The Agile Organization Illusion

The Agile Organization Illusion

Verfasst von Ralf Westphal in English postings 04 Mrz 2016

This is kinda hard for me to say, but I’ve come to the conclusion that not all organizations can become agile.

I would like this not to be true. Currently, though, I don’t see how it could be different. And if you think about it, I guess you have to come to the same conclusion.

Organizations to me are social organisms. Whereas biological organisms are made up of cells, social organisms are made up of, well, biological organisms. For organizations that’s humans.

And like biological organisms organizations have a genotype and a phenotype. Externally they show certain behavior. Internally they have a certain anatomy and physiology. They even develop a character/personality.

Some of their genotype is written up in explicit rules. Some is hard wired in certain customs and policies. „That’s how we do it around here.“ Some is embodied by certain people.

As a social organisms or social system an organization strives for survival. It’s an autopoietic system, i.e. one that keeps it’s relations stable so that its overall form and character is retained even in a changing environment.

That said it should come as no surprise organizations can fall prey to fallacies of thinking. The one I’ve in mind right now is the Swimmer’s Body Illusion, which is an example of mixing up cause and effect.

A swimmer’s well built V-shaped athletic body is not a result of training. Rather an exceptional swimmer has been selected by the training process because he basically had such a body in the first place.

So if you’re thinking „I want a body like a world class swimmer, I better start training rigorously…“ you’ve fallen prey to the Swimmer’s Body Illusion.

Look at your body now. Maybe envision to loose some fat here and to add some muscles there… but don’t think you can fundamentally change your physique. If you’re not V-shaped already, you won’t become it even with much training.

Sure, people can change their appearance through training and diet. But there are limits to the result which are determined by their genotype and phenotype.

Which brings me back to organizations.

Over the past years I have come to believe the same is true for them. There are limits to how much organizations can change given a certain genotype and phenotype.

So if an organization (or some member of it) admires another organizations for it’s apparent agility – „Look, they are so fluent in releasing new versions, they are so quick in responding to change, they are so innovative…“ – then that’s like a person admiring another’s swimmer body.

When the admiring organization then sets out to become like the admired one… there are no guarantees it actually can transform itself into a like agile organization.

Sure it is possible in general. There are obviously examples of organizations which managed to change in that way. Like there are examples of people who were able to become world class swimmers through training.

However that does not mean a certain organization can actually become agile in the admired manner.

It depends on its genotype and phenotype. It depends on its current policies, rules, beliefs, habits – and of course the people in charge: management. Because it’s the people in charge, the leaders, who embody and perpetuate the true fundamental character of an organization.

In Germany we say „Der Fisch stick vom Kopf her“ („It’s the head where a fish starts to stink“) to mean: many problems in organizations are rooted at the head of its hierarchy. And this is also the reason why the sheer possibility of an organization to become agile largely depends on its management.

There are organizations where management is willing and able to change so that true agility can come to life. Their genotype/phenotype are already open for such character/culture.

But there are also organizations where management is not willing or not able to change. Their genotype/phenotype then are not open for such character/culture.

That’s how it is. What can I say?

Any organization can try… but not all will succeed. Not all are equipped for Agility.

It’s the same like with people: Anybody can try to become a world class swimmer or snowboarder or singer or whatever. But not everybody who tries will succeed.

That might be tragic. But that’s how it is. Let’s get real about it. Don’t despair if you can’t manage to become the next Einstein or Brad Pit or Tiger Woods or whatever. A meaningful life can be lived without being exceptional. A normal body, an average income, a decent job will do.

The same is true for organizations. Thus we should stop painting a picture of „Every organization can become world class agile. Just do everything right according to the Agile Manifesto and/or get some great consultants on board.“ It’s simply not true.

Sure, every software developing organization can improve on some aspects of its software production process. Like starting to swim regularly sure will do your health some good.

But if the transformation to true Agility does not come about after a while… the organization might have to face the ugly truth: it’s not built for Agility. Deep down its genotype and phenotype are laid out differently.

This then has implications for the people in that organization: They have to decide whether to try harder or to give up and continue as before or on a slightly higher level – or to leave.

I know, this conclusion is not in line with how some people see the world. They like people (and organizations) not only „to be created equal“, but also to be all able to attain anything they like. This is a very commendable attitude – but life has taught me a different lesson. There are limits to what one can achieve. People as well as organizations.

Why, though, should that be frustrating or even depressing? Why should limitations be so threatening? I don’t know. That’s why I don’t want to deny them (anymore). Limitations are real – so we better start dealing with them.

Not every organization can become agile? Well, there are worse things in the world. The sooner this inability becomes obvious the sooner the people in this organizations can make up their minds what that means to them. There is not necessity for any organization to survive such insight. Start all over might be more prudent than to refactor for organizations, too.

P.S. If you’re interested in the Swimmer’s Body Illusion and other fallacies and biases I recommend to you this book: „The Art of Thinking Clearly“ by Rolf Dobelli.


  • Rusi Filipov 4. März 2016 at 17:53 /

    Very interesting thoughts. But the most crucial factor IMO is what I call „critical mass in mindset“. Sometimes it can be a wrong mindset in the management level. But it can also be a wrong mindset at the technical level. Higher rank and higher respect has higher inpact, both can be good or bad. Higher rank and higher respect attracts more mass. But it takes a minimum amount of critical mass to overcome a particular stage on the agile path. And it might not be so hoplessly predestined, because unlike living organisms, organizations are able to change their genotype by firing and hiring.

  • Ralf Westphal 4. März 2016 at 18:55 /

    The „critical mass“ is a nice picture. Yes, it’s all depending on whether a „critical mass“ is present to either be able to change or for sticking to the status quo. What I mostly see is that the „critical mass“ in favor of the status quo (or wore) is underestimated (by both developers and managers).

    Maybe organizations have more degrees of freedom to change in principle. But then… hiring and firing depends on, well, the organization’s DNA. It can work both ways. Fire people who stand in the way of change. Or: fire those who want too much change. Or hire those who are closed to what’s already there. (I rarely see companies hiring people with a different, fresh mindset. HR is looking for people fitting in well with the status quo.)

    People (biological organisms) by the way can also change greatly. There is so much they can start or stop doing. Exchanging their DNA might not be possible, but phenotype and then behavior can in principle be pretty much turned around.

    But do people use these degrees of freedom? Rarely. Because it’s very difficult to change stuff deeply ingrained. The same is true for organizations.