Organizations change processes (with really good intentions) to fix a problem only to discover that their change has created a second problem, worse than the first. These secondary problems are known as unintended negative consequences. There are many humorous and serious examples.
Survival of the fittest for organizations is about adaptability to the evolving business conditions and corresponding new realities. Change is thus inevitable.
The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind. ― Friedrich Nietzsche
But change is not easy and sometimes even very dangerous. The delicate equilibrium state that an organization has established does not happen overnight or without profound reasons. Therefore a rigorous change to achieve a local optimization can worsen the overall organizational output immensely.
What is Agility?
In a broader organizational context, being Agile is the extent and the speed to which an organization is able to interact. In an ideal situation, the optimal corrective action would be calculated in real time. The set point would be instantly derived from the vision, strategy and goals of the organization.
The model below makes it comprehensible that there are a lot of factors to take in account when changing an organization. It also shows how internal and external behavior influence each other.
The reality is also that many unpredictable, illogical and irrational human decisions influence the system. Emotional or counterproductive behavior can not be neglected but is also very difficult to take in account.
How Scrum can go wrong
Most of the popular online discussions about implementing Scrum lack a holistic understanding. The questions are usually limited by how a small group of people within the organization can be more Agile. Very quickly, such a transformation ends unsuccessfully leaving frustrated programmers behind.
Frequently, the present state of the organization is not very well understood. Unjustified conclusions are often the result of rushed and superficial analysis. Ultimately, the outcome is a costly battle about the terminology and rituals to be used for the same way of working and result.
The first part of this story may seem rather abstract. For that, I will try to illustrate it with some (fictional) practical situations:
This company faces the problem that customers often complain about a lack of clarity about the process and insufficient quality of the produced websites. After many internal discussions some developers suggest that Scrum might be a solution. They quickly follow a Scrum training and declare Scrum as their new way of working.
But serious problems arise right away. The clients of the web agency demand clear guarantees about the product to deliver. They also feel very uncomfortable with the fact that they have to be so involved. The clients avoid taking any responsibility and refuse to appoint somebody for the role of Product Owner. The Scrum team assigns someone within the team as a substitute.
The sales team has a strong benefit to get new clients by promising everything that they want to hear. The new work approach makes it even easier. The already problematic scope creep becomes a bigger problem which results in more bugs and functionality not meeting expectations.
The owner of the web agency had understood that Scrum would make everything much more profitable. But the lack of signed documents resulted in clients who do not want to pay without that certain work is performed first.
There are also a lot of internal problems. Some employees are very demotivated because they can not work alone anymore. The whole well-intentioned attempt is getting out of control and causes a lot of of trouble.
The internal structure and regulations are drastically changed. But vision, strategy and goals are not adapted to the new situation. They are actually under stress and paralyzed by unknown implications.
No account has been taken with heavy financial consequences. For sales, the incentive model does not fit the new way of working: they have to choose between being honest or having personal gain.
The environment sees the services as a commodity product and doesn't accept to invest in it like a research project. The market is full of similar providers with readymade products for a fixed price. Internal procurement rules prohibit to take such risks.
Trying to solve a problem of no clear work process by choosing Scrum is troublesome because Scrum is not a process. The focus of it is much more on innovation. It often solves the problem of heavy bureaucratized organizations where there is no freedom to try new things. This web agency had a problem with standardization of their product and process. While Agile practices could be helpful, a much more thorough transition was needed to succeed.
The quality problems could have various causes such as not the right skills of the developers. Limiting and clarifying of the scope of the project has much more to do with sales training and positioning of the company than the internal structure.
The department has understaffing and the requests are piling up. The waiting times are very high and there are many complaints. Technology has changed a lot in recent years, but knowledge gathering and education of the employees stood still because of the high workload.
The products do not meet the expectations of the internal organization and therefore people often use 3rd party products and even products of competitors.
The motivation of the developers is very low because salaries have not increased in proportion to the salaries of the sales department.
External consultants are brought in to analyze the situation and recommend a solution. After some interviews and exploring the work flows, they come up with a report that describes a mix of Kanban and Scrum to implement.
But after the first two months, the complaints have only increased and waiting times have become longer. The board has a incidental function: it is perfect to show that they can do one thing at a time. The new definition of Done justifies when more time is spent on a task. Agreed release schedule according to 2 weeks sprints ensures that there are no ad hoc releases and therefore lot of customers walk away.
The new work approach does not change anything concerning the motivation of the individual developers. They are even more demotivated because the Kanban board shows the impossible amount of work that the team needs to accomplish with insufficient capacity.
Human resource management plays a key role, but the plans didn't involve attracting new employees and increasing the capacity.
Technology progress is ignored. Dumping of legacy software would be a huge time saver.
Choosing a more Agile approach for the development team is misplaced. A proper portfolio analysis would bring faster results. By eliminating maintaining low profitable software, capacity would be released for higher priority work.
An education plan and acquiring new people for missing knowledge areas would be a quick fix.
Searching for a Magical Process®
There is not an universal formula or a Magical Process®. Every situation has other contingency factors. Dynamic and complex relations in an organization should be taken into account. Having good intentions and following the latest trend is not necessarily a formula for success.