The Difference Between Agile Adoption and Agile Transformation


For all the clear advantages Agile has for teams and organizations today, actually making the switch can be seriously intimidating. From falling prey to “fake Agile” to investing months into a transformation that doesn’t work out, there are also major pitfalls to avoid.

Fortunately, understanding the key differences between Agile adoption and transformation as well as how to move from one to the other makes it far easier. That foundation of knowledge will help you avoid many of the traps which can derail a move towards Agile. Below, we’ll walk you through the key differences and highlight some principles to help you on your way to Agile success.

Why Is the Distinction Important?

Getting leadership buy-in and setting expectations for team members and those leaders alike is vital for success. But that expectation setting requires you to begin with a firm understanding of exactly what you’re undertaking. It’s a bit like asking a friend if they want to grab lunch on Saturday only to drive them to a spot two hours away. Not setting expectations is a recipe for frustration and conflict.

In other words, you need to know what you’re getting into and be sure you’re avoiding half-measures that lead to fake Agile. Otherwise, you risk confusion at best and outright hostile pushback at worst.

What Is Agile Adoption?

A chart explaining what an Agile adoption is by visualizing multiple organizational departments as columns and showing one in different color.

Perhaps the best way to understand the basics of Agile adoption is to think of it more like a test or pilot program. It’s generally a quick change in practices for a single team that doesn’t involve major structural changes.

So if you have a single team switch from using the Waterfall Methodology to, for example, Scrum, that’s Agile adoption. Thinking about this as an Agile pilot is useful because it’s often a way to demonstrate the value Agile brings to leadership without undertaking a full Agile transformation (which you would need substantial leadership support for anyways).

If you and your organization are starting with little to no Agile experience or knowledge, Agile adoption is where you’ll want to start. But that doesn’t mean you should jump straight into using Agile processes.

The Importance of Beginning with Agile Values and Principles

Even though Agile adoption is generally on a much smaller scale than an Agile transformation, that doesn’t mean it can perform well without a foundation. Every Agile adoption requires some level of customization to find the right way to adapt Agile principles to your needs.

Skipping this critical step is precisely how you end up with “fake Agile” in which you genuinely think you’re doing Agile properly, but are actually missing key elements which you need to get real value out of it. That’s why, whether you’re starting with Agile adoption or are looking to jump right into a full Agile transformation, you need to begin with a foundational education in Agile principles.

Getting that education should come through a combination of training and coaching. We prefer using the 70-20-10 principle to balance these elements for maximum effectiveness.

What Is Agile Transformation?

A chart explaining what an Agile transformation is and how a how organization becomes Agile, one team at a time.

If Agile adoption refers to a single team making a shift to using Agile practices in their work, Agile transformation is the long-term process of switching an entire organization over to Agile ways of working. It’s the difference between, for example, working with a single 10-person team to try using Scrum and getting a 500-person organization to use Agile in all its processes and functions.

Unsurprisingly, this results in Agile transformations taking months or even years and usually requires some level of structural change. However, it also means the resulting productivity gains can be enormous relative to what can be achieved by the Agile adoption of a single team.

Considering the large investments in time, energy, and training needed for an Agile transformation to succeed, it makes sense that most organizations begin with an Agile adoption on a smaller scale. But when you are ready to undertake a full Agile transformation, what can you expect?

Keys to a Successful Agile Transformation

One key element, which often gets overlooked is the importance of mindset shifts in an Agile transformation. It’s easy to get caught up on the need to restructure an organization to flatten it, but the ultimate success of any Agile transformation really rests on how well that mindset shift occurs.

You can change all the processes and practices you want, but if your teams can’t switch from a fixed to an Agile mindset, you’re likely to end up reverting to your old non-Agile ways. Otherwise, you may end up like some kids moving pieces around a Monopoly board and thinking they’re playing the game. Yes, the processes may look the same, but that’s not where the ultimate value comes from.

Supporting that kind of mindset shift requires the full support of leadership. Starting a transformation without such support opens up the possibility that halfway through the transformation, leaders decide it’s time to revert back to the old ways before Agile has had a chance to provide value. 

Obviously, this is the worst of both worlds and something you absolutely want to avoid. So beginning by demonstrating what Agile can achieve through a pilot program is an excellent way to get the strong support you need for success.

The 5 Stages of an Agile Transformation

We’ve seen plenty of Agile transformations and often they can be broken down into 5 stages you may already be familiar with. It often begins with shock and denial as many will resist the change and assume it’s just a passing phase they can wait out.

Then, once it becomes clear they will actually need to adapt to Agile ways of working, many switch to anger in response. Fortunately, once you’ve gotten through that initial resistance and the value Agile can bring begins to become clear, most people progress to bargaining. Here they begin to work with Agile leaders to at least help shape how they will implement it.

While some may slip into the depression phase as they wonder when the difficult elements of the Agile transformation will be finished, most ultimately end up in the final phase: acceptance. At the end of the day, the benefits Agile brings are capable of winning over most skeptics. The challenge is helping support those skeptics until they come around.

What Happens When an Agile Transformation Takes Too Long

One of the most common questions we hear is how long an Agile transformation generally takes and how to know if it’s taking too long. In our experience, a typical transformation takes between 12 and 18 months with proper preparation and support.

It’s important to keep this in mind because when a transformation drags on too long, you can end up with key talent leaving the organization, teams becoming demotivated, and even feelings of isolation in teams that have completed the switch to Agile but are waiting on the rest of the organization to catch up.

The good news is that avoiding these challenges is far easier when you’ve got the right Agile training and coaching to help you along the way.

Ready to Begin Your Agile Journey?

Every Agile journey is different, but learning from what other organizations have experienced in their Agile transformations is one of the best ways to prepare. We encourage you to have a look at a case study we created based on our experience working with M&T Bank to unlock the full potential of Agile marketing. It also shows how even companies in more traditional fields like banking can use Agile to achieve more.

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