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November 17, 2017

Agile Transformation – Top Down vs. Bottom Up

4 mins read

When beginning an Agile transformation, where should one start? Is it as simple as getting a few teams to work effectively and show success for executive buy-in? Or, is it critical for executives to understand all the intricacies of Agile principles and practices for the transformation effort to flourish? The answer is either and neither.

Top Down vs. Bottom Up

To begin, let’s start with the obvious. What is certain is that the entire organization must have the Agile Manifesto’s values and principles (and those of Lean as well) incorporated into its DNA. But, even in environments when that’s the case, often this “top down” vs. “bottom up” binary thinking is what drives several of the problems in Agile transformation efforts today.

A top down approach tends to get executives salivating over improvements and creates mental models of ideal states of continuous delivery. This, in turn, creates policies and management actions that attempt to force change in that direction, resulting in Imposed Agile (or as Jared Richardson called it, ‘Weaponized Agile).

A bottom up approach often ­hits walls that executives have erected where they create certain expectations that resist change, even though they may verbally say they want innovation. These are habitual in nature, and not necessarily intentional. A simple example could be allowing a team to work in iterations, but management presses for an estimate on when the design document will be complete so it can be approved. This leads to resentment of these executives, which is clearly less than useful.

In an organization where top down and bottom up happen simultaneously, there’s still the need for executive buy-in to allow the organization to determine how it wants Agile to look through experimentation and visioning. People must be invited to join in with an ability to opt out. This is effective. And, this approach also places the burden on executives to continuously allow it. But, they become a gate keeper, and if they say ‘no’ at any time, the process gets shut down. Because of this top-down reliance, they could unknowingly send negative signals and shut the whole transformation down.


To find the answer, we must look well outside the technology domain to the deeper long running patterns of human societal interactions. Cultural anthropology, and its various theories of diffusion, can be used to explain how ideas migrate. What’s even more beneficial for people looking to enact change is: we don’t need to become fieldworkers in this domain, just understand the concepts well enough so we can think through beneficial techniques to use.

There are several ways diffusion happens, including these three broad diffusion mechanisms:

  • Direct diffusion is when parts of the organization influence other parts through collaboration. For example, a team that uses test-driven development works with another team in an effort to influence them to try it.
  • Indirect diffusion, as you may have guessed, is when there are one, or more, additional groups between the parts influencing each other. For example, a Community of Practice (CoP) using Lean Coffee encourages the management layer to begin organizing their meetings in the same manner.
  • Forced diffusion is when a group imposes its approach on another. For example, a new IT policy replaces the ‘waterfall’ SDLC with an ‘Agile’ one. There is no transition plan, ability to opt in, and limited guidance, but compliance is required.

Overall, being able to recognize these diffusion mechanisms helps management and coaches understand positive and negative impacts on the human work system.

There also several types of diffusion. A few relevant ones are listed below.

  • Contagious diffusion has ideas passed by person-to-person contact, essentially at the individual level.
  • Expansion diffusion is where an idea that develops in one place expands to other areas, with the source part of the organization remaining strong in its use and perhaps acting as a reference for understanding when there are adoption questions.
  • Stimulus diffusion is when an idea gets adopted because it has synergy with another existing idea or concept.

By understanding these types of diffusion, we can determine possible techniques that can be used to spread ideas at a pace where the organization can effectively adopt them.


What It All Means

If you read much on cultural diffusion, you will find that authors have differing views in exactly how it works. These differences aren’t so important; what’s important is the manner that ideas travel through organizations. This is contrary to how many people talk about Agile Transformation efforts in relation to the technology adoption life cycle, which simply doesn’t help anyone understand how ideas spread.

When you combine this understanding of cultural diffusion with the concept of catalytic leadership, you can begin to affect positive change intentionally starting from any point in the organization.

Find out how a Fortune 500 insurance company engaged Excella to implement Agile for quick results.


View Case Study

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