – e.g. “do you do daily stand-ups”. This may be somewhat helpful to measure *doing*, but *being* cannot be measured through such mechanisms.

  12. Tom Churchwell

    I too am grateful to Mike for bringing these distinctions forth. They do seem rooted in philosophy. As Humberto Maturana said “All knowing is doing and all doing is knowing’. It seems that in starting with doing, we are on the path to becoming. I am not advocating the in-famous axiom “fake it till you make it”, rather, acknowledging that through our agile practices that we are becoming agile.

  13. Kylie Wilson

    I definitely agree with you. In today’s fast changing environment, requirements keep changing, and all this upfront planning is wasted if there is a major change in the specification at a later point of time. But Agile follows self-organized style as individuals are not managed and the organization is de-centralized.

  14. Jimmy

    Hi Mike, I think that you made a great point saying that adoption and transformation have to happen in parallel and incrementally. Sometimes organizations only tend to adopt new techniques and to spend little time in transforming how things are done at that moment. This move likely makes confusion and often leads to going back to the origin. Implementing Agile must be done constantly and little by little, and it should be done across different departments. Those who will be Agile leaders are the first people who need to understand the difference between traditional project management and agile management. Learning to empower your team and give them a certain amount of freedom to set their work surely is hard to understand in the beginning, as managers usually tend to keep telling people what to do. Thanks for your article, it was really interesting to me as I’m learning about Agile.

  15. Rachel W.

    Mike, I really appreciate both the content and the context of this, and commend you on how eloquently you were able to deliver your thoughts on the subject. In the majority of my own experiences, both personal and professional, have been centered around a very structured, defined, and established approach, so it seems that I have come to a bit of a bump in the road during my recent studies with my ability to fully grasp and apply agile methods. Taking the outcome of your a-ha moment, it seems that by more clearly defining and applying the different sides of transformation and adoption of agility, individuals (including more structured people like myself) can more effectively and efficiently apply an agile approach to assigning value during all stages, especially during development and backlog, as well as continuously prioritize efforts within the team as well as within ourselves. It seems that the word ‘agility’ turns people off due to the perception of its difficulty or the possibility that it will become all encompassing and complete control may be lost in the chaos, when instead it should be celebrated for the flexibility of its application to the various stages and aspects of projects and individual actions.
    Insightful post—I look forward to referencing and sharing with my peers in the future.

  16. Melissa San Nicolas

    Dear Mike, thank you for the differentiation and inter-relation description you shared here about adoption and transformation. I think you highlighted some key thoughts on the organization and how best to set it up for success when adopting agile and transforming hearts and minds. Starting with a leader who recognizes the importance of agile and is excited about servant leadership will help with the structural shifts and opening the environment to make it nurturing for the agile mindset. I agree with your approach here to provide the tools and resources necessary to learn agile and then watch as hearts and minds change. Adoption and transformation working together is the best path to success since focusing on one or the other isn’t as substantial as inspecting and adapting within both through the journey. I imagine the process of moving to discovery could be just as exciting as successfully implementing agile and watching it grow.