One of the things I enjoy most about my work is meeting other Agile practitioners and coaches and sharing war stories. Recently I was at an Agile Coffee with people who had various experience with Agile, ranging from complete neophytes to folks with many years of experience. The topic chosen was “What are the preconditions for a large company to be successful implementing Agile?” – a very pointed, yet valid, question to be sure. All of the answers were ones that one might expect; support from upper management, learning culture, etc. except for one. The lone unobvious answer was provided by someone whose opinion I respect. I was somewhat surprised at the time and it has reverberated in my mind ever since, “one precondition for a company to be successful in an Agile transformation is they have failed miserably and have hit rock bottom.”
The term “rock bottom” is most commonly used by folks in NA and AA (Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous). I found the following definition of rock bottom on a website for alcohol addiction:
… often used to describe a point … when they are finally willing to seek help. Things are now so bad for them that it is impossible to deny their problem anymore. Hitting rock bottom may result due to a particular event, or it can be a slow decline over time. This is a subjective term because some … will be willing to suffer a lot more … than others.
I first came in contact with Anonymous groups through my work in healthcare (nearly a lifetime ago when I was a licensed Health Care Administrator) and have more than one commented on how Agile transformations remind me of some of the twelve steps – with the first step being to admit one has a problem.
So when my friend mentioned that a good indicator for agile transformation success was a company had hit rock bottom I knew exactly what he was referring to. In this particular case he used the examples of the FBI Sentinel Project and Healthcare.gov website debacle. In both cases, it wasn’t until each was a total disaster that Agile was actually tried with any seriousness and rigor and in both cases the results were amazing.
The total spend of these [two] failed [Waterfall] attempts to replace the ACS system was $597m and wasted 10 years. The Agile project, which is now delivering a solution, will only cost $114m for a three-year long project.
In another recent talk I went to on Agile a gentleman explained how Agile helped with an ad agency. He was only brought in AFTER the agency blew millions on a website that never made it to production. After losing millions I would guess this agency hit “rock bottom”. The good news was that Agile was able to help them to change and allowed them to produce high quality software with a much better time to market (than never).
In my agile coaching practice I have had more than one conversation with enlightened management that has acknowledged our Agile transformation wasn’t working as good as hoped and, barring a complete meltdown, most folks were happy to continue along a non-optimal path. In fact, relative success is a particularly sticky barrier to change as people often confuse the ability to get something done with the ability to get something done optimally. Bill Gates has often remarked, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” Sometimes what we mistakenly call “failure” is a much better teacher. Sometimes the lesson is more important than the perception of relative success or failure.
Just this morning I was listening to my local NPR station as they were having a fund drive. Like many others, I couldn’t wait for the drive to be over so I could no longer had to feel the shame and guilt of being a “free rider”. Fortunately, it was the last day of the pledge drive and my mind was only half listening to the chatter of the announcers when they introduced Shankar Vedantam who does segments on the Hidden Brain (which I enjoy immensely). His topic was why people donate (or don’t donate) to pledge drives. He talked about humans’ tendency to pay more attention to emergencies and crisis than what is important. Being the last day of the pledge he hoped what was merely important (donating) would now also be given the status of an emergency because time was running out.
My mind went immediately back to the concept of “rock bottom” and why this is one good indicator of where Agile can be successful. Sometimes it is only when we hit rock bottom that the importance of being Agile begins to align with the immediate crisis of having to be Agile. It is then, and unfortunately for some, only then when Agile gets the attention and focus it deserves. It is my hope companies realize becoming an Agile organization is essential to their long term survival (at least in organizations that rely heavily on software development), seek the help they need to transition and actually carry out the transition before they hit rock bottom. In the meantime, if you have hit rock bottom (are you listening Yahoo!?), please seek out Agile help.