Words are important. They can rally people to your banner or create barriers. Every word communicates information and intent. There has been a significant amount of energy spent discussing whether the phrase ‘Agile transformation’ delivers the right message. There is a suggestion that ‘adoption’ is a better term. Based on my research and outreach to approximately 20 Agile practitioners (a range of developers, testers, scrum masters and consultants) it is apparent that both words have different connotations. Connotations that are both dangerous and useful. As noted when we wrestled with the message and baggage of the word transformation, the answer of when to use one or the other is not cut and dry.
The word ‘adopt’ means to take up and use. When someone uses the word ‘adopt’, the inference is that person or team that is taking up Agile is acting based on their own volition, rather being than driven by a corporate mandate. Bharathi Vasanthakrishna of Kornerstone Consultants suggested that adoption is often used to describe the implementation step in a larger process. From that statement, we can tease out a common thread in the discussion of the difference between adoption and transformation. Adoption typically reflects a change on a smaller scale. The adoption reflects a scale of change made by a person or team to improve their performance or satisfaction. Adoption is used to describe a technical change rather than a strategic change. The perception that when a person or team adopts a practice or method that they making the change to address their need rather than someone else’s needs sends a fundamentally different message than when the word transformation is used to describe the change.
Another fundamental difference that I discovered is that ‘adoption’ is generally perceived as taking up something that is known, and, while different from what a person or team is doing to today, represents an understandable shift in behavior. For example, a team could adopt Scrum based on knowledge gleaned from other sources (a conference, book, class, coach or another team in the company). Scrum is a known framework that can be adopted. If we define adoption as a more tactical change in which a person or team makes a decision to act in a different manner, we are describing a softer set of activities than we did for the word transformation. Transformation being a change(s) that disrupts an organization. I have found that both terms are strongly linked most practitioner’s minds. Adoption being the tactical step that instantiates a strategy which is at the heart of a transformation.
Adoption and transformation have very different meanings, but both are of value to help describe the path an organization is taking to grow and improve their value delivery. But that is only if they are used correctly and if everyone understands the meaning they convey.