Agile transformation in the context of Kotter’s change model. Why do the initiatives fail?

Alisdair Menzies
12 min readApr 9, 2018



Why is agile so difficult to adopt in large organisations? With data and empirical evidence to demonstrate the benefit to staff and the business what causes such barriers to adopting these practices.

In this, I am looking to outline the pitfalls for adopting agile based on experience. This is not a how-to guide on adopting agile, instead offering suggestions on how to approach agile in an existing organisation.


In 1996 Kotter outlined his model for embedding change in an organisation. In this he set out to outline 8 key steps to embedding organisational change at a macro level. I highly recommend going and reading his book. (Also worth reading are “Our Iceberg is Melting” and “That’s Not How We Do It Here!” by Kotter)

Listening to ‘Uncle’ Bob Martin present on agile this year, he highlighted that while the title ‘Agile’ has existed in software programming since 2001, Agile is not new. Its more that business have a short memory and the rate of increase in the number of people in technology roles, roughly doubling every 4 years further constrains this knowledge when not shared or focused on.

Each of these respected leaders has a lens on business change at a macro and micro level respectively, can they be used together to help organisations adopt agile and become more customer focused?

Kotter provides an insightful and useful 8 step process on which to frame this.

1. Create a sense or urgency

Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.” Jim Rohn

Often the assumption is that the urgency is already there — why else would you be looking to adopt agile

Driven by leaders, organisations looking over their shoulders and react. While it is essential to be aware of what the competitive environment is, reacting and sending all your project managers on a scrum course is not the panacea. They will, of course, enjoy the course, feel invigorated and invested in and will return to the office the following Monday as ‘Scrum Masters” and plan to use all they learned. By Friday the pressure of their day jobs will have pushed them to their comfort zone and they will fall back into their previous practices. For agile to work, it needs to be introduced with a structural change to the business and the teams.

Often leaders, driven by sales numbers or ineffective KPI’s react and expect immediate results. Often metrics try to ‘do more with less’ or push people to confuse tactics with strategy. A series of tactical solutions or approaches are attached to one and other and called a strategy with little to no use of relevant data, competitor insight or research.

Ask yourself why? Challenge yourself and those around you. Keep asking why. It may be that the burning platform you are on, is burning for a different reason, or you may not be in a place that can work towards agile yet.

When you are clear on your understanding of the macro environment you are in based on facts, and you understand the need for change and can see that the microenvironment is conducive to change, use this to enable directed urgency within your leadership community.

2. The powerful coalition

“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” Robert Louis Stevenson

First the bad news. Your immediate team are not the powerful coalition you need to make the change. Even as the CEO you need to be able to direct and mobilise the appropriate teams and SME’s, often at layers below the CEO.

That structure chart that helps you sleep at night, knowing who is above, below and beside you, in this instance is probably working against you. When looking to adopt agile, the layers of structure work against you in a number of ways.

  • Preventing people such as SME’s being able to speak up
  • Misdirecting the focus to the top and prevent the energy and momentum needed for building the coalition from being able to form
  • Creating barriers, as opposed to supporting networks between peers

These are significant reasons for the success of Agile in small companies, the energy needed to bring the powerful group together is much lower and alignment with customers easier to achieve.

There are ways around this. By setting out norms that respect knowledge, not structural position and using the group to support and challenge one and other based on this. Depending on the organisation (typically older organisations that are larger than 5000 employees) you may have to accept at this point you are not able to engage with all that you need to at this point, and when looking at communicating the vision allow for significant interested SME’s or leaders to become a part of leading and supporting the vision.

3. Vision

Your vision of where or who you want to be is your greatest asset” Paul Arden

The vision should not just ‘be agile’. It has to be emotive, aligned and link to why you want your organisation to be agile and most importantly align with what your customer values.

The agile manifesto and agile principles can help here, as these help both on a tacit level as to what agile values are and the fundamental truths that serve as the foundation to agile thinking. If your organisational principles are not aligned with these, it is likely that the powerful coalition should reflect on what they are aiming for as an outcome.

Your vision should be a call to action for all of the people in the orgainsation and should be concise enough to remember, and have a clear message the people can translate and support the communications to come. This is not necessarily the same as the corporate vision, but should be complimentary. It should easily fit onto half a page and work within the context of an elevator pitch.

An easy pitfall to end up in is a series of corporate-friendly generic statements about agile that have no tacit interpretations such as the following statement I recently saw “conveniently integrate principle-centered results”. While pretty well anchored in the corporate language actually was meaningless to the reader.

A good start is the Kipling rule;

“I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all i knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who.” knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who.”

If you use this as a checklist to frame the vision, pitch and purpose this helps maintain focus and avoiding meaningless abstract hyperbole.

So you have managed to get to the point you have a vision of your future state and as leaders are committed to the change. What next? Engage the organisation, build advocacy and enable the organisation.

4. Communicate

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” William Shakespeare

The energy taken to get to the point whereby you are ready to communicate should not be a wasted opportunity. Get the mix, approach, and tone wrong can not only end up diluting the message, at worst can prevent the message landing at all, resulting in scepticism in the audience you are wanting to lead the journey with you.

While recognising the tools available in modern corporations, traditional forms should also be embraced. The power of face to face dialogue is often understated, however, core to agile and good communication is in situ.

You should ask yourself and the quorum of the leading coalition how valuable this change is to the organisation — if the answer is not enough to travel to support this change, then this should be a key time for reflection, before communicating this change.

Use all the channels and styles you have available in an appropriate way, to add credence and credibility to the message. Applied in the wrong way, this can at best, be lost in the range of messages that are shared across large organisations, at worst undermine any credence the message may have and feed the scepticism of the naysayers and critics.

“Add facts to an emotive conversation, and conversly, add facts to an emotional one.”

Use a range of information within your communication, from key facts and figures to how you feels about the change and the importance it has to you as a leading group. Using emotional statements also invites dialogue where facts do not.

While undertaking communication across a wider group, it can also be a chance to reflect on the previous steps and improve your position in each. This can, in itself be useful at each of the stages of Kotter’s model.

5. Remove blockers

“No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy”, German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke

Blockers to agile will be in three groups. People, tools and process, environment.


When attempting to change the way people work, people will become defensive for a range of reasons and this will not often be immediately obvious.

These will fit into 3 groups -

  • Active disagreement — In many ways, this group is the easiest to manage as they surface their issues immediately and will usually respond well to coaching and support. This group often will become advocates with support and are actively engaged in the conversation — they care about the outcome.
  • Passive — While this group may seem to be less of a concern they should be managed. Passive can cover a range of behaviours but can suggest they are disengaged with the organisation and will often not change.
  • Public agreement, private hostility — This group have typically been rewarded in the past for their behaviour and see no point in changing. Coaching, feedback and training will often be needed to help them understand why behaviour previously is not supportive of the change.

Another lens on this will be the skills that people have — there is a great article on this found here

Tools and Process

I have intentionally positioned this after people — as per the agile manifesto — people before tools, and this is true of any transformation to pivot to working in agile ways, and will support the people and groups highlighted above, on their journey.

typically attempting to make current tools fit will not lead to effective outcomes. Hint get lots of Post-it notes!

Too often tools are imposed, where a vendor convinces executive members the tools their organisation should have, with no consultation on those that will have to use them. This drains value, motivation and distracts from great customer outcomes.

The process and tools ecosystem are obvious impediments to an agile transformation. Moving from project plans to backlogs. From project timelines to burndown charts. These can be massive challenges to the approach taken to how to embed agile.

Invite vendors to demonstrate their product offerings that enable agile ways of working to people going to use them and gain consensus on what should be used. Test, learn and fail fast. A good vendor will want to allow you to use their tools to demonstrate the value they offer.


There are good reasons why organisations from Google to Tesco are investing in research labs and digital studios — without space that allows for collaboration and colocation, agile will struggle to thrive. These environments, with the right support, enable great interactions across an agile population and minimise waste in the ways people can interact.

I intend to go into more detail on environments that support agile in a future article.

6. Wins… they are there to be had

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Seneca, Roman Philosopher

Of all the categories that exemplify the benefits of agile, demonstrating wins and sharing the success of these will help build the momentum for change.

Avoid phantom success

While ensuring that successes are shared avoid self-promotion or those that want to push their agenda. Make sure to test the successes for their validity before broadcasting the success.

False successes will undermine confidence and morale in those with genuine success and will add weight to those that wish to see it fail.

Cheer in your organisational wins

Don’t be shy about successes at this early stage. By committing to short-term goals such as mobilising teams to sprints or the first successes these teams have and share these successes as widely and as sincerely as possible.

Too often success is attributed to luck, is not celebrated or in the UK British sentiment and modesty gets in the way of some great successes.

Success should continue to be recognised throughout the transformation and beyond to reinforce the successes. In turn, this will reinforce the positive behaviour and fortify the agile transformation as it progresses.

Success also has the added benefit of a halo effect. People will gravitate to success and want to know more. This will help address some of the challenges presented by those with a hostile or passive response to agile in their organisation.

So you’ve had some wins along the way, how does this transformation to agile stick?

7. Build and iterate

“Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.” Peter Drucker

Part of the success of applying Kotter’s model in the context of agile transformation is that different fields of practice have convergent ideas. Frequent iteration based on good communication, removing blockers and capturing wins compliment the principles and practices of agile.

At this stage in the journey, there are ‘snakes in the grass’, things that can trip you up and in the process will potentially invalidate the great things that have happened so far.

  1. You will be tuned into the successes and may become desensitised to the areas that are falling behind, turning your focus and that of your teams to where the successes are. Try to use the power of the groups involved and your existing and new advocates to support those areas that are struggling. You may find your focus on the gains made may lead to dilution as to what your vision was. Revisit and reinforce the vision and recognise the traction made, and the road ahead.
  2. Test, learn and fail fast — what is right for one team, may not be the same for another. By taking a principled and not tools based approach you will be able to help the teams at their pace and not be overly prescriptive in your approach. Tools are important, but recognising where they are working or not is more so.
  3. Gestalt effect — you only know, and can see, what you know. You may believe you have gone as far as you can go. Being aware of this before you get to the point where your organisational expertise is hugely important and using external consultants that can objectively validate your progress, coach your teams and help build plans for a continued journey. Key learnings should be shared, and universally people should not be afraid to ask questions. If there is a barrier between employees and consultants then you will never be able to maximise your return on both.
  4. ‘We’ve done agile’. Remember the challenging communication groups? There will still be disrupters from these groups, that want to move on and will want to quickly move on as the journey is complete. The good news is that traction has been made, but perfection has not, and never will be.

Recognising these will help avoid the pitfalls at this stage in the journey, and knowing that perfection cannot be attained, and neither should it be. Being mindful of these will help on your organisation’s development of agile as a business

8. Anchor and sustain the change

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” Johhny Cash

As a part of an agile transformation, you will always be working towards a definition of what ‘done’ is, but as a part of the sustainability of the change, there need always be a view of what best in practice.

  1. Visit organisations you admire. While it would be unlikely you could visit a competitor, you may be allowed access to organisations that supply you or other businesses that want to showcase what they do.
  2. Showcase what you do — Joy Inc arrange paid tours of their work environment, and these help invite new ideas and help invite challenges to the status quo. It will also help focus the mind of your organisation, if you are to showcase something, it should be something you have pride in and are willing to accept the challenge.
  3. Join an industry benchmarking group to invite agile forums to be hosted inside your business and talk about how you approached your changes. In turn, you will hear others insight from their own approach and what worked for them.

Where are the barriers to success outside your sphere of influence? Lessons from lean organisations can help here. Working with supply chain, partner organisations and across divisions and applying lean and six sigma can help build plans for expanding the vision for an agile organisation.


Through 8 stages of Koter’s change model, I have laid bare the pitfalls organisations face when approaching an agile transformation. You may find your own pitfalls on your won journey. Approaching an agile transformation within the context of Kotter will help guide you and your organisation.

Good luck on your agile journey. Keeping these points in mind will not guarantee success, however, form a useful construct and help shape your thoughts on the approach.