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Jonathan Hall
Jonathan Hall

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Why is organizational transformation so hard?

Late last year I explained one reason I think most (if not all) “agile transformations” fail. Today I want to offer another angle on this problem.

First, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend the 6-part (!!!) blog series by Venkatesh Rao entitled The Gervais Principle, which picks apart office life (and organizational life in general) through the lense of the American version of The Office.

Today I’m quoting from Part V: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose:

There are only three ways to get a bureaucracy to do anything it wasn’t designed to do: by stealth, with secret and deniable support from allies in the staff hierarchy; by getting air-cover from a sufficiently high-up Sociopath who can play poker with whichever oversubscribed Sociopath is in charge of exception-handling for the specific process (i.e., jumping the appeals queue and calling in favors to ensure the required ruling); and through corruption and bribery.

Before I disect this quote, let me address the potentially confusing use of the term “Sociopath”. In The Gervais Principle, there are three archetypes of people, one of which is the “Sociopath”, which has at best a passing resemblence to any clinical definition. Instead, TGP describes a “Sociopath” as someone who attempts to shape reality to their own will. Typical C-suite types. Perhaps more on that another day.

But with that out of the way, let me paraphrase the quote to be a bit more digestible:

There are only three ways to change a bureaucracy:

  • by stealth
  • with buy-in from upper-management
  • through corruption

In business, at least in nominally legal businesses I’ve worked in, most organizational changes (including attempted “agile transformations”) take one of the first two forms.

In agile terms, we often talk about bottom-up and top-down transformations, which I will say approximately map to “by stealth” and “with buy-in from upper-management” respectively.

So now to the problem of agile transformations.

Most corporate leadership doesn’t actually want an agile transformation. Naturally, there are exceptions. But by and large, corporate bureaucracies are built to do whatever it is they’re doing very well. And whatever it is they’re doing, most of the time, is what put upper management into power. It is therefore often within the best interest of upper management to maintain the status quo.

Sadly, things like “agile transformation projects” are often part of the status quo. That is to say, the appearance of positive change, without actually changing anything is often what puts such people in power. It’s often what their bonuses are built on.

This means that, at least in my experience, most attempts at agile transformation that have any actual success are the bottom-up, stealthy types. This is when a new senior joins the team, and introduces TDD, or a new Scrummaster changes the way we do retrospectives and now the team is suddenly interested.

These little pockets of success are great. But they very rarely lead to organizational change, because they don’t have the buy-in from upper management. Getting buy-in is another story, but it usually involves reaching a critical mass, such that it’s easier for upper management to give in, than not to give in (think of the American Revolution on a corporate scale), or there’s a change in leadership (usually a literal change, sometimes a change of heart). Suffice it to say, both possibilities are extremely remote.

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