The Great Agile Transformation Misunderstanding

Jul 2, 2019

Have you ever said a word to someone, let’s say “puppy,” and got a positive reaction from one person, and a negative reaction from someone else? Why is that? It’s the same word! It turns out there are two types of meanings to words, and it’s the second type that makes all the difference in the world.

The first type of meaning is the one most people are familiar with. It’s the denotation meaning and is the specific or primary meaning of a word; its literal meaning. The second type is the connotation meaning and is the subjective meaning of a word based on personal experiences, emotions, or beliefs. If you’re not fully aware of a word’s connotation, it may lead to confusion and/or misunderstanding with the person or people you’re trying to communicate with.

This is where the great agile transformation misunderstanding begins. The word “agile” is a major buzzword in today’s industry. Every organization wants to become an agile organization and every software team wants to call themselves an agile team. As an Enterprise Agile Coach, when I hear a company wants to go through an “agile transformation,” the connotative meaning for me is a positive one. For me, this implies an enterprise-wide agile transformation; and this is where the connotative meaning makes all the difference in the world.

Three different types of agile transformations

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed an agile transformation tends to fall into one of three different connotative meanings:

  1. A team-level transformation
  2. A scaled-level transformation (program and/or portfolio)
  3. An enterprise-level transformation

The first level, a team transformation, is generally focused on software teams in their adoption of agile practices such as Scrum, Kanban, and/or DevOps. An Agile Team Coach, commonly referred to as a Scrum Master, is the main agile role. A good Agile Team Coach coaches the team to continuously improve their performance and the way they work.

The second level is the scaled transformation. This is where a company has many software development teams that need to work together to release a product. There are a variety of scaled agile frameworks such as LeSS, Disciplined Agile, Scrum@Scale, and SAFe. Each of these scaled frameworks has their own connotative meaning with people, so I will not go into the details of them in this article.

Scaling agile is far more challenging than simply teaching Scrum or Kanban at the team-level. If a company cannot do team-level agile well—and they attempt to scale it—then they will scale all of their team problems and challenges, increasing the likelihood of a failed transformation. This is where a program-level coach may help.

A program-level Agile Coach will often be seen at this second level. A good one will be familiar with one or more of the frameworks and can help the company choose the best fit for their organization. This person may also be a “Coach of Coaches,” or someone who helps less experienced Agile Coaches improve through training, coaching, and mentoring.

The third level of a transformation is the enterprise-level. When a business decides they want to become an agile organization or increase their business agility, this is the level they are generally referring to. A successful enterprise agile transformation includes non-IT areas such as Human Resources (HR), Marketing, and Finance. Contrary to popular belief, enterprise agility is not about scaling agile across the enterprise; it’s about de-scaling the enterprise, becoming more lean by reducing redundancies and improving efficiency. It also has nothing to do with technical practices commonly found at the software team level.

An Enterprise Agile Coach is often found at the third level to help the entire enterprise keep up with the speed of the customer. He or she teaches the enterprise how to pivot quickly and shift priorities with minimal disruption. An Enterprise Agile Coach also helps solve systemic problems that exist throughout the company, such as breaking down silos.

All three levels have different areas of focus and require different skill sets. I am not saying one job (Agile Team Coach/Scrum Master, Agile Coach, or Enterprise Agile Coach) is better than the other. I am saying it is extremely important to choose/hire the right skill set for the level of transformation your company wishes to transform. Otherwise, hiring the wrong person will cause your company a significant amount of money, stress, resistance, and frustration.

Clarify your level of agile transformation

Remember the importance of connotation; especially when it comes to an often misunderstood term such as “agile transformation.” What we mean and what people hear are not always the same. To help with any misunderstandings, when you hear someone talking about an agile transformation, ask them to clarify which level they are referring to. Likewise, make sure you clarify the level yourself.

What other ways have you noticed “agile transformation” been misunderstood? Please share your thoughts and feedback with us.

Until next time, continue learning and good luck on your agile journey!

one does not simply declare an agile transformation
Written by Frank Rios


Frank is a highly experienced and sought-after Agile Coach and trainer with strong leadership and organizational skills. He is a frequent contributor to local conferences and has published several articles on LinkedIn with very positive responses. He was first exposed to an Agile framework called eXtreme Programming (XP) back in 1998, where he fell in love with the idea of empowering teams, fast iterations, and coaching. Over the course of 20 years, he has obtained many professional Agile certifications, including a LEGO®️ SERIOUS PLAY®️ Facilitator Certification. As a mentor, trainer, and facilitator, he has taught Agile to well over 1000 people all over the world, individually, in formal classroom settings, and at conferences. He is a certified Enterprise Agile Coach with experience in successfully leading global Enterprise Agile Transformations as well as Team and Scaled Agile Transformations in both IT and non-IT organizations.