The Journey is the Destination

Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome. - Arthur Ashe

In chatting with a few folks over the last few days about what I’m trying to think about differently, I realized that what we do (often) in Big Agile is to talk about – on one hand – continuous evolution, and – on the other – our Agile Transformation ‘project.’ And it feels like what we’re doing is [defined thing] which, once attained, will be followed by [emergent evolution]. And I’m not at all sure that makes sense.

I was reading up on some Olympians and what they’re going through as the Games shift from 2020 to 2021 (maybe), and how not only their lives are disrupted but their training plans, which are carefully honed to bring them to a peak during the window in which their event is scheduled.

And it kind of feels like that’s how we’re talking about our agile transformations (note the lack of caps). We have a distinct window of time and our goal is to bring the org to peak performance within that window. I’ll suggest, somewhat coldheartedly, that much of this perspective is brought on by the nature of the commercial relationships between the agile experts and their clients; clients want to buy a defined journey with a destination, and so the contracts that they will execute for services are targeted at buying a ticket there.

I want to insert a sticky here – if you’ve known me professionally at all, you know that I rant and jump up and down and stamp my feet about agile coaches and consultants being accountable. We charge a lot of money for what we do, we ought to have reputational necks on the line for delivering. I’m not – I hope – contradicting that as a set out my idea below.

So what about the idea that instead of looking at our becoming agile as something that will put us on the starting line at the 2021 Games in peak form – we looked at it as a lifestyle change?

What if our goal as coaches isn’t to prepare an elite athlete for an event that we can locate in time and space on the calendar, and instead we looked at what we do as making organizations healthy, and giving them a roadmap and support to higher and higher levels of health (and performance)?

This has a bunch of implications for how we try and transform organizations; it decenters us as agile coaches who boldly ‘architect’ grand change and moves us to a role where we bring expertise and playbooks for specific change outcomes, where we work to build support and momentum for continued change, and where we actively work to shift ownership to people within the organization. (Another sticky – I see internally led and coached transformations as a key part of the next wave of agile practice.)

That seems to square nicely with my notion of ‘offramps’ along the path where organizations can pause or halt or change direction (note that I had a great conversation with Dennis Stevens, at LeadingAgile, and their model of “base camps” along the path to agility is absolutely aligned with what I’m talking about here).

This sounds challenging. But I’ll point to three things for us to consider:

  1. This is how – in reality – it’s gonna work. Many change studies I see show organizational change as happening in fits and starts, beginning with high ambition and ending when ‘there ain’t no game no more.’

  2. The organizations that will emerge from this ‘interactionist’ model (from my earlier post on ‘unfinished organizations) will be better adapted to their people, their culture, and their environment than something we design in the abstract. Le Corbusier designed beautiful buildings, but they were hard to live with and for people to use.

  3. In the real world, we see it working (see: Quinn, ‘Strategic Change: Logical Incrementalism’). And when you stick with it over time, you get results.