What the world needs now is an "Agile Transformation Office"​

Steph Chamberlain

Only joking! Got you there, didn't I?

Nope. The world does not need another re-hash of an older thing about a new thing that didn't work for the old thing and won't work for the new thing either.

The offending article which creates the case for "An Agile Transformation Office" is here:


The main point is this:

"An ATO shapes and manages the transformation, brings the full organization along, and—perhaps most important—helps it achieve lasting cultural change. The ATO is not meant to be an oversight board or another layer of bureaucracy. Instead, it is embedded within the existing structure, pulling in the right business expertise to realize tangible outcomes."

I'm reading this and I'm thinking "great! we'll have some of that please".

That "long lasting cultural change" is definitely something worth buying isn't it?

Well unfortunately, the "long lasting" bit is where it all falls down. As with any change, calling in the troops then withdrawing when the "job is done" does not give you a long lasting sustainable solution.

So what is wrong with the ATO as described here?

Well on the face of it I can see where Mckinsey is going. What most consultancies do when they want to implement any change is that they create a project to do it and if it's big enough and ugly enough they create a PMO to embed it. My first job at the BBC back in 2002 was actually to work alongside a consultant from Accenture to restructure the "new media" (chuckle) department. He was the brains, I was the spreadsheets. We are talking about 300 people. Not huge but involved some sticky stuff with unions and HR etc. There was one very competent Accenture consultant and lots of internal change champions. There was also great leadership buy-in from Greg Dyke who had a "red card" campaign to get people to "Just do it" and so I look back and see that this was consulting gold dust. Later there was a guy from Radtac that turned up to tell all Project Managers they were out of a job and also to teach us Agile. But no-one at any point said they were making us all agile. They said, "this is cool it's working for us you might want to use it too". Meanwhile though, there was an organisational restructure busily aligning us all to strategic aims and objectives and dare I say it products over projects. I actually think the BBC at that time was the first media firm to implement proper product management and a supporting org structure (but that's another post's worth).

Long lasting change eh? Hmmm.

So here are the problems with the article.

  1. The article has a pre-occupation with the structure of the Agile Transformation Office rather than the organisation itself. It tries to make the ATO a new thing when it doesn't have to be and risks creating a wheel within a wheel. The structure of the ATO doesn't really matter. Just get people in the "ATO" or otherwise known as the "Agile Project Team" who can get stuff done and support change. Apply clear ownership within it and off you go. We don't need a new thing unless we want to pay for a new thing. Who wants to make things more complex? Not the customer. Just eat your own dog food and you'll be fine. If you need to spend some time on re-organising, do it to the organisation itself. My experience is that EVERY organisation needs a re-org for Agile to work properly at some Level. We are trained Holacracy practitioners at Stable Teams® and we get even deeper experts in to help if necessary.

  2. The ATO seems to focus on leadership rather than the grass roots movement that agile invariably has to be - to take off. I know the way it works on the ground because Magic Milestones has invoiced no less than 45 organisations for Agile Transformation including the UK Home Office and Jaguar Land Rover. These are large Scaled Agile, green-field IT programmes we are talking about here. ML, AI etc.. At Magic Milestones and Stable Teams® we've coined the term Fellowers because it's the people doing the work that are most important to the process and conversely the killers or makers of change.

  3. Most Agile Transformations don't need a PMO or an ATO they just need well led Agile Projects with buy-in from leadership and the teams themselves. The results of those projects then need to be analysed against a baseline and some learnings fed back into the system but we are literally talking a few consultants and the leadership team. If they do need a management office big enough to be called an actual "Agile Transformation Office" then I would be very afraid. The outcomes you want are very far away indeed and that ATO is going to cost you in the time it takes you to change mind-sets. Which leads me to the next point....

  4. The ATO is a bit sketchy on the role of the Agile Coach but it looks a lot like a "do as I say" rather than a "do as I do" role. It's a reason why most PMOs fail and it will be a reason an ATO will most likely fail. Who is going to follow someone who comes out of an "ATO" over a Delivery Manager or Product Owner who trys the process, lives the Agile values and brings his or her team along? If you are going to spend money at all then spend money on exemplars who do the work not just Coaches who talk the talk. A football team doesn't have too many coaches. They have one for each type of thing. You may need a product coach, a delivery coach and a tech coach because they bring different slants but these guys or girls can cover multiple teams. One message works better than manpower in this game.

  5. Culture is not a "company thing" it's a team thing. Recent research shows that "corporate culture" doesn't really exist in the way we talk about it. https://medium.com/swlh/there-is-no-such-thing-as-corporate-culture-974e067efb83

"Humans work in groups of around one hundred and fifty. When groups exceed that size, they begin to fragment — some people in the group won’t know others. So when you get an office bigger than one hundred and fifty people, you can be sure some won’t ever find themselves working, eating, drinking, talking or otherwise interacting with others. Just as the groups will tend to fragment, so too will the cultures split and tear apart; they may remain similar — they will certainly share many characteristics introduced by common environments — but they will begin to diverge."

If culture is actually only present at a team level it makes little sense to create an organisational level ATO to change it centrally via leaders. Rather, it makes more sense to embed coaches from the start on a team by team basis, looking after as many teams as they can logistically handle and form the usual project governance around it. It would be nice if it was Agile but it doesn't have to be and Agile governance structures are a whole other story anyway. I may post about that another day.

  1. Finally, (and this is the biggest point), an ATO fails to get under the skin of what an agile transformation really is. It's not about getting the right processes sorted out in an ivory tower that one pays Mckinsey (or even Stable Teams® for) - only to impose on the rest of the organisation. An agile transformation needs to take a modular approach to a high-performance mind-set that goes well beyond Kanban Boards and Scrums. It needs to embed alignment and autonomy not "help companies create effective agile transformation offices. [and] bring leaders along through coaching while it tests and evolves practices to match the organization’s needs." Agile and indeed Continuous Improvement is about the team itself doing it to themselves - not just the leaders. It's important to focus on the what and not get caught up too much in the how. The focus should always be about high-performing teams, delivering outcomes not "doing agile right".

When you see teams taking Agile to scale it is truly awesome. But you can't use an ATO or anything else to make your teams do it. They make the choice and then it works. Sustainability is not a process or any "office" you can pay for.

It's the process of people believing you and living it for themselves.

I'm running out of time and virtual paper but my colleague Indy Sandhu puts it much better in his blog on our community for consultants https://www.magicmaestros.com/posts/15579398.

If you want to know more about Stable Teams® and embedding a high-performance culture (including an Agile mind-set specifically) you are very welcome to join us at: https://community.stableteams.com/feed

If you want a coach with the appropriate battle scars go to https://www.magicmilestones.com/

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