To talk about agile transformation, let’s go to the movies

Will your organization's agile transformation be a Cinderella-style change – or have more in common with a werewolf? Here's what makes the difference.

We’re all familiar with the signature transformation moment in "Cinderella" – the fairy godmother waves her wand and Cinderella’s tattered dress magically becomes a stunning ball gown. Gorgeous, and effortless. The whole process – from wand wave to finished product – takes less than 10 seconds.

Perhaps fewer of us have seen the scene in the film “An American Werewolf in London” in which the main character transforms from an innocent backpacker to the titular American Werewolf. During the scene, we hear bones crunching as claws, teeth, and hair push through skin. The torturous and protracted reshaping of his body from man to monster takes a full two-and-a-half-minutes of screentime.

When organizations go through an agile transformation, they often envision a Cinderella process – quick, easy, beautiful results. But what they get, sometimes, is an American Werewolf process – agonizingly long, painful, and with some decidedly unpleasant consequences.

What makes the difference?

At Korn Ferry, we’ve spent a good deal of time understanding what makes agility tick. We’ve isolated four areas of understanding that set successful agile transformations apart – and noted the practical steps organizations can take to make these things happen.

1. They understand that a true agile transformation takes more than implementing a Scrum framework or Kanban board

Many organizations conflate true agile transformation with rigorous adoption of the Scrum Framework, Kanban, or other “capital ‘A’ Agile” processes (parsed nicely here). Now, to be clear, these processes are often terrifically effective – breeding ownership, collaboration, transparency, and a step-change in customer focus. Be wary if you ask a question about organizational agility and get an answer about product backlogs and Post-It notes! Implementing one of these processes is not a substitute for creating deep agility – it’s one arrow in a much bigger quiver. Some vocal critics have even suggested that a well-codified process may betray the “people over process” pillar of the Agile Manifesto.

Organizations undertaking agile transformation correctly, in contrast, deploy an Agile (or Scrum, or Kanban) process thoughtfully, as part of a larger set of conscious choices designed to create an organization that both moves faster and can change direction more quickly.

They don’t rely on the process change as the sole component of cultural change: Rather, they contextualize it into a bigger set of conscious choices that drive agility. Other accompanying steps might include flattening the structure of teams, involving external networks to a far greater degree, and even automating knowledge management. An agile transformation may not affect every aspect of an organization, but it absolutely spans people, process, and technology.

2. They began with a shared vision of the agile organization

Agile transformation manuals often reference being willing to change culture quickly. This is a bit of a myth. What really happens in many successful agile transformations is that before the transformation began, the aspiration for agility existed within at least a meaningful subset of the leader and employee population. Beginning to implement a host of changes – including but certainly not limited to the introduction of some sort of Agile process – allowed the organization’s population to activate behaviors they were already inclined toward.

Now, this raises the question – what if a very small minority of leaders believe passionately that an agile transformation is in order, but the majority of the culture seems disinclined to embrace true agility?

Is the transformation doomed? Not at all.

But leadership must undertake a critical pre-step – achieving buy-in and alignment about the end result of agility. Many organizations bungle this pre-step – and instead charge in with process diagrams and new terminology that sends already-wary populations deeper into fear mode. Those organizations that do this well engage populations at all levels in a thoughtful dialogue (not monologue) about why agility is important from a business perspective: “How will these changes help us compete better?” They also clearly outline how the changes will ultimately make work more rewarding – with a surfeit of honesty about how some changes may not initially feel natural.

3. Their leaders meaningfully and visibly changed their behavior

Agile transformation demands that leaders act courageously on a couple of key dimensions. For leaders, actually embodying the principles of the Agile Manifesto means, in many cases, walking away from the well-honed finished products of the waterfall world – the dotted i’s and crossed t’s whose success bred their success as leaders.

Agile transformation demands that leaders act courageously on a couple of key dimensions.

Working iteratively breeds greater productivity and innovation, but it requires that leaders have the bravery to engage key audiences with greater frequency around less-than-perfect interim output.

Another leadership step that requires courage is ceding authority to their teams. If leaders cannot pivot to see themselves as servant-leader enablers, the teams will never be empowered enough to produce true agility. As a subset of this behavior, if leaders fail to deal with the team at team level – and insist on trying to manage or even influence individual-by-individual – teams cannot move fluidly, and organizational agility is lost.

4. They never entertained the Cinderella fantasy

To be blunt: Organizations that think agile transformation is easy are perhaps those most doomed to fail.

Think of all the steps outlined in the previous paragraphs – everything from changes in org structure to shifts in leadership behavior, to serious, no-holds-barred change management work. If any of that sounds like waving a wand to you … go back and read more closely.

To be blunt: Organizations that think agile transformation is easy are perhaps those most doomed to fail.

When organizations underestimate the work involved in agile transformation, a chain reaction often begins. Initially, leaders under-communicate or miscommunicate. KPIs are set either incorrectly or too optimistically. Natural friction among people teaming in new ways is either ignored or suppressed, not addressed. At a certain point, things have gone so wrong that an army of consultants is frantically called in (or escalated dramatically from current numbers already embedded) to sort out the situation.

The end result is the antithesis of magical – it’s, well, far more like a guy thrashing around turning into a wolf.

What’s interesting is that the opposite scenario doesn’t look like magic, either. Organizations that go in clear-eyed take more measured action at the start – with a heavy dose of alignment and clear communication. They engage a consistent and appropriate level of consulting support, where needed, and always focus on capability transfer to their core organization. Their work is methodical, deliberate, and self-aware – more like building a cantilever bridge.

So if we’re clear that:

  • The Cinderella transformation is a fantasy
  • The werewolf transformation is to be avoided at all costs
  • And that careful bridge-building is the agile transformation approach that organizations should embrace
Then what is the best way of staying on track? Here’s a simple checklist.
  • Make the business case. Has your organization articulated the business case for agile transformation? Can this business case be communicated in clear, plain language to every employee?
  • Get your steps in order. Have you outlined all of the steps – touching people, process, and technology – that need to be taken to undergo an agile transformation? Can your leaders name at least four other changes in addition to implementing some sort of Agile/Scrum/Kanban process?
  • Ensure you have support. Do leaders have both willingness to change behavior, and concrete support/tools for behavioral change? Are potential evangelists energized and potential resistors identified?
  • Get buy-in and alignment. Is the organization really on board? If leadership believes they are, is there support for this viewpoint? If the organization is not, do you have a change management strategy to address this?
  • Don't underestimate the work. Do you have a realistic timeline and resources plan for the agile transformation? Have you considered increasing needed time and resources to allow for unexpected events?
If you can answer the above questions with confidence, your organization is ready to transform … and not into a monster!

This article originally appeared on The Enterprisers Project at