Starting An Agile Transition With Why

In March this year I gave this keynote at the Rally Agile Success Tour in London. This is a video of the talk, followed by a write-up. The slides can be downloaded from here.

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. Simon Sinek says that this is the fundamental reasoning behind what he refers to as the Golden Circle, which he describes as a natural law occurring in many forms, in the same way as the Golden Ratio. He cites example of the Golden Circle including Martin Luther King, who said “I have a dream” not “I have a plan” and the Wright brothers, who succeeded first with manned flight despite having less money, education, connections and publicity as competitors. The Golden Circle suggests that we should start with WHY, before determining HOW, and finally WHAT, rather than starting with WHAT.


Starting an Agile transformation with WHY involves knowing why you want to use an Agile approach, and the goals you are aiming for, rather than becoming Agile just because it seems popular or a good idea. Therefore, begin by defining your WHY, deciding where you want to go and creating a vision of the future that you hope Agile will help create. Then Agile will be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Your WHY is your destination, and Agile can help with HOW you get there, and guide WHAT you do to get there.


A WHY is what motivates people to take action. It is a purpose, a cause or a belief. It is a reason to care and want to get out of bed in the morning. A WHY is not to make money. Money is a necessary precondition for business, in the same way that breathing is a necessary precondition to living although our purpose in life is not to breathe. Making money may also be a desirable result, but it is not a WHY.

WHY is the equivalent of the System Thinking premise of purpose. Complex Systems have a purpose which influences behaviour, the product of the system’s elements and interactions. Dave Snowden uses the Magic Roundabout in Swindon as an example of a complex system whose purpose is to enable a high throughput of cars with a low accident rate. Reports show that it achieves this purpose, despite also being generally regarded as one of the scariest roundabouts in existence. By starting with WHY, the roundabouts designers created an effective, safe and resilient WHAT. Starting with WHAT leads to the less scary but more common design.


WHY is always going to be context specific, but one simple generalisation would be that it is to satisfy customer demand. Demand analysis can help understanding of what work adds value, and helps us towards our WHY, and what work doesn’t add value. John Seddon describes failure demand is work that results from not doing something right, or not doing something at all. That is not to suggest that we should strive for perfection and be right first time with up front analysis and design. Value can still be added in small, incremental and iterative steps. Think of it like a ticket machine at your local deli. When a customer first takes a ticket then the request can be considered value demand. Subsequent tickets for the exactly same request can be considered failure demand. However, further tickets could be for similar, related requests because the customer comes back for more of the same, as opposed to exactly the same.

Simon Sinek argues that our brain is wired to start with WHY. Our first brain, the Limbic System is what deals with emotions, unconscious thought, instinct, and governs our behaviour. Our thinking brain, the Cerebral Cortex, is what deals with rationality, conscious thought, intellect, and governs our language. Thus, our natural behaviour is to make decisions emotionally, unconsciously, and instinctively. We then justify those decisions rationally, consciously and intellectually with facts. I have just bought a new car (well, new for me) and spent a not insignificant amount of money in a totally impulsive purchase. I had no intention of buying a car when I entered the garage, but fell in love with the car and ended up talking myself into deciding it was an opportunity I would regret if I missed it. Similarly, both times I have bought a house, which is both an important decision and major investment, the decision was because the house “felt right”. The size, condition, location, price etc. came second.


HOW describes the way that a WHY will be realised. It can be thought of as a set of guiding principles that help map a WHY to a WHAT. A HOW can also be a specific outcome that is to be accomplished without detailing the activity and output required to complete it. Additionally, HOWs are often ways of differentiating approaches and describing them in comparison to competitors.

One way of describing HOW an Agile approach enables a WHY is with the metaphor of a Recipe for Success. David Anderson popularised this idea with the following recipe:

  • Focus on Quality
  • Reduce WIP
  • Balance Capacity against Demand
  • Prioritise

Similarly, my colleague Ken Clyne at Rally talks about the fundamentals of Agile as:

  • Focus on customer value
  • Deliver early and often
  • Reduce batch size
  • Pull quality forward
  • Inspect and adapt
  • Create a collaborative culture

These recipes are a guide to HOW to achieve Agility in order to achieve a WHY. However, they are not specific enough to describe WHAT to do.

A common explanation for WHY organisations want to become Agile is “Better, Faster, Cheaper”. These are at best HOWs, and not WHYs. In fact, I would suggest that cheaper isn’t even a HOW. To paraphrase John Seddon, focussing on cost will usually result in cost going up.

Another approach to describing HOW to become Agile is through a transformation strategy or roadmap. Options for which path to take include beginning slowly with a single, fully Agile pilot project from which to learn, diving in and moving all project to an Agile approach in one go for clarity of message, only beginning new projects or initiatives as Agile to avoid risking current work, or incrementally solve specific challenges with certain practices for a more evolutionary transition.

Working Agreements can also be considered as a description of HOW. Explicit policies for how work is done can be created by recognising how value is created, how that creation is visualised and made transparent, how the work in process is limited, what cadences are used for synchronisation and co-ordination, and how continuous learning and improvement happens.

My personal take on HOW to be Agile is in terms of flow, value, capability. Achieving flow involves eliminating delays and focussing on reducing the lead time from concept to consumption. Delivering value involves making sure that the right things are being worked on and the right problems are being solved rather than “doing the wrong things righter”. Building capability involves developing people and their skills working as teams aligned to the organisation strategy.


WHAT is done proves that a WHY really is believed. It consists of tangible ways with which a WHY is realised and provides clear data points that actions are according to a WHY.

Agile practices are WHAT teams do in order to enable them to realise their WHY. Further, practices can be associated with HOW agility is demonstrated, in terms of flow, value and capability. The following is one interpretation of some practices. I’m sure there are many others.


User Stories are a technique to break down functionality into small pieces of demonstrable functionality which can create single piece flow. Time-boxing and kanban-style limits are both ways of managing WIP and enabling a focus on finishing rather than starting to keep work flowing. Visualisation approaches help teams see all the work so that they can focus their energy in the right places to keep flow. Strong teamwork and collaboration minimises the need for queues and batches which cause delays. Test Driven Development, with its emphasis on automated unit testing and refactoring, keeps designs clean and quality high so that new work can progress quickly. Continuous integration and deployment help works flow right through to the customer without lengthy release processes causing delays.


Product Backlogs, User Stories, Minimal Marketable Features and other value-focussed forms of requirements are intended to help teams ensure they are delivering maximum benefit. Similarly, the On-Site Customer, or Product Owner roles are intended to maximise collaboration with people who are determining and receiving the value. Iteration demos and reviews are a means of gaining early and continuous feedback and validation that the product is delivering the intended value. Frequent and continuous delivery means that the value can be realised as soon as possible. Acceptance Test Driven Development and Behaviour Driven Development provide techniques for delivering value through quality and clarity of functionality.


Dedicated, cross-functional, value focussed teams mean that learning and knowledge is kept, shared and built upon to develop capability. Various collaborative practices, such as Pair Programming, Collective Code Ownership, Group Design, Team Estimation and Planning Poker similarly share knowledge around a team. Regular demos and reviews provide a cadence with which feedback and learning can build product capability, while regular retrospectives provide a cadence with which feedback and learning can build team capability. Visualisation of work, and the way value is created, gives visibility of bottlenecks and constraints and other issues such that they can be resolved to improve capability. Slack ensures that teams have spare capacity to both address these issues, and spend time on other forms of capability development which will improve future productivity and performance.


When embarking on a change initiative using Agile approaches, always “Start with WHY”. Use the WHY as a True North with which to guide the Agile transformation and steer decisions on which Agile practices to use for what reasons. Understand HOW agility is going to help progress towards the WHY, and WHAT Agile practices will provide the means to get there.

A clear WHY, that people are motivated by, will make it more likely that they will want to use Agile. However, Thomas Edison said that “vision without execution is hallucination”, so don’t stop with WHY, but make sure that the Agile HOW is also well known and the Agile practices that form the WHAT are clearly understood to ensure that the goal is successfully reached.

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One comment on “Starting An Agile Transition With Why

  1. Very concise and well articulated.. And I totally agree with the focus on “why?” .. It’s too easy for business and execs to latch onto Agile as an accelerator (we need x in 3 months).

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