Agility is a unique and continuously evolving state that is typical to a specific organization, given an organization’s people, set-up and history. A traditional (industrial) approach to becoming more Agile commonly creates no more than an illusion of agility.
Agility is a specific state as it reflects the unique lessons and learnings that an organization and its inhabitants went and go through, the way in which specific annoyances and hindrances were and are overcome, the many inspections and adaptations that occur along the journey, the unknown future challenges that will demand distinct responses. Agility is a unique signature with imprints of the people involved and their relationships and interactions, of used and abandoned tools, processes, practices, of constructs within and across the many eco-systems that make out an organization, potentially even stretching across the organization’s boundaries.
No model can predict, anticipate or outline the unique signature that an organization’s state of agility is.
However, many of our organizations have their roots, and their beliefs, in the past industrial age. As they feel the need and the pressure to increase their agility, they naturally revert to familiar, yet old-school, industrial recipes. They undertake cautiously planned attempts to shift to the Agile paradigm (although they need to leap), wrapping them in separate change projects. They look around and imitate what other organizations do. They copy-paste what others, regardless whether they operate in the same economical domain or not, claim brought them success. They enforce processes and practices in a cascaded and mass-production way. They rely on text-book models that prescribe generic pre-empted blueprints organizational structures. The learnings and the hard work needed needed to acquire sustainable agility tuned to the organization’s specific context are conveniently ignored. Ironically, these are the exact approaches that block them in their growth, the ways of working that they need to abandon in order to enter and survive the new worlds, the worlds that require a higher agility.
The mismatch is fundamental. They need and want to hose down their industrial ways, yet reinforce them. No more than an illusion of agility is created, which is painfully revealed when, often after several years, the deflation by reality hits hard. In the face of the urgency, the increase in agility is negligible. The actual results are disappointing.
What was hoped would be achieved is not achieved. The people creating a company’s products and services are not more engaged or motivated (rather they keep leaving and no new talents can be attracted). The people funding the work are not more pleased (not achieving the gains and returns hoped for). The people buying and consuming the organization’s products and services are not more satisfied (and usage and satisfaction keep declining). Overall, the old predominant disconnectedness is not resolved. The traditional top-down line organization with its typical silo structure and separation of skills and expertise is not replaced with team work, shared purpose and commitment. Blaming keeps taking precedence over collaboration.
Increasing agility is a path. Progressing on that path requires vision, belief, persistence and… hard work. Agility, as a state of high adaptiveness, can only be achieved by regularly… adapting. Adaptations only make sense upon inspections of actual work and observable results. Think feedback loops (all around). The new reality, for which agility is needed, says that works today might not work tomorrow. What works for one company (a complex system of interconnected people, processes, tools) might not work for another company. What works for one combination of teams, technology and business might not work for another combination.
Signposts that might keep you from getting stuck in an illusion of agility are:
- It is not a transformation if it doesn’t change how you work.
- It is not an Agile transformation if it doesn’t simplify how you work.
- It is not an adoption of Scrum if it doesn’t engage and energize people (customers, teams, stakeholders).
The new reality tells us to act in the moment more than we ever did before. Embracing uncertainty and unpredictability has a great potential too. Getting the most out of the possible thrives upon acceptance of the unwritten state of the future and what that future might bring. It reminds us that we are not alone in this, that each individual, no matter their function, level, position or silo, can contribute. Living the art of the possible against unpredicted outcomes has the option of engaging people as it shapes their future. Acceleration comes from vision, determination and dedication; from the courage to move away from following a plan or copying a model.
Regardless an organization’s past attempts and choices, reverting to the path of hard work is always a workable way out.
More Agile teams does not make a more Agile organization.
Originally published at guntherverheyen.com on January 7, 2019.