The Agile Hero’s Journey

Human beings tend to consider everything as linear. Straight roads, straight houses, straight pieces of steel, glass, and wood. Straight cut diamonds. Let’s get straight to the point. Be straight with me. And so they see their lives as a linear journey along the road of life. But the reality is that everything is cyclical. Because of this obsession with straight lines, they view history as existing way back along an imaginary path, one they are sure they are far away from. Like watching a fading wake from the back of a boat.

If you study the rhythm of life, you will find that everything moves in perfect synchrony with everything else – by Divine design. From the movements of the planets to the cycles of earth’s seasons, the ocean tides, economic cycles and in our lives. Everything turns in circles and spirals. Everything turns, rotates, spins, circles, loops, pulsates, resonates, and repeats. The Universe itself, turns in twelve 2,160 year cycles. Each cycle is represented by one of the twelve zodiac signs. In each age, cycles of history repeat, repeat, repeat. The business world is now realising that we can no longer stuff everything into straight sided boxes.

More agile methodologies involving new values, principles, practices, and benefits are being created and experimented with. This is a radical alternative to the decaying command-and-control-style hierarchy, and for good reason: top-down, detailed, hierarchal, and somewhat restrictive planning only thrives when markets and behaviours are predictable. Agile enables organisations to cope with continuous change. It permits them to flourish in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Organisations must become as nimble as the rapidly shifting context in which they find themselves. As everything agile consumes the world of work, organisations are now faced with the mammoth task of agile transformation. The agile journey demands radical shifts in attitudes, values, mindsets, ways of thinking and ways of interacting with the world in order to effect a change in organisational culture.

In many respects, the necessary steps in making these shifts resemble another twelve-stage cycle – Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” This story structure is found in all Hollywood movies, all cultures, and all times. This series of plot points is the blueprint that we go through in our daily lives. At the end of the journey, we have a powerful opportunity to step out of the cycles of time by completing our personal Hero’s Journey. Once we complete the journey, we turn around and offer a gift to the world that changes it forever. This gift is ours alone to earn, carry and pay forward. This is where we find our world today. Humanity is moving from our own individual cycles to global collective cycles. For transforming organisations, the Agile Hero’s Journey can help you visualise the changes you need to make in your organisation. In this way, you can develop a sense of what is involved and how long it will take.

“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realise your potential.”
― Joseph Campbell

The Curtain Opens

Our hero has a problem he must solve, and the only way to solve it is to go on a quest of self-discovery. He will face many problems and meet many people and obstacles who will stand in his way. He must dig deep within himself to accept and implement the changes required to succeed.

“Why be ordinary when you can be the storm”
― Cage J. Madison

Act One: The Ordinary World

The hero is oblivious to the magnitude of the adventures to come. Everyday life is relatively problem-free. In a story, this is where we get to know the personality of the hero and we see their flaws and weaknesses play out in their ordinary, every day life. Likewise, most organisations today are not agile. A recent Deloitte survey of more than 10,000 senior executives revealed that less than 10% see their current organisation as “highly agile.” Yet, more than 90% of those executives see “agility and collaboration” as critical to the success of their organisations.

The ability of an organisation to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment is compelling. The ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities is irresistible. The adventure begins! Not surprisingly, progress towards business agility largely depends on the level of leadership for the Agile journey. It is undoubtedly challenging to be a leader at present, especially in highly regulated markets, because traditional approaches to strategy are ingrained through high accountability frameworks and external inspections.

“Rise like the hero you were born to be, or die the slave you think you are.”
― Michael Joseph Murano

Act Two: The Call to Adventure

Something pandemicky happens to shake up the hero’s world. It disrupts his comfort and he is challenged to find a solution. It’s time to set up the systems, routines, habits, and support needed to be the hero’s boldest, and most creative self. Interestingly, this is not the time in the story to hide behind a mask, hold back self-expression, or to promote someone else’s agenda. Leaders are currently under-skilled in their ability to react to external changes. This means leaders will require system-wide training in how to respond and manage uncertainty, to move away from traditional deliberate strategy, acquiring the need to be more responsive. It will involve absorbing some of the vast literature on what it means to be Agile and fully understanding the three laws of Agile.

The global Agile movement is now so wide in scope that most organisations have at least some pockets of Agile management. Leaders need to find these pockets and ascertain how much progress they have made to date, as well as any constraints they are facing. Any successes will need to be celebrated to lay the foundation for the brightest future.

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
― Sylvia Plath

Act Three: Refusal of the Call

Most often, the hero will outright refuse to address the problem. He usually has heavy doubts about his ability to do so. That comfortable couch seems so much more appealing than the unknown and perilous road ahead. Leaders need to take stock of the risks and benefits of launching an Agile transformation. The scale of the task can be daunting. However, the alternative is corporate death through failure to continuously adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace – which is even more frightening.

There is an increasing recognition that the real option is when and how to change, not whether to change. And the ‘how’ matters. If the top sets about implementing Agile as a blueprint, forcing people to ‘apply’ Agile processes (because they heard about it working well elsewhere, or because they were listening to a consulting firm advocating that they can ‘make your company agile!’) the risk of institutional resistance will increase significantly. In deep transformational change, “copy & paste” simply does not work. Change must be grown organically from within so that it feels home-grown. In this way, everyone will take ownership. The opposition and the game-playing that inevitably accompany any deep organisational change will be even greater if the change is seen as an initiative being imposed by the top.

Leaders must also accept that some deeply entrenched practices of a traditional bureaucracy, such as budgeting and HR, will eventually need to undergo transformation. While they won’t be engaging in every single battle on day one of the Agile journey, leaders need to consider what lies ahead, including when and how these battles will be fought. Some organisations may decide at this stage that it’s not the right time to initiate their Agile journey. They may opt to continue as they are, at least for now. A decision not to proceed may be better than a half-hearted attempt, which will likely result in “Agile in name only.”

“Every great athlete, artist and aspiring being has a great team to help them flourish and succeed – personally and professionally. Even the so-called ‘solo star’ has a strong supporting cast helping them shine, thrive and take flight.”
― Rasheed Ogunlaru

Act Four: Meeting the Mentor

The hero needs someone (or something) to spur him into action, provide solid advice, and point him in the right direction. This guidance usually comes in the form of a wise mentor who gives the hero strength and courage. In weighing whether to proceed, leaders can learn from other organisations and their experiences.

Visiting organisations that are on a successful Agile journey can provide opportunities to learn about key practices worth emulating as well as pitfalls to avoid. The real wisdom here is that the key to a successful Agile journey is the adoption of an Agile mindset, rather than any specific process or methodology. It is a different way of thinking, understanding and acting in the workplace. In this way, Agile transformation is not a project, or an initiative, or a new process. Rather a never-ending quest with a way of thinking that is fundamentally different from the top-down, command-and-control hierarchy.

”Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure”

– Bob Bitchin

Act Five: Crossing the Threshold

The hero has resolved to set out on his journey. At this point in the story, our hero will leave his comfortable and familiar life and Cross the Threshold into a new world. In most stories, this is a literal change of location. He is fully committed and once the journey starts, there is no going back. Once top management have decided to proceed, it will need to form a team to lead the journey. Ideally, the Agile transformation journey will be led by the C-suite itself with the support of the board of directors.

An Agile transformation is a never-ending journey that will eventually affect everything within the organisation and its relationship with the outside world. Early on, while the organisation is still finding its way, the Agile leadership team could be a subset of the C-suite and may include Agile champions from other levels of the organisation. In principle, individuals in the leadership team may come from anywhere in the organisation. If the leadership team is only people at the top, the team risks being seen as command-and-control. If the team doesn’t have participation from the top, the team may never have the authority to grow the change organically.

Whatever the membership, the team needs to act as a group of Agile champions who see the need for change, who passionately believe in making it happen and who are willing to fight for the idea, no matter what. This includes the courage to tell authentically stand in their truth, along with the smarts to do so, at the right time and the right place and in the right way. Leaders will need perseverance, urgency, drive, energy, an ability to inspire excitement, along with the realism to recognise the scale of the task and the time it is likely to take. In large organisations, a decade or more may be needed. (Microsoft, began in 2008, and is still continuing its Agile journey today.) Outside help will be used but not depended on. The experience of others should be drawn on but not copied.  It is dangerous to follow external advice slavishly and let others dictate the change.

“The path of my life is strewn with cow pats from the devil’s own satanic herd!”
― Rowan Atkinson

Act Six: Tests, Allies and Enemies

Things never go easy for our hero. Now that he has committed to the quest, there will be a series of increasingly difficult challenges to test him. This will be a combination of obstacles on the path, bad choices or mistakes, and people who will try to stop him. He will earn friends who help prepare him for the greater ordeals yet to come. He will be confronted by enemies who will do everything they can to stop him. He will succeed and fail during these challenges, growing ever stronger through each one.

The process will often begin by proving the concept of Agile in one – or several – small teams and then using that success to spread their energy and enthusiasm elsewhere in the organisation. In this way the transformation happens organically. For example, Microsoft, began with one team in 2008, several teams in 2009, and 25 teams in 2010 in the Visual Studio group. Following this success, several hundred teams in the Developer Division in 2011, and then a commitment to take Agile across the whole organisation in 2014.

There are instances where larger launches have been undertaken in one fell swoop. In 2006, went all-out across the whole organisation from the start. They successfully completed a transformation from traditional management to Agile management in just three months. But even here, Salesforce already had a team in the organisation that had already successfully run a high-visibility project using iterative methods. This experience served as an example for other teams. Of course, any major change will encounter resistance, sometimes at a high level. People identify with their beliefs, and if those beliefs are rigid, aspiring to be the best in the world may seem impossible. Eventually these people will be replaced or move on.

“Enlightenment arrives like a thief in the middle of the dark night of the soul.”
― Stefan Emunds

Act Seven: Approaching the Inmost Cave

The hero must dig deep before confronting his deepest fears and problems. In a story, the Inmost Cave could be a scary place, person, or conflict that the hero must confront. Despite his prior lessons and successes, the hero once again doubts his abilities. Unlike before, he doesn’t need to be pushed by a mentor to face his fears – he must do it himself. Ultimately, in the cave, the hero experiences a change in perspective. He accepts that he is flawed and could possibly fail, but has come too far not to continue the journey.

Transforming organisations encounter setbacks, particularly early on. For instance, at Microsoft, it took around a year before teams were able to produce truly Agile teams. “Initially there was a lot of pain,” says Microsoft’s Aaron Bjork. ”It took a long time before we could actually ship at the end of a three-week sprint. In reality, we were running three-week milestones. That’s all they were. We would get to the end of a sprint and a team would claim that a feature was done and be celebrating. And then I would try to use it and it wouldn’t work. The team would say, ‘Oh, we didn’t do the set-up and upgrade for it.’ And I would ask, ‘I thought you said it was done?” And they would reply, ‘Well, yes, it’s done. We just didn’t do the setup and upgrade.’ It took a long time for everyone to grasp that we needed to get fully done in every sprint. It took about a year to learn how to do it.”

“When faced with a radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of interacting with each other and with the realm of nature doesn’t work anymore, when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual life-form – or a species – will either die or become extinct or rise above the limitations of its condition through an evolutionary leap.”
― Eckhart Tolle

Act Eight: The Ordeal

The hero faces a dangerous physical test or a serious inner crisis in order to survive. Here he encounters his deepest fears. He must use all of his (previously gained) skills and experiences in order to win the day. This is the point in our story where the hero puts everything on the line. He will succeed or die trying. There is often a crisis here, where the hero is forced to make a seemingly impossible choice. A good hero will choose the option that puts himself at risk to save or support others. He has accepted his flaws, and moved past them. This is his transformation. Something in him dies so he can be ‘born again’. Endings lead to new beginnings. A not-so-great hero will choose the option that puts his needs and desires first, keeping him stuck. It’s a “death of the spirit” moment. Technically, this isn’t hero behaviour, but some protagonists take longer to learn or grow, and many of the story points of the non-hero’s-journey are the same as the real Hero’s Journey.

It’s one thing to create Agile teams. It’s another to make the whole organisation Agile. For instance, General Stanley McChrystal, in the Iraq Task Force in 2003, had excellent individual teams, but, as he explains in his book, Team of Teams, the teams weren’t collaborating together as one. The problem wasn’t collaboration within the teams themselves, but rather collaboration between the teams. Resolving the problem meant taking steps in several different areas, including bringing all the key actors together in a common physical space to enable horizontal information flows. This meant pushing decision-making down to the lowest levels, exchanging staff between teams, and most importantly, changing his own behaviour.

McChrystal had to unlearn what it means to be a leader. A great deal of what he thought he knew about how the world worked and his role as a commander had to be discarded. “I began to view effective leadership in the new environment,” says McChrystal, “as more akin to gardening than chess.” In this way, the idea of Agile itself will continue to evolve in the course of the journey. This is not a matter of crafting a vision and then rolling it out across the organisation. It’s not a mechanical ten-step program to be rolled out on time and on budget. It’s about continuously adapting the idea to the evolving circumstances of the organisation.

“You need to spend time crawling alone through shadows

to truly appreciate what it is to stand in the sun.”

― Shaun Hick

Act Nine: The Reward, or Seizing the Sword (Fake Agile)

Of course the hero wins! He is the hero, after all. After successfully facing the Ordeal, the hero is transformed into something greater, stronger, and better than he was before. In a story, the Reward is usually represented by a physical object, a secret, or reconnecting with something (or someone) lost. Even though it seems like the hero has completed his quest, it is really only half over. He still needs to bring his lessons back to the Ordinary World. For many years after the Agile Manifesto in 2001, managers were not really that interested in Agile. Now the page has turned.

With more than 90% of senior executives giving high priority to “agile and collaboration,” the risk of Agile being dumbed down into just another a set of efficiency tools aimed at reducing head-count is probably significant. In one sense, the reward for success is the proliferation of “fake Agile.” For instance, Agile can become merely a cost reduction device, or a patch on the existing work flow for leaders not willing to do the real work of changing their own mindsets and behaviours. In some cases, an “Agile scaling framework” has been deployed across the organisation, but without significant change in work practices where the work is carried out.

“Life is a balanced system of learning and evolution. Whether pleasure or pain; every situation in your life serves a purpose. It is up to us to recognise what that purpose could be.”
― Steve Maraboli

Act Ten: The Road Back

The hero starts to return home, yet his journey is not over. There will be temptations and setbacks, and the hero must choose between his own personal desires and those of a higher purpose. Just because our hero made one good choice, doesn’t mean he’ll continue to make good choices. There are many temptations on the road home. The Hero may still need one last push to reconcile the world of the Quest, where everything is extraordinary, with the Ordinary World, and so make the extraordinary become ordinary.

In the Agile world, once Agile teams are firmly established as the normal way of doing work in the organisation, the effort needs to turn to bringing all the entrenched back-office functions, such as HR and budgeting, in line with Agile, rather than allowing them to issue bureaucratic orders to Agile teams. It is here that the support of the very top is key to creating the umbrella for change, for setting direction and heading off the inevitable threats to innovation. This support isn’t needed at the start, but it will be needed as the change spreads.

“The greatest battle is the one you have with yourself. On a daily basis.”
― Robert Celner

Act Eleven: The Final Battle

This is the final climax of the story where the hero will face his most dangerous encounter yet. The final battle will impact more than just the hero – it has greater consequences for his friends, family, community, and the world beyond. If our hero has been making good choices, this will be an impossible fight where he uses the lessons learned on this journey to summon one last bit of courage and cleverness. If our not-really-a hero protagonist has been making bad choices, this is where the shit hits the fan.

As the Agile transformation journey continues, the nature of the journey itself will continue to evolve. The rigidities of Agile itself – the explicit principles and practices – which were once such a support in the early stages of the Agile journey, now risk becoming bottlenecks. Change is the only constants, so the Agile mindset itself must become more fluid and more malleable. In the later stages of the Agile journey, the principles and practices have become second nature to everyone working in the organisation. While there may be training courses for newcomers, for the organisation as a whole, Agile thinking has become fully internalised.

“Successful people have no fear of failure. But unsuccessful people do. Successful people have the resilience to face up to failure – learn the lessons and adapt from it.”
― Roy T. Bennett

Act Twelve: Return with the Elixir

The hero returns home to his Ordinary World to start a new life. He is a changed man. In classic stories, the hero will receive a literal or symbolic reward (the Elixir). His friends will share in his success and his enemies will suffer. Of course, a hero’s job is never done! Once he learns one lesson, solves one problem, or conquers one fear, there will always be more. Welcome to the sequel. Because of the cyclic nature of life, the Hero’s Journey begins again and again throughout his life in a never-ending cycle. 

The secret elixir of today’s leadership [r]evolution is that the major financial gains will come from Strategic Agility. Sometimes they transform products that are complicated, inconvenient, and expensive into things that are so much more affordable, convenient, and accessible that many more people are able to buy and use them, for example, the personal computer. Sometimes the new products meet a need that people didn’t realise they had. This creates a “must-have” dynamic for customers, even though the product may be relatively expensive, for example, the iPod.

“Agile means to progress, with speed and ease.”
― Vikrmn

The Next Frontier

For most organisations, Strategic Agility is the next frontier in the Agile journey. Operational Agility means making existing product better for existing customers. While this is important for organisations to survive, in a marketplace where competitors are often quick to match changes made in existing products and services (and where power in the marketplace has decisively shifted to customers) it can be difficult for organisations to monetise those gains and improvements. Market-creating innovations are where major revenue growth comes from.

Our evolution depends on our memory. If we keep forgetting the mistakes of the past, only to keep repeating them, we will never change. And if we keep recycling through the exact same kind of leaders – the kind who do not propel us forward, but only hold us back – then what we really need now is a completely different style of leadership altogether. We conscious leaders who have their head and heart aligned. We need compassionate, courageous, authentic heroes, not greedy businessmen. We need unity, not division. When we look at other deep organisational changes throughout history, particularly changes in mindset involving large numbers of people, we can plausibly argue that the Agile movement is proceeding relatively fast. Today, organisations practicing Agile have already displaced the lumbering industrial giants of the 20th Century as the largest organisations on the planet.

“Vision without action is a daydream, but action without vision is a nightmare.”
― Kaihan Krippendorff

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