Agile Transformations: Chicken Parmigiana, not German Chocolate Cake


Confession time:  I’m horrendous in the kitchen.  My mom was a great cook (I have yet to find anyone who makes a meatloaf that comes remotely close to hers), my dad is amazing and my younger brother is TERRIFYING (he could win Chopped with one hand tied behind his back).  Obviously it’s in the family genes but for some reason I don’t have the natural aptitude.

As of late I have been trying to improve my kitchen game.  I started with Italian cooking (as their base ingredients are firmly in my palette’s wheelhouse) and have been experimenting with different recipes and dishes.  My favorite dish by far is chicken parmigiana; it has simple ingredients (chicken, sauce, mozzarella cheese)  compared to some of my other favored Italian dishes (arrabiatta, saltimbocca) but also opens up easily to tinkering with the recipe.  Sometimes I add more garlic, sometimes less.  Experiments with different spices lead to different flavor profiles.

I was experiencing some success in this context, so I decided to branch out and try baking.  What an absolute disaster.  I successfully baked a German chocolate cake that was edible (after an embarrassing number of attempts), and I called up my Dad to see where I was going wrong.  After regaling him with my story he remarked “Jason, the difference between cooking and baking is recipes versus formulas.  Cooking is a recipe, it allows you to tinker within reason.  Baking is all about following the formula: the correct ingredients in the correct portions at the correct times.  Baking is not forgiving with deviation.”

I had this conversation in my head a few weeks later while meeting up with some fellow agile practitioners to break bread.  As it always does our conversation turned towards agile transformations and adoptions we’re currently living…what’s working, what’s not.  And then it hit me:


Agile transformations do not have formulas for success; it all depends on the recipe.


That got me thinking about the transformations we were discussing (and living).  The transformations that are successful (or at least have a better than average chance of success) were ones where the organization was using a recipe; they had some pre-defined ideas and constraints and then were experimenting with approaches and ways to meet their goals.  Constant forgiving experimentation ruled the day and was enabling true progress.


On the other side of that equation were the transformations that were struggling.  These organizations were using a formula.  “We’re going agile using Scrum and SAFe, let’s go!”  This formulaic approach typically ends in disaster as it doesn’t accommodate any deviance.  Pre-existing issues with culture or infrastructure (for example) are ignored as they don’t fit the formula and inevitably rear their head to wreak havoc.

So the next time you find yourself involved in an agile transformation, ask yourself…am I making chicken parmigiana or a German chocolate cake?