Barriers to agile transformation

I have been quiet for a while, and this is largely because through the last nine months I have been completing my masters thesis on strategic business agility. This is vital today, as organisations face turbulence caused by so many factors like digital disruption, climate change, financial crises, regulatory change. Yet nearly two-thirds of organisations attempting to change struggle or fail on their journey. Why is this?

Before starting this research, I had firstly to formulate a good research question. While I am particularly driven to contribute to the development of a better way for helping organisations become strategically agile; my starting point was to consider what are the barriers they face, why they struggle or fail.

Literature review

While the idea of reviewing what other people had written might sound like a poor place to start when wanting to contribute to something new, it is a vital launch pad for any serious research. Using the contacts I had, reaching out through Twitter and LinkedIn, and browsing the immense database of journals and books available in the university library, I selected a shortlist of 147 sources to reference. If that sounds like a large number of things to read, it is and that’s why the research project runs over a 9-month period.

From these sources, I identified 22 key issues that contribute to organisations struggling or failing in their bid to become more agile, which I grouped into 11 factors–I will be writing about each of these factors over the coming weeks.

Key findings

The factors discussed most frequently as barriers were the quality of change leadership and the change approach used, with clarity of vision and emotional response a close third and fourth. According to the literature, the factors that have the greatest impact were misalignment of approach to problem, lack of vision, culture clashes, and poor leadership; that is, the same four factors but in a slightly different order.

The frequency and the impact of these factors strongly reinforces them as both barriers and, when overcome, as success factors too.

I was fortunate enough to be able to share these findings with Dave Snowden on one of his visits to New Zealand, and his response was “It stopped just as it got interesting”. A fair appraisal, as the point of the literature review is to determine the questions and hypothesis for the remainder of the research.

Research questions

Constructing a single research question to guide the rest of the research is as hard as it is vital, especially as my goal is to contribute to the development of thinking in the field of strategic agility. Not that I am setting myself to hard a target, right?

My working question has shifted, from purely identifying the barriers, to now wanting to understand how organisations can best approach their journey to greater agility–I suspect that by the time I have finished (in just 23 days from now, gulp) the question will have shifted again.

Edit: The thesis ended up as ‘The Paradox of Agile Transformation – Why trying so hard to be Agile stop organizations from becoming truly agile‘. Copy can be downloaded from

My instinct is that this paper will end up being the foundation draft of a larger body of research, which no doubt means me moving on to a PhD at some point. While that would mean joining an elite group of thought-leaders in this space, the amount of work and effort it has taken me to get through these last two years has left me mentally and physically exhausted. The thought of another 6-8 years is daunting. 


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