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The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Theory of Transformation

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Theory of Transformation

From Wikipedia:

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that he doesn’t see any suit of clothes until a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Something has been nagging at me for a while. You’ll see shades of it underlying the themes in my last several blog posts. You’ll see it embodied in the messaging on our website. You’ll see it in the very fabric of our company and how we approach our work.

It’s this notion that if agile doesn’t work it’s somehow your fault.

Everything we read and hear about agile is that we are supposed to empower people, let them self-organize, that the people closest to the work are best at deciding how to do the work. If only us managers would get out of the way, that would solve everything.

That sounds great… until it doesn’t work.

What’s the story told to us when it doesn’t work? We are told that maybe we just didn’t get it? That we weren’t agile enough? Maybe it’s that our culture is broken or that our leadership is too command and control? If we just had the right mindset, all would be right with the world? Call me when you’re actually ready to change. Right?

Do we ever question if self-organization really works?

Everyone has all these great success stories with agile. If I’m the guy that says agile doesn’t work, I must be the one that doesn’t get it? Maybe the culture I created is broken? Maybe I’m the one who is too command and control? Maybe it’s me that doesn’t have the right mindset? Maybe… but, I think there is more to the story.

It dawned on me the other day ‘the emperor has no clothes’.

Self-organization works in the context of small, cross-functional teams, teams that have clarity of purpose, teams that have everything and everyone necessary to deliver a working tested increment of the product on regular intervals. It works when the team has the autonomy to decide.

The question is this… will people self-organize into teams and systems that support this kind of delivery model? There are many things about this kind of system that are counter-intuitive. They definitely go against how people are used to working. Maybe someday… but probably not right out of the gate… at least not enough of them.

Many of us are selling something that just isn’t true.

I don’t mean that in an ugly way… I think many of us have ultimate faith in human potential and want to believe this will work. I think that’s good. I might even allow that in certain contexts, under the right conditions, fully self-organizing systems actually could work. The problem is that it doesn’t work in enough contexts enough of the time. I’ve seen too many data points to the contrary.

Let’s just say it… the emperor has no clothes

The problem is that many folks think very linearly. Many folks are married to old beliefs. Many folks are not systems thinkers. Many folks want to locally optimize. Some of us bring personal agendas, individual goals. Some of us are narcissistic sociopaths. Some are just scared to change.

It’s not that we are all bad people… we just think differently.

I do not believe that self-organization will work in organizations when there is misalignment between the technology organization and the business. I do not believe that self-organization will trump legacy financial controls and crushing dependencies between systems. The forces working against change are too great.

Because we believe so deeply that self-organization works. Because it’s not popular to think that anything less than total empowerment of the individual could possibly make a difference or be of value… because we don’t want to be accused of being ‘command and control’… we do nothing.

Revolution or evolution… it’s your call

The real problems facing companies today can’t be solved by self-organization alone. We are talking about a major architectural refactoring in many companies. We have to address business architecture… technology architecture… organizational architecture. We have to create alignment between these three.

We have to redesign how work get’s funded. We have to redesign how commitments are made. We have to redesign how we make economic tradeoffs in the face of limited resources to do the work… all while we manage to stay in business. These are not cultural problems, they are systems problems.

Most of us don’t operate with a fundamental theory of how organizations are supposed to work. How can we be expected to self-organize this kind of system?

Rest assured, these are solvable problems… but first you have to buy into the nature of the problem.

If we define it as a culture problem or a process problem… we fail.

If we recognize it as a systems problem… we have a shot at fixing it.

In the absence of simply telling folks to self-organize, where do you start?

Understand where you are and where you want to go

I’ve been speaking publicly the last year or so around a model we created to help companies sort out their goals and objectives, to help them decide what they want to be as a company and to understand where their markets want them to be.

We call this model ’The LeadingAgile Compass’

Here is a link to the full explanation of the compass:

We’ve also been using the metaphor of expeditions and basecamps to explain the incremental and iterative nature of transformation. Basically you start with a subset of the organization, get it working quickly in an agile framework, and improve agility over time. Wash, rinse, repeat.

We call this model ‘The LeadingAgile Journey’

Here is a link to the full explanation of the LeadingAgile Journey:

Finally, we’ve been articulating an execution strategy that starts with defining a structure, governance, and metrics framework for the organization… piloting that framework on a single expedition, taking that expedition to the first basecamp, and then broadening the transformation to the larger enterprise.

We call this model ‘The LeadingAgile Roadmap’

Here is a link to the full explanation of the LeadingAgile Roadmap:

Taken together, these models articulate a strategy for planning, executing, and controlling an agile transformation. The hard, cold reality is that many companies will never become more agile unless we can demonstrate early BUSINESS FOCUSED results and a plan for continuous improvement.

The big win here, is that the teams achieve a fairly high level of agility right out of the gate. They get better using team-based, iterative and incremental techniques, while learning the basics of agile early in the process. The organization will quickly stabilize and become predictable.

As your overall understanding of the underlying mechanisms of agility matures, and real impediments are removed, as dependencies are broken, business agility will improve across the entire enterprise.

Does this necessarily preclude self-organization?

Not really. The actual implementation of this transformation framework isn’t dictated by a few consultants or a few executives from some smoky conference room somewhere, it’s done collaboratively with the people involved in the change.

Maybe all we are doing here is giving structure and guidance for self-organization to take place. Maybe.

For me… implementing agile is about forming teams, defining backlogs, and producing increments of working tested products on regular intervals. Breaking dependencies over time is key. Anything that get’s in the way of that is an impediment. Period.

The patterns are well understood, implementation of those patterns is tough. Non-trivial problems I like to say.

In Conclusion…

Teaching people the basics of Scrum and telling them to self-organize, except in possibly the smallest of organizations, is irresponsible. I think most companies will need more guidance.

Creating the preconditions for agile to thrive is a science that can be understood, planned, executed and measured… even if you let your people self-organize around it. It’s not magic.

Agile fails because the underlying preconditions to do agile well are not clear. You might not have the right mindset, and maybe you are a little too command and control, but that’s not your biggest problem.

Don’t be afraid to speak up when the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Next Finding the MMF and the MVP

Comment (1)

  1. Michael

    You present an interesting perspective, and I agree that people need to learn to not be afraid to point out when the emperor has no clothes. But I wonder if the real problem is not so much about the difficulties of getting teams to self-organize, but rather the focus both on self-organization as removing a command-and-control structure, and on self-organization as one of the principle goals of an Agile-based company, which is not my understanding of it at all. I’m relatively new to Agile, so my perspective is arguably limited, but it seems to me that self-organization is simply a side-effect of applying an iterative approach to not only the development of the product(s), but also to the individual team’s processes. In other words, start from some form of agreed upon standard, and each sprint reflect on it and modify it to the needs of each team; eventually the process may or may not look anything like what you started with. To me, the result of this approach (not the goal of it) is self-organization, where each team slowly defines the best processes and practices that work for them in order to achieve their goals (whether those goals are generated by the team, or handed to them by the company).

    In some cases, the team may even actually work best with a very rigid command-and-control structure, with a single leader directing everything like a puppet-master pulling strings. But as long as the team, as you said, has the autonomy to decide (and for their process to evolve with the team, and directed by the team), and the team members themselves collectively arrive at this as the most effective way for them to achieve their goals, this is still self-organization.

    As an aside, it does seem true that this works best with smaller teams, since this helps keep the number of variables limited and minimizes the possibility for radically conflicting points of view (not to mention the number of egos that can get in the way), whereas trying to let an entire company self-organize can quickly just lead to chaos. I think it would be interesting to find out what the threshold might be that divides effective self-organization from chaos…


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