Getting agile right

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Nick Mackeson-Smith
Nick Mackeson-Smith
Chief Curiosity Officer, Founder and Director
July 6, 2022

Getting agile right

Ah, agile! The much discussed, and often maligned organisational hot topic of the last few years. It’s fair to say that my own personal journey with agile has looked a little like this over the years:

1. Avoided it

2. Got curious about it

3. Got under the hood and had a good look at it

4. Became an advocate for it

5. Got enormously frustrated with it

6. Learned how to channel the frustration into growing myself

7. Became an advocate for it again

8. Live it, breathe it, love it

With a journey like that, it’s easy to understand why many agile implementations seem to start with a hiss and a roar, and then encounter difficulties. It’s easy to pack up and walk away and say “it doesn’t work” when things get tough. But what happens if the thing that isn’t working is actually you, or your organisation’s ability to learn, grow, and adapt?

Aspects of agile

There are so many aspects to agile, and it’s really important to understand what they are all about and why each of them are necessary.  Some are structural, or procedural - things like having a very disciplined cadence of times when teams come together, or having really well defined set of objectives and expected results within a defined period of time.  The structure allows teams to build upon their work in a repeatable and incremental way, and means that massive programmes of work can be broken down into much smaller and more manageable chunks.  That’s cool. The structure provides an element of certainty, and an element of safety for people, and ensures that there is transparency across the whole organisation about what work is happening where and when and how.  This is doing agile.

The second part - and I believe this is the part that is the most important - is the mindset and behavioural side.  This is about being agile.  

Here, it’s about people shifting their way of thinking in a number of really important ways. People look to take accountability for identifying and solving problems. People shift beyond the limits of their current levels of experience and capability by adopting a growth mindset and proactively look for areas of personal and professional growth.  People shift their focus on the importance of feedback, and move to a place where they crave it - not avoid it - and they see it as an opportunity to learn where and how those around them can see things differently.

Decision making becomes a collective mission - not one based on someones tenure, or seniority - or the volume of their voice. And crucially, people unleash their limitless creative and innovative powers by asking “how might we do this” whenever they encounter a seemingly impossible task.

These two things coming together make agile special. It’s really hard to get right, and I see lots of organisations focusing more on one side of things than the other.  The truth is, both of these areas need to be taken care of in equal measure for agile to work well.

The modern agile principles (Make people awesome, Experiment and learn rapidly, Deliver value continuously, and Make safety a prerequisite) are the engine that makes the agile car run smoothly and quickly.

Empowerment and continuous learning and growth are critical elements, and many teams (typically control functions) will find that they will need to rethink their processes, offerings - and potentially their roles - in order to support agile.Shifting from control to empowermentI’m not sure that anyone has totally cracked this just yet.  Historically, there has been a lot of control and power that’s been centralised teams like HR, Finance, Compliance - certainly in the 20 years of my career, my colleagues in HR teams have had huge levels of impact and influence and control on everything from restructures, to promotions, to payrises. They’ve been a hugely valuable and successful part of organisations, and will continue to be, but we need to acknowledge that their role is changing.

If agile is about empowering people to make decisions and be accountable and increase ownership, then the very nature of teams like like will need to change from one of controlling and deciding into one of empowering and creating an environment where the people within an organisation can thrive and be successful.  I know of some great HR teams who are trying really really hard to make the shift, and they should be applauded for their efforts as this stuff is really hard.  Generally, the vast majority of these central functions will need to learn to let go more, and put more power into the hands of the people.  It’s imperative that they seek to empower, not control, otherwise they risk undermining the very nature of agile itself. I’ve been involved in many conversations with HR professionals here in New Zealand - and around the world - who want to make this change because they know it’s the right thing to do, but typically get blocked in their efforts by something within the organisation.  

Typically that blocking is driven by fear of losing control….. but letting go of control and empowering people is exactly what we ask every other employee in the organisation to do when we lead them in to agile… why should HR be any different?

Agile learning

I’d go so far as to say learning functions in organisations have to adopt modern agile principles in order to continue to be relevant.  

We really, really, need to shift away from training and move more towards enabling learning and mindset change. Agile requires curiosity and a growth mindset, and proactivity and accountability. Just rocking up to a training session requires none of those. Sure, there are some people who will always question and challenge and soak up knowledge outside of what is taught in a training session, but they are generally the learners who have already cracked it - those who aren’t dependent on answers being provided or approaches being defined for them.  

Our learning interventions - whatever they are and wherever they are and however they take place - need to encourage people to question, to think for themselves, to discuss things with others and to seek other perspectives, to be inspired to be proactive, and to take responsibility. Lifelong learning is essential for everyone to be successful in agile.

Common traps and pitfalls when shifting to agile

There are so many traps, but I think my three big ones are:

1. Flipping to agile in a waterfall way - sounds crazy, but it’s surprisingly easy to do. A deadline, a project team, and a programme of work to deliver. Defaulting to what’s known is way easier than stepping into the unknown.

2. Focusing on structure and process more than focusing on people - your people make agile work. Their transition is arguably going to be harder than rewriting a process or policy, or setting up a new cadence of meetings. People need to discuss how they feel, and feel safe to have a different perspective.

3. Attempting to deploy agile how someone else has done it within your own organisation - your people, organisation, context and environment is unique - copy and paste isn’t going to work with agile.

The best way to make the transition

The defining moment

There are a few really important elements to consider here. Most people within the organisation will see the transition as an event - typically a bootcamp - and this is the really big momentous day where everyone in the agile organisation comes together to signal the beginning of a new way of working.  These days are epic fun, and I love leading them out for organisations because of the sheer energy and excitement that is able to be generated and the massive amounts of learning and growth that can take place collectively in such a short space of time.  These events should help people to experience what it feels like to be agile. To experience the feeling of stuff getting incrementally better by them using agile ways of working to solve problems as a team.  

The closer we can make this event mirror actual ways of working, the more successful it can be.  Ditch the powerpoint. Ditch the presentations. Have an organisation-wide conversation. Build stuff together that will add immediate and lasting value for the people in their teams and for the organisation as a whole.  

Chat about the hard stuff - that change can be hard and overwhelming and unsettling. It’s really really really important to create real psychological safety here - not just tell people to be resilient.The designThese events on their own don’t make the transition though.

There is an enormous amount of work that comes before and after, and all of it is necessary to make agile work.  We’ve previously talked about the structural elements… these don’t magically get designed on their own.  There is a massive amount of research and design work that’s needed up front to work out how the business will be structured, what processes will be retained/changed/built, how budgeting will work, how organisational goals will be set, how the strategic horizon might need to change, how people will be helped on their way, how people will be paid in the new world, how career pathways will work. There aren’t many parts of the organisation that don’t need to be rethought and redesigned - and it’s incredibly complex stuff. That’s why many organisations rely on getting external support from consultants to guide them on the journey… the volume of work and complexity can be overwhelming if you attempt to tackle it without help.

The most important principle in all of this is the concept of test and learn. So after the transition event, it’s crucial that people are able to experiment with ideas or approaches, and see how they work (or don’t) and then make changes to make things better.  There isn’t an organisation that will deploy agile perfectly on their first attempt - seriously - there is just too much at play, and too many variables, and the constantly predictable unpredictability of people! Approaching agile with an openness and transparency and an honesty that some things might not work as intended is really important.  

This requires organisations to have three things:

1. Clarity on the intent behind their decisions,

2. Confidence on their approach in executing their decisions, and

3. Most importantly - a willingness to change their approach and be open about if it doesn’t work.

Determining if agile is right for your organisation

Get out of the books. Kōrero is where it’s at. If you truly want to learn what will be right for your organisation or your people, get hungry for perspectives by having an expansive and rich dialogue with people. Speak to people who have been through agile before.

Search out people who have previously left organisations to avoid being part of an agile transformation and find out why they made that choice. Chat to your people inside your organisation to learn how they feel about the idea of agile, and where there might be differences in opinion and why. Get amongst it. Really invest time in seeking to understand.

With this insight, you can then start to think about what’s going to be of relevance to you and your context, and start to build something that’s uniquely successful for your business.I don’t believe that there is a magic formula or best-practice approach that will work for every organisation. I don’t think you can get an instruction list from a book and follow it and end up with success. I do, however think that you can be enormously successful by listening to your people and building something with them that works for you, your business, and your own specific context.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

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July 6, 2022
July 6, 2022

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