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  • Writer's pictureAnubhav Berry

The agile sandwich (part 1)

I've been meaning to write this article for a long long time but somehow never got around to it. Well i've finally, via this article, "mustard" (spelt mustered) enough energy to explain what this means. Please bear with me if I use more than the average helping of food puns and analogies in this article.

'Going agile' is the flavour of the month or year. I'm a firm believer in an agile way of working but also a firm believer that it cannot just be shoved down people's throats or forced upon people by coaches that are brought in to help evangelise the organisation. Many many organisations (specially large corporates) have started feeling the need to become more agile in their way of working and a lot of them are causing grief, especially amongst the lowest ranks, because it's not being done right (there are exceptions to this rule though).

Organisation are large, have multiple layers, vision(s), agenda(s), diverse and sometimes geographically distributed people, etc... and it creates agile sandwiches when it tries to go agile in those layers (projects, projects, teams, departments, etc...) that are just a part of the value stream. image ref:

Through this 2 part article let's explore what an agile sandwich is, what it looks like, and how to have your sandwich and eat it too.

The journey before the sandwich

To understand this better, could I please request you to spend 7 minutes and 38 seconds of your precious time on this video (or at the least skip to the below mentioned time slots and listen to the orator) - if you get to the end of it then you deserve a mention in the Guinness book of world records too or at least a sandwich with your choice of ingredients.

A few key time slots worth listening to:

  • 1:00 to 1:15 - the guys starts making a sandwich. After a few slices he has to provide support via a wooden skewer before adding more slices. In spite of that the sandwich tower starts falling. So he adds another stick. It continues to fall so he backs it up against the kitchen parapet.

  • 1:15 to 1:37 - the sandwich still looks like it's going to fall. So he decides to create a brand new stack of slices. He starts adding more slices to the new stack. Same story - skewers and parapet. Now both the towers appear to be falling. And lo and behold the new one falls. So he shortens the height of the new one and starts creating a new one. Same story - skewers and parapet.

  • OPINION AT THIS STAGE - to be very honest at this stage it doesn't look very appetising. It looks like something that's been mashed up in a hurry without really worrying about the actual intent of the sandwich.

  • 2:25 to 3:00 - time to now assemble the sandwich and stack the 3 towers on top of each other. As expected it starts to fall and looks like there's no way to keep the tower standing.

  • 3:00 to 3:30 - so they decide to lay down the 3 towers in a row and package them in foil paper. Finally, one tower but it's not standing and we cannot see the ingredients anymore.

  • OPINION AT THIS STAGE - it doesn't look like a sandwich.

  • 3:35 to 4:00 - time to unwrap the tower. Looks like 3 people are not enough to hold it up and it doesn't look anything like a world record worthy sandwich in spite of all the skewers inside it assisting in holding it up.

  • 4:00 to 4:35 - trying to sell it to the kids. The little boy wears a look of disgust on his face. People holding the sandwich realise they cannot be there the whole day so they decide to lay the sandwich down again. The tower has collapsed.

  • 4:35 to the end (you don't need to see till the end) - obviously no one can eat this sandwich. So what do they do - chop up the already fallen sandwich into smaller chunks and try giving it to others to eat. Not much luck with that either. The 'chef' seems to be the only one taking sizeable bites - after all it was his baby and there's the random bite here and there.

  • OPINION AT THIS STAGE - all that bread, peanut butter and jam gone for a waste and, not sure if they mentioned in the video, but looks like they didn't break the world record either.

As good for nothing this video seems there's a hidden message in it. It is a metaphorical and preci version of the story of an organisation that has grown over time. Let's break it down further:

  • The organisation always starts off as a modest idea or operation. E.g. a simple sandwich that is meant to be eaten.

  • As the organisation grows it adds more and more layers to it. The more audacious the sandwich the better it feels. It doesn't matter how messy it looked as long as it's big. It doesn't look appetising any more.

  • Further growth brings with it more layers and as we get bigger the portion size of the ingredients starts to reduce. You lose the essence of what the sandwich was intended for - eating. You start chasing alternative goals - breaking a world record that has nothing to do with eating. This can be related to the non business / vision KPIs that dot the landscape of almost all organisations.

  • There comes a time the organisation starts collapsing under it's own weight, or at least chunks of it start to collapse and it all seems like a big ball of mud. We try to realign the organisation (through skewers) by giving it vision statements, increased frequency of townhalls, reorgs, layoffs, meetings, etc...

  • Adding further ingredients leads to the sandwich falling. We then end up throwing it in the bin or the family pet has one helluva meal that night. When the organisation collapses, it's broken up and and sold to the highest bidder, often for a pittance.

  • Then the broken pieces, run mostly by others, usually end up with a similar fate, often just remaining as a brand name and nothing else. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule.

So this is how your organisation got to where it is today. Let's not chastise it or it's people and leadership. They're merely carrying forward the legacy they've inherited. And also, let's respect the decision that were taken in the past - whether good or bad. They were the best decisions at the time and place and given the circumstances.

The sandwiched organisation

Is growth bad or is the aspiration to grow, bad - No. Is the way you grow, bad - maybe. Is how you handle that growth, bad - yes. It's only human nature to want to grow and the organisation is no different. After all it's made of people and is nothing without the people. Maybe in the future we'll have organisations run entirely by robots - no opinion on this as yet.

With time and growth organisations lose their focus not because they don't know what they're doing. It's just that the they've become too big to manage effectively with that one focus. With growth emerges too many 'focuses', too many agendas and too many people to keep happy.

Take an example, if you were given an opportunity to work for either Google or a Big Bank which one would you pick. Most would pick Google, right.

The big bank in this case is the sandwiched organisation that has too many layers in with each having their own agenda, vision, etc.... Some of the symptoms of a sandwiched organisation are:

  • too difficult to get things done because the alignment doesn't exist anymore between the various sandwiches. For e.g upstream and downstream systems are not willing to play ball to help a team stuck in the middle deliver a key business outcome.

  • escalations are rife

  • it's all about 'my' KPIs

  • everyone chastises the organisation and says it's going nowhere, the leadership don't know what they're doing, i'm working here only for the money, etc...

  • process upon process upon process - too many processes. Most of these get added as a CYA (cover your ar**)

  • morale and happiness are generally very low

  • attrition rates are higher than the organisation would like them to be

  • etc...

The leadership / management start finding ways to fix it. More often than not these ways are shortsighted and not in the best interest of the organisation as they're merely trying to meet a KPI. For e.g. reduce IT spend by 20%, or reduce headcount by 10%. These KPIs are handed down and the leadership is not empowered enough to change them. These KPIs, my friends will lead you nowhere strategically or will only help you cross the next hurdle. The sandwich will only become bigger and will one day collapse.

Agile to the rescue (or not)

These days the answer to help meet those KPIs is "let's go agile" because it's:

  • cheaper

  • faster

  • reduces headcount (the worst thing to aim for)

  • and all the other good things that a wrong KPI expects

  • etc...

If you haven't figured as yet, i'm being sarcastic

Adopting an agile way of working "may" bring you some of these benefits. It "will" make you better at what and how you do your work if you do it right - based on the ethos of the values and principles rather than a framework.

The big question is how to do it right, what does it entail, what are the changes that come with it, where do we start - to cut a long story short there's no perfect answer to this question. But there's still a lot of things that can be done.

Let's explore that in the next article

Happy days and happy learning and sharing :)

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