Delivering a bad product faster isn't going to save your business

Published on January 4, 2022. 1,330 words and a 7 min read.

Transformation programs are a uniquely corporate animal. They exist, ostensibly, for two reasons: to effect systematic change along some supposedly desirable path, and to enrich consultants.

Among the vast and ever-growing sea of "$ADJECTIVE transformation" exists the "agile transformation" (see also "cloud", "design" and "devops" as closely related members of the same species). It is a unique beast that is usually driven by a leadership team's lack of trust in the organisations they've built.

They don't trust their organisations are "delivering fast enough". They don't trust that the business’s vision is being translated into products that their customers "love". They don't trust the "quality" of things that are delivered. They don't trust the "process" that their team uses.

As a senior executive at a large organisation these are terrifying, existential problems. Apparently there are organisations springing up all the time (that your children tell you about) who will do frightening things to your balance sheet, and do them faster than you ever thought was possible. You were sent on a week long "executive retreat" last year where someone parroted Clayton Christensen, and your eyes went wide when you recognised yourself in The Innovator's Dilemma.

But you shouldn't worry, there's a large group of overly charming people with overly white teeth and AirPods riding over the horizon on horseback to save you.

The Consultants have arrived.

These eager people in regulation business casual will tell you fantastic tales of organisations "just like yours" who've travelled through these dark lands and emerged, more competitive, leaner and just maybe (you clutch your pearls) with the valuation multiple of a "software business". You swoon, for your hero seems to have arrived, but you demand they show you The Path as you've been fooled before, by grand promises from people in well tailored suits; they produce the fabled 130-page PowerPoint deck full of spells and words you don't really understand but once read in Forbes. The eye-watering price pales into insignificance next to their tales of organisations astray from The Path, ever consigned to the literal and metaphorical Blockbuster Bargain Bin of corporate history.

You agree. You feel good about it. You're finally "doing something".

You've misunderstood the problem

The fundamental problem with an "agile transformation" is that they rarely, if ever, have the remit or scope to ask the most fundamental questions of an organisation. Delivering a bad product faster isn't going to save your business.

Transformations and banks, name a more iconic duo

Some of the most storied examples of "agile transformations" have happened, or are still happening, at large retail banks. They're often the first logos you see in the decks of eager consultants keen to sell their wares. Having been part of a few of those infamous transformation programs, I can say with confidence that none of them had the fundamental impact they originally intended. They moved deckchairs around on some Titanic's, one or two may have staunched the arterial bleeding, but they haven't done what they originally set out to and transform the fortunes of these lagging behemoths compared to their newer, more nimble competitors.

These banks, that have each spent $100's of millions on transformation programs in the last decade, are in largely the same market position as they were before. If we take Lloyds as just one example, they have stagnating, or falling, customer deposits in real terms and stagnant customer satisfaction in the "digital" channels they spent so much money on "transforming". They might be able to release their app more frequently, but the evidence shows it hasn't translated into better results.

This hilariously desperate ad from Barclays is another example of an incumbents dormant market position post transformation

The lesson to take is that none of these programs addressed important questions about the bank's core business and if it represents something that consumers still want.

They didn't ask if consumers cared about the internal organisational and political constructs of "current accounts" or "savings accounts" they'd built their little kingdoms around. Their "agile transformations" only reinforced existing strategic problems, allowing their businesses to more efficiently deliver on a bad strategy. They did get "scrum teams" and "user experience labs" that delivered their bad products (marginally) faster, though!

Hard questions

Process will not save an organisation, yet agile transformations are sold as giving you the "engine" to compete, giving you the "opportunity" to succeed. But how can you build an engine for a problem you haven't uncovered yet? How do you know that sAFE or any other hilariously complex "scaled agile" framework is the right mechanism to solve those yet to emerge challenges?

The answer is: you can't. A new process won't solve a bad product or a fundamental lack of investment; a new process won't solve a bad balance sheet; a new process won't magically turn the market back twenty years.

A new process at best buys you a little more time to discover what's really wrong with your business, but strapping your expensive new car engine to your weed whacker might let you whack some weeds, but it's not going to work for long.

A "new process" is an easy solution for leaders to look to, as it usually describes something "other people" need to do differently. If only you could take your flawless strategy and give it a team that could "deliver" properly. It's much harder to recognise that it's a turd you're polishing.

Maybe buying a little more time is the right answer in the era of five year CEO tenures?

What questions should be asked?

There's no pithy, ubiquitously useful answer to this meta-question. Just as there's no single framework to make a business successful. However, the answer is typically "the questions you already know you need to answer but don't because the answers are scary".

They involve fundamental things like: is our current business model sustainable? Do we have the right products to achieve that sustainable business model? Do we have the right people and organisational structures to make those products successful? Who are our customers? etc etc

If you can answer questions like these honestly, you'll see that your "agile transformation" is based on flawed, naive assumptions. An agile transformation is an optimisation of the status-quo. It's placing the cart firmly before the horse.

I can give you one concrete question, and it's served me well:

List the three things your organisation currently optimises for in order of priority when it builds products and technology. Now ask the people who actually build your products and technology. Are they the same answers?

This question can unearth hidden (sometimes ugly) truths about an organisation and expose one of the most fundamental disconnects between a leadership team and the perceived lack of success on delivering their "vision".

The One True Answerβ„’

This is the point at which I shill you my perfect patented process for organisational change. For the low low price of $25,000 per head, I'll teach your teams to work just like they do at (rolls dice) Netflix!

I won't do that. I don't have a pithy answer for what it will take for your business to not die a slow, painful death as your newer, younger competitors eat away at you. All I can say is there is no panacea. There is no "process" you can put in place that will transform your business. There is no twelve-month road to redemption. All there is is asking hard, fundamental questions about your business and having the intestinal fortitude to make the change their answers imply. Only then can you put in place a "process" to make it successful. Anyone who says different is deceiving you.

The only thing I've ever seen have a ubiquitous positive impact on every organisation that's done it is hiring more people who aren't cis white men. So, you should probably do that.