Failed business transformation through the eyes of an immunologist

Failed business transformation through the eyes of an immunologist

I was recently reading an exchange between Dr. Kristina Talbert-Slagle and retired Army General Stanley McChrystal comparing how a virus like HIV or AIDS works to how an insurgency like Al Qaeda in Iraq works and I was more then a little surprised at the similarities. I went on to make the same correlations that McChrystal himself makes in the fantastic book Team of Teams in comparing those same viruses to the struggles an Organization sees during a failed business transformation.

When someone contracts something like HIV or AIDS its never the actual virus itself that kills a person, the virus weakens the body’s immune system allowing it to fall victim to any number of otherwise non fatal infections. Organizations struggling with transformation often face the same problems. It’s extremely common for an organization under transformation to run into any number of expected non threatening challenges, however the true death of the transformation comes as a result of chasing down and trying to resolve all the “symptoms” of those normal non threatening challenges. When an organization shifts it’s focus away from the larger trans formative activities it falls victim to the death of a thousand cuts as it continues to chase down small out lying issues.

In business transformation, much like our own person health, its important to treat the symptom of the problem but the far more critical issue is getting to the bottom of the route cause and not losing sight of the larger transformation. It’s always easier to view each problem in a vacuum but the key is to take a step back and see how the current problem is interacting with the organizational echo system. Viewing the problem from this 10,000 foot level allows you to see the problem in its environment and better understand how the problem is interlinked with unexpected areas.

Agile transformation throughout Military History

As a huge military history buff I always find it interesting to stumble onto random waterfall vs agile snippets. Here are a few recent ones I wanted to share


In 197 BC at the Battle of Cynoscephalae a Roman army met the forces of Macedon. Looking back on the battle its hard to imagine how the traditional legionnaire tactics of the Roman military could deal with the mighty Macedonian Phalanx but the answer is much more surprising when viewed in the context of Waterfall vs Agile development.

At the time the Macedonian Phalanx was very much the unmovable object, very similar to waterfall development. From a command and control standpoint there wasnt much finesse to an army based around the Phalanx. Much like waterfall development once the battle started the Phalanx was a large unwieldy freight train that lacked the ability to pivot regardless of the environment around it. Macedonian Generals were often faced with new intel once a battle started very similar to how a Project Manager might field changing requirements while being powerless to make changes to the current project

The Roman army on the other hand organized itself into much smaller and more Agile manipular formations, with each commander afforded some battlefield flexibility to pivot and adjust as the battle unfolded. The hallmark of the Roman army as well as its greatest asset was the ability for a General to relay an overall strategy to each cohort commander and then once the battle begin each commander had the flexibility to pivot as needed as conditions changed, this very similar to how a product owner might deal with the churn and flux of requirements, directing the dev team on how to react to the changing landscape


Another great example of this can be found during the Battle of Trafalgar. Here Nelson took a smaller fleet up against a superior Franco-Spanish fleet. Again as in our previous example its very easy to draw some waterfall vs agile parallels

The Franco-Spanish Fleet under the command of Admiral Villeneuve looked to use its numbers advantage and relied on well established naval battle traditions. Information was very silo’d with only Villeneuve knowing the full battle plan . A plan he couldn’t share with his other captains ahead of time. As the battle begun to play out Villeneuve used a flag and smoke system to attempt to send his orders to fellow captains. A system that in the fog of battle proved impossible to follow

Lord Admiral Nelson on the other hand used a bit of an outside the box strategy in this battle. Not just in the way he deployed his ships but in how he communicated and shared his battle plan with his other captains. In the days leading up to the battle Nelson spent time with each captain addresses all concerns raised while placing great trust in each commander’s ability to ultimately make the right choice. When a captain challenged Nelson on the play Nelson famously told the captain “No Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy” Nelson had patiently installed the idea in his own commanders that he allowed and, indeed, expected his subordinates to use their own initiative. The trust Nelson placed in his commanders to execute his overall strategy by whatever method they deemed best would become known as “The Nelson’s Touch”


It really does amaze me how often you can be researching something completely unrelated to business transformation and stumbled into some truly historic examples of just how long the age old battle of waterfall vs agile has been raging on!


The story of Proteus and Menelaus

I’m often asked how I ended up going into an Agile / Business transformation career, the answer is pretty simple, I just sort of fell into it and quickly found out it was something I was pretty good at. The story of Proteus and Menelaus always appealed to me and to this day is still a story I like to tell at the start of a new Agile or Business transformation.


Returning home after the Trojan war Menelaus’s ship was becalmed on the isle of Pharos, after spending 20 days waiting for favorable winds a Nymph named Eidothea explains that only Proteus can help Menelaus get home and that only by capturing Proteus will Menelaus ever get favorable winds to return home. Eidothea explains the only way to capture Proteus is by surprise and helps Menelaus hatch a plan to capture Proteus after he falls asleep. She told him there is a certain cave where seals sleep that Proteus goes to at dawn. Menelaus and two chosen men were to go there and hide among the seals and grab Proteus by surprise. They were to hold on no matter what form he changed into. When he stopped changing, then Menelaus could ask him which god was angry with them, then they could sacrifice to that god. Menelaus and his men snuck into the cave before dawn and grabbed Proteus when he came to look over the seals. He changed into animals and trees and tried to frighten them, but they did not let go.


This story always struck me as extremely interesting as Menelaus had to push past constant change while keeping a single goal in mind. This has always been a powerful story in helping drive home the perseverance needed to successfully transform a business.  During the transformation you might has to go through several stages each trying to throw you off course but the critical part is to always keep your end goal in mind and try to hold on for the ride!