The Agile Practitioner: Everything’s Going Agile

To all my BPTrends readers, I will be stepping back from contributing for the time being. I have been writing about agile topics for a few years now and my next big writing project is going to be a book about organization-wide agility. I will continue to contribute as I have ideas that I think you will appreciate.

Do you remember when Lean really started to take off? First, it was just for manufacturing, but eventually other departments wanted to get into the game. There was lean accounting, and lean management. Well, the same thing is happening with Agile now. Agility is the new Lean. There's some irony here because the Agile movement was born out of the lean movement.

Whereas lean practices tended to be more structured, agile practices are mostly self-prescribed. There are principles to be upheld, but the actual implementation is left primarily to the process stakeholders. To be sure, there are specific implementations like Scrum and Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) that prescribe a well-defined approach. However, organizations which attempt cookie-cutter implementations rarely see the benefits enjoyed of those who allow for an iterative discovery process.

Iterative Cultural Discovery

If you are ready to take your organization on an agile journey, it is best to accept where you are as the starting point. Attempting any type of “big bang” or “quantum leap” implementation will most likely fail. There are enough normal stressors on your organization that adding more is likely to cause people to revert to old behaviors at their earliest possible convenience.

What is most important is that top leadership begin with the acknowledgement that cultural shifts are hard and take time. While agile transformations have often started from software engineering teams within an organization, if that transformation is to expand to the whole organization, the next step must be onboarding senior leadership.

Once leadership is onboard with the transformation, the process can begin in earnest. Goal-setting is the very lifeblood of most leaders. The temptation to set goals and drive the organization forward will be great. However, part of the agile transformation must begin with a rethinking of the role leadership has in the organization. Agility more or less requires servant leadership (which I have written about here). Most non-agile organizations have not cultivated these behavior patterns. Leaders, if they are truly committed to the transformation, must be the first to dive in, and this is the way to do it. It means setting fewer goals, and encouraging leaders to support teams in setting their own goals for making progress.

Self-Directed Teams

What agility means to the finance team(s) may look completely different to those in marketing. Organizations which try to shoehorn every team into the same operating style risk hindering some teams while helping others. Furthermore, part of building the underlying trust that makes agile organizations work is giving each team a level of operational autonomy that reinforces individual ownership and creativity.

This strategy dramatically changes the role of leaders in some organizations. Managers are even called “decision makers” sometimes. While there are undoubtedly decisions that managers should make, most of the important decisions are best made by operational employees with a great depth of understanding in the subject area(s) around the decision. Google did some research around this, even experimenting with removing hiring/firing/promotions/raises from their list of responsibilities.

Google's resulting research based on employee surveys identified 10 characteristics of a good manager. For our discussion here, I would highlight two: provide support and enablement without micromanaging, and provide vision and direction. This puts the burden on managers to be good visionaries who can teach and coach without being pedantic.

Even as managers start to change their role and become team enablers, results may be slow. Some teams may jump at the opportunity and others may be more reluctant to explore the new range of options made available to them. Patience is critical. Sharing success stories across teams can spark new experiments. More importantly, celebrating failures with their associated learnings encourages risk-taking. Organizations that have historically practiced hierarchical and command & control will have more to overcome, but the rewards will be much bigger as well.

The Last Word is the First Word

The idea of Trust is a recurring theme in most of my writings about agility. So, this isn't the first time I’ve written about it. I keep coming back to trust and I will end this, my final entry into this column, on the same note. Why do I believe it to be so important? The agile journey is one that members of an organization must travel together. Like any communal journey, each member will bring different skills and abilities to the trip. They will also bring, as I like to say, a full set of luggage (or baggage, if you prefer). Humans fail. They fail even under the most stable of circumstances.

When change becomes continuous, failure is not only inevitable, it's a sign that you're doing things right. It means you're running experiments based on hypotheses that will turn out to be accurate or less so. It also means that people are operating outside their comfort zones. When people experience failure without fear, they are free to lean into the opportunity to extract the all-important learnings from said failures.

Possibly the most difficult cultural transformation for some organizations will be the abolishment of fear. This only happens through many small acts of reinforcement. Each time a reason to inflict fear, shame, or hostility is met instead with appreciation, support, and joy — trust is built — little by little. Trust allows people to stretch themselves. Trust allows teams to take big chances. Trust is at the core of continuous improvement. After all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, it is trust that will keep you moving forward.

Good luck on your journey! Safe travel.

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Tom Bellinson

Tom Bellinson

Mr. Bellinson has been working in information technology positions for over 30 years. His diverse background has allowed him to gain intimate working knowledge in technical, marketing, sales and executive roles. Most recently, Mr. Bellinson finds himself serving as an Agile Coach for ITHAKA, a global online research service. From 2008 to 2011 Bellinson worked with at risk businesses in Michigan through a State funded program which was administered by the University of Michigan. Prior to working for the University of Michigan, Mr. Bellinson served as Vice President of an ERP software company, an independent business and IT consultant, as chief information officer of an automotive engineering services company and as founder and President of a systems integration firm that was a pioneer in Internet services marketplace. Bellinson holds a degree in Communications with a Minor in Management from Oakland University in Rochester, MI and has a variety of technical certifications including APICS CPIM and CSCP.
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