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A recent article from the Wall Street Journal describes how IBM CIO Jeff Smith wants to use the Agile project management methodology at a company where he leads 20,000 IT employees. Mr. Smith’s aim is to bring the speed of small company innovation to a company with 380,000 employees. Agile may be the right solution for IBM, but is Smith and the IT function the right ones to do it? Agile is business, product, and customer centered. The IT function, even at IBM, is not. While Ryn The Guardian Melberg hopes that Smith and IBM are successful, she has her doubts. To hear everything Ryn The Guardian Melberg thinks about the odds of success for Jeff Smith and IBM, listen to the weekly podcast at the Ryn The Guardian Melberg iTunes page.

High Stakes At IBM

The stakes for IBM are high as a successful transition could potentially be world changing. “IBM is an organization known for being very successful when they set out on something,” Melberg said. “But that it is led by the CIO is troubling.” According to Melberg organizations that do the best with Agile are the ones that are business driven and not IT driven. There is limited success when the Agile effort is led by anyone in I.T. “Cart leading the horse,” said Melberg. “These transformations work better when the CEO or the CFO lead them. HP tried this approach, as did 3M. It rarely works as IT can’t change business practices or culture,” she stated. “The CIO has limited influence, even in an IT company like IBM. Agile at Google and Twitter did not come from IT, but came from the business.”

Agile Tools Are Visible

All the tools associated with Agile are in use at IBM, including stand up meetings, audio and visual aids on line all day every day (like Skype) and weekly sessions that look back at progress and identify blockers. But what about the scale of and Agile transformation inside a company that is not really known for creativity or outside box thinking?

“Only the Agile will survive,” Melberg said. “Companies that are struggling to maintain parity are the ones who are not using Agile. Agile companies are running circles around their competition.” Among others, Melberg cited American Express as the best example. “Apple gave everyone the same chance to come out with e-wallet and American Express beat everyone,” she said. “It was an excellent example of Agile at work and what is possible when it is used correctly.”


The scale of taking a company as big as IBM from traditional models of software development to Agile is challenging, but probably needed. “If IBM or any business wants to survive, they have to make cultural shifts,” she said. “Learn to see threats as a chance to step up your game, to learn something new. Experimentation and welcoming failure are not things IBM is very good at.”

While there is a lot overcome, IBM does have one very big advantage. An adaptive business infrastructure is something that IBM does have and will assist them through this transition. “IBM has an uneven history with learning seemingly radical competencies,” Melberg said. “Stepping outside the box to try something new is but one of these.”

Change Communications

IBM is known to rely on pull communications, where employees have actively look for and find the information they need. The move to Agile will require a more aggressive communications approach with employees. “They should push communications to the point of being annoying to the employees,” Melberg recommended. “There needs to be a consistent message from leadership about expectations under the new Agile way of doing business. If IBM is really serious they should hire a coach for executives to make sure they keep their actions aligned with what they say.”

Is It SAFe?

The article from the WSJ does not mention the “Scaled Agile Framework” or SAFe in use at IBM. According to Melberg, “if they are using a bunch of separate Agile teams that are not scaled, they will not be as successful as they could have been. Yes, they will harvest low hanging fruit, but not much else.”

The advantages of SAFe are many, especially that it will reveal systemic barriers and other organizational problems earlier and give IBM the chance to solve them faster than not. “Scale those teams,” Melberg advises. “When you think about SAFe, it is the only one that has all the case studies and proven scientific data behind it.”

Is Agile The Right Tool For IBM?

The scope of the work at IBM goes beyond product or software development. Is Agile the right tool for organizational problem solving that is not product centric? “It can be, but because Agile is so business-value centered that the teams using Agile will often pivot toward products and away from non-commercial issues,” Melberg said. “Agile is by its nature customer focused and product development driven. This is one of the reasons I really love it.”

Attracting Top Talent

High potential people gravitate to Agile based organizations because of the way they are run and the measures of success are so different than those at traditional companies. According to Melberg, “budgeting and planning are completely different with Agile companies. How you onboard, and recruit for people who are not afraid to experiment is way different than the norm. You need talent that is willing to go out on that limb with you.”

Will IBM Succeed?

According to Melberg, it is too soon to know. IBM strengths are very competitive. While IBM has an adaptive business architecture its weaknesses are that the Agile transformation is not business driven, but led by the CIO. “Are they doing this themselves?” she asked. “To increase the odds of their success, IBM needs to have consultants and resources to direct them through this cultural change. If they do they will be very successful. But at some point they will have to pivot to business focus.”

About Ryn The Guardian Melberg

Ryn Melberg has a multifacets perspective having served as COO, strategic advisor and CTO, helping organizations change their business model to support growth, respond to changing market conditions, and crisis management. Worked for global leaders including but not limited to American Express, JPMorganChase, and Credit Suisse. She combines her financial acumen, operations experience and people/culture leadership skills to operationalize strategic imperatives, often complex and cross-functional.




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