How Easily Can We Import a Lean or Agile Framework Into the Organization?

No framework will ever fit a specific organization without some custom tailoring. Organizations are complex systems, with many superficial similarities. However, as experience implementing frameworks shows, there will always be some need to adjust the framework to accommodate the structure, culture, skills, and other important traits of a specific organization. Therefore, leaders and managers need to incorporate these adjustments into their transformation strategy.

Main Points

  • The basic reasons why a “one size fits all” approach to software innovation frameworks will not work.
  • The expectations that leaders and managers must have about the type of learning and adjustment that will occur when adopting any kind of framework.

Transformation Is an Ongoing Process of Learning and Adjustment

Doubt is uncomfortable. Certainty is ridiculous. (Voltaire)

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

When leaders and managers begin discussions about adopting a framework, such as SAFe, DAD, or Lean-Agile (or, for that matter, earlier frameworks like CMMI), they often hear lip service paid to the idea that, “One size does not fit all.” Unfortunately, the process of adopting these frameworks often diverges from this principle.

Transformation is a process of mutual evolution. Not only does the organization need to adjust to the framework, but truth be told, the framework also has to adjust to fit the organization. As this journey unfolds, an important question must always be open, and leaders must be frequently asking it: Is this direction right for us in the first place?

In practice, transformation projects frequently look very different from this ideal. People lack the means to judge whether the framework is going to succeed, and often the question itself is heretical. Often, coaches and consultants try to jam the organization into an off-the-rack framework, instead of making important adjustments to fit the organization.

Systems Thinking versus Shu Ha Ri

Consultants and coaches often justify this resistance to making adjustments to the framework on the grounds of Shu Ha Ri, a Japanese term describing different levels of mastery. In the first level, Shu, practitioners should just do, not question. The reasons for particular behaviors or principles will become clear with time.

Virtually all popular approaches start with this attitude, an explicit way of sayingthat you must follow their practices or failure will ensue. Some even disparage attempts to go beyond the core practices. While this makes economic sense for the consultant – reducing the costs imposed by customizing the framework for each customer – it makes less sense for the client.  As H.L. Mencken noted, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is neat, simple and wrong.”

The client’s organization is just such a complex problem. It’s not an unfathomable problem, beyond the ability of scientific approaches to assess. Cycle times, skill sets, work in progress, quality – these and other organizational traits, and the relationship among them, are certainly understandable, and even quantifiable. Therefore, we can judge how well the framework is helping, based on this holistic picture of the organization. If it’s not helping, and the adjustments needed to make it help are either too difficult or too expensive, then it’s a fair question whether the organization should continue.

This is where leaders and managers have a critical role to play. Consultants and coaches have a perspective often limited to the framework they are helping to implement. Leaders and managers have a broader organizational perspective on whether the framework is likely to achieve its objectives, and what adjustments might be needed to reach those goals. They have to be good at systems thinking, at a higher plane than consultants and coaches often can see.

Transformational Leadership Starts on Day One

That responsibility starts on Day One of a transformation project, whatever framework you use. Leaders and managers therefore must demand the following of the framework they choose, and the people they hire to help implement it:

  • Provides a starting point based on an organization’s context, the laws of software development and an understanding of organizational development.
  • Identifies and attends to the key aspects of the system.
  • Incorporates double-loop learning to adjust which aspects of the system to look at as things change.
  • Provides guidance to achieve the required objectives with a different set of practices.


Given the complexity of organizations, and the efforts to transform them, it can be tempting to hand over the transformation effort to “the experts” and expect great results. However, nothing replaces your own expertise in the organization itself, and the goals towards which transformation should be headed. Not only will you need to help make tactical adjustments, but also some tough strategic choices, including whether the framework is going to succeed at all.