Agile – it’s an adjective, not a noun
Over the past 20 years, software development teams have proven that implementing ‘agile’ frameworks, like Scrum and Kanban, enable them deliver solutions to customers faster, to a higher quality, and with more predictability. Achieving agility at the individual team level is relatively easy; the benefits are clear, and the resources are plenty.
However, the real challenge is extending these patterns across multiple teams in a large organisation; achieving agility at scale in a way that harnesses the proven benefits (of ‘agility’) across the whole business. This is tough. However, organisations that have been on this journey have demonstrated significant increases in productivity, quality, collaboration and transparency; factors that warrant the effort, investment, and persistence to overcome the many potential pitfalls.
What true agility really means
Organisational agility is a worthy goal, and particularly when the future has never looked so uncertain. But many organisations are embracing ‘Agile’ (the noun), and not the agility inherent in ‘agile’ (the adjective). At the heart of this misstep is an over fixation on process – partly driven by the complexity that is typical when trying to make large organisations truly agile – that misses the fundamental mindset and cultural shifts required to be truly agile.
In its simplest form, agility means:
- Find out where you are.
- Take a small step towards your goal.
- Adjust your understanding based on what you learnt.
And when faced with two or more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.
Lead with context, not control
For many organisations, this is hard. And exactly how hard is the result of a complicated function that contains inputs such as organisational size, age, complexity, leadership, culture, and governance.
This challenge is not new, and in many ways it’s the reason why frameworks such as SAFe exist. But such frameworks, whilst valuable, can be complex and unwieldy. In this scenario it can pay to follow the Netflix approach (outlined in the excellent book ‘No Rules Rules’ by Erin Meyers and their CEO, Reed Hastings) of ‘leading with context, not control’. That is, invest your time in ensuring your employees understand the problems they need to solve (and the relevant guiding principles and parameters), and not what they need to do. This approach is liberating and empowering, but requires a non-trivial investment.
Why it’s so hard
At the most fundamental level is human psychology, and our preference for certainty over uncertainty. True agility necessarily requires flexibility, and the ability to sit with uncertain outcomes where Path A or Path B could be followed, depending on the outcome of testing hypothesis X. For many, this is too un-containing. Plus, it can run contrary to the governance and reporting demands that most large organisations have from markets, their owners and investors, and internal stakeholders. It also doesn’t fit the predominant archetype for leadership, where effective leaders are expected to know the direction they need to head in, and what they need to do to get there.
True organisational agility isn’t a muddled world where nothing is written down, no dates are committed to, and nothing is known! In many ways, it can, and should be, quite rigorous and (almost) scientific. At the heart of this model is the discipline of testing hypotheses, but this is a muscle that many organisations haven’t fully trained. Testing hypotheses is pain-staking work; assertions need to be made, tests defined, observations made and measured, and outcomes evaluated. All before (potentially) repeating the process. Many organisations lack the skills and patience, or can’t create stable enough conditions to reasonably infer cause and effect.
Moving towards true agility
To move towards true agility, organisations need to recognise some of the fundamental challenges they face; human nature, the constraints of their own governance and structure, what true agility looks like in practice, and the discipline of testing and learning. These challenges are innate characteristics of the terrain in which they’re operating in.
On a more practical level, there are many more challenges that organisations need to overcome to be truly agile (at scale); from prioritising effectively, to balancing the need for centralised control versus decentralised decision-making, to really understanding the role of Product Owners. We’ll explore these topics, and many more, in subsequent blogs and events!
 For further information, see ‘No Rules Rules’: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention’ by Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings.