Agile transformation – the fear of transparency?

It is long time already since I carried out first agile transformation. Since then I participated on some more and observed many – and I witnessed one pattern, that was common to almost all of them.

Most of literature on Agile speaks about benefits of transformation. People get empowered and are engaged into managing of works in self organized teams. There is very little interruptions from other parts of the organization or from management. Quality of work rapidly increases, time to market is shortening, financial numbers are getting better and this also contributes to work satisfaction. People starts enjoying their work again. These and some more makes buzz-word Agile is so popular.

Do I see it in reality?

When Agile is presented to the company, many people in the beginning are optimistic. It is rare to see somebody with neutral or negative attitude. Everybody expect something better will come. Change starts with first discussions to inform people about new expectations and often serve also as a catalysts to highlight hidden issues. Some people find courage to air loudly negative feelings about current situation, which were hidden undercover. Or which were discussed among peers when management was not around. There is many complains about current state and almost everybody knows how to do things right, if they only could.

After kick-off, new roles and processes are designed, most participants receive training and company tries to switch to new way of operation. Starting point may be date, or project or functional area, simply on the day “D” people start following new process and doing new rituals. Soon after, first problems appears and people are expected to deal with them.

Suddenly, a pattern similar to all transformations appears – first leaving notices are placed. It is a surprise, it creates rumors and mood get frozen. There might be fear, or frustration, or both in the air. “Company is going down”, people say. “Those veterans, who stayed with company so long are now giving notices and go away. Who will take care of the projects? Who will remain to work for THEM?” And some people really go away. Voluntarily. Instead of coping with problems and working on solution, people rather go away. In the moment they are empowered to take their own control about the issues, people rather go away.

When I ask people, why the mood is so down, they reply “we dont know, who else will bring notice”. Really? I stay often surprised. People sitting in one room together days long, looking at each other’s monitors, they can seeing who is browsing job portal, but most likely they talk. It is very clear that everybody knows who has started attending interviews.

Sometimes employer also get blackmailed. Those people working on projects which is about to be shipped, let say 90% done, and with taught deadlines (ideally with penalties attached), threats management for salary rise – otherwise they go away before project is complete. In most cases they achieve short term victory, jeopardizing the long term trust, so much essential for agile environment and for their future.

In Agile world, people are empowered. I would expect they will address problems they were complaining about for so long and will work out solution. Instead I can see frustration and leaving notices. What is the source of this dissatisfaction?

Answer may come from following observation. People have abandoned project supposedly done at 90%. New team takes project over and discover it is done to some 40% only. Its quality is so miserable that new team strongly insist to rewrite project completely. Documentation is missing. Tracking and versioning systems was ignored, a lot of mess everywhere. Clear signs there was something wrong with value of person, who stayed so long with the company, and who just left. Nobody ever noticed crappy work delivered by some individuals? I doubt. So why their peers did not did any action? They do not care. And further from developer it was invisible. Now the issue is visible as well as person responsible. The fear of transparency.

Until recently, I thought, it is not ideal sign that people start leaving. Now I see it differently. I think it is natural process that accompany every Agile transition. Work style changes dramatically. Accountability for the output is strongly emphasized as it was never before. And finally, transparency is not for free-riders. In my observation it is rare that the really best people leaves. And working place after transition was always much better place than before. However, if transition last too long, extended period of instability may get moving also those, who should stay.

I believe, speed of change is critical factor for success. Change must be fast enough to bring first real tangible benefits quickly and to create momentum. In the same time slow enough to prevent that catalysts effect to become too disruptive.

How to prevent leaving pattern then?

In my experience, it is still possible to overcome this initial phase without too much disruption. It is where role of management is essential. I share couple of tips:

• Have a clear vision of the change, its purpose and have its end state defined.

• Have a basic roadmap to have an idea where you are along the way.

• Communicate the purpose of the change. Storytelling is technique that you may find useful.

• Communicate purpose frequently. Celebrate small achievements. Illustrating the progress of change to people transparently is essential for building trust.

• Focus on those who want to stay – communicate with them regularly, get them involved into transition.

• Be prepared. Transition uncover weak points of the organization and hidden issues. People will need support while dealing with them.

For successful transformation the transparency is important. Few ideas I mentioned here will help you to achieve it less painfully. In the same time it is not very difficult to make them happen. And their impact is enormous.


I recommend some books you might find usefull for the topic:

1) The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning, 2011

2) Leading Change, John P. Kotter, 1996


About author: Michal Vallo helps companies deploy agile techniques and improve performance. He is agile trainer, coach and manager at Aguarra and founding member of Agilia community and organizer of Agilia Conference.