We hear a lot about agility nowadays. “Agile methods” have become infamous all around after their successful utilization in software development area. It is possible to see earlier and quite extensive utilizations of agile methods at the mids of 1900s in other industries (for example at Bell Laboratories, Toyota, North American Aviation, Saab ..etc) Software developers got introduced to the agile mindset late; but they adopted it very quickly and successfully. The great results they achieved caught attention of other professions and industries. And now many organizations are racing to adopt agile methodologies and even going further by transforming themselves with the hope of achieving a larger scale of agility.
Why has corporate world begun to show such a big interest in agility? The main driver is apparently the need for being more adaptive and responsive in the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Main proposition of agile methods is to keep customers happier by delivering higher value faster under uncertainty and keep employees happier by creating a more productive and self-fulfilling work environment for them. As a result, the new hype in the corporate world has become the “scaled agility” or in other worlds “organizational agility” now.
What does “Agility” at Organizational Scale Mean?
Here is the first definition I derived from a couple of sources:
For most large organizations, this is not an easy task. While exploring, they must simultaneously maintain their focus on existing core businesses and exploit them as much as possible. They should find a way of keeping right balance between exploration and exploitation endeavors. Therefore, for these organizations, “being agile” means “being ambidextrous”. (Here is a good article for further reading about ambidexterity.)
In exploitation jobs, both the output and the job to produce that output are well defined upfront. The purpose in this context is to create that output reliably and achieve excellence through optimization. Therefore, one of the most important capabilities required while exploiting is to continuously optimize the process and the product. Another important capability is being resourceful in handling issues blocking the process. On the other hand, in exploration jobs, neither the output nor the job to produce it can fully be defined upfront. It is also not known whether the output will create any value or not. In this context, there are two challenges. First one is to create valid new value (something, in which customers will see a benefit and like to use). The second one is to do this efficiently. In exploration jobs, the more value you create with the resources at hand the more successful you are.
The purpose of agile philosophy is to “maximize value efficiency under uncertainty”. In other words, agile philosophy seeks to maximize customer value by minimizing the work to create value. All methods developed to serve this purpose are based on a certain set of assumptions. These assumptions favor iteration, collaboration, openness to change, constant learning through experimentation…etc. Software development world translated these assumptions into 4 values, 12 principles and various practices. I believe it is necessary to develop different interpretations while implementing agile philosophy in different areas.
I checked many agile practices and make some kind of reverse engineering to identify the values and principles behind. I arrived at a list, which is a little bit different than what is listed in the Agile Manifesto of 2001.
Accountability, Adaptability, Autonomy, Commitment, Competence, Collaboration, Courage, Customer Value, Devotion, Discipline, Efficiency, Exploration, Experience (Empiricism), Focus, Growth, Learning, Openness, Optimism, Purpose, Quality, Respect, Responsibility, Simplicity, Transparency
- Value Exploration: Establish mechanisms to continuously explore and bring high value opportunities to the attention of the organization. Maintain a portfolio of high value exploration jobs.
- Short Iterative PDCA: Plan, do (build), check (review), and act (adjust/pivot) iteratively and in short cycles – at both job portfolio and job level – in order to ensure delivering max value with the available resources and minimizing waste.
- Assess value and resource requirements of the jobs to be done frequently. Plan work and resources in short cycles and ensure maximizing total value for customer (minimizing cost of delay (CoD) in value). Value is created when customers use and benefit from a product or service
- Build iteratively and in short cycles in order to minimize risk of scrap or rework.
- Frequently review the output with customers and consider changing direction whenever it is evident that the final output will create less or no value. Scrapping the initial work done is better than scrapping all the work.
- Radical collaboration with the customer: Team members need to communicate and collaborate on a number of levels, both formally and informally, while working together. Let them sit together in the same location and communicate face to face. Asynchronous and written communication through systems or forms kills speed and efficiency.
- Autonomous and fit for purpose teams: Do the work with fit-for-purpose and autonomous teams. Creating adequately skilled teams increases the chance of having successful results and building autonomy in team. Minimize talent waste by avoiding to utilize over-qualified or disqualified staff. Let the team decide and act quickly by giving autonomy to them in «How much to do?», «When to do?», «How to do?» and «Who will do?». In this way, it is possible to avoid delays in decision making / getting approval. Autonomy brings flexibility to the team and enhances efficiency. It also presents good opportunities for team members to develop themselves.
- Clarity of goals: Feed the team with clear objectives so that they align their efforts and make coordinated decisions. Define how the team will understand whether they achieved the desired output or not.
- Constant tempo: Ensure that teams establish a repeatable and maintainable speed at which they can deliver valuable products. Simple routines and rituals make it is easier for everybody to get organized and work in agile way.
- Constant attention to quality: Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances quality, and quality enhances agility in the long term. When a team prioritizes speed over quality, it starts taking easy but limited solutions. Limited solutions can save the day but may create too many limitations for future. First time quality prevents many wastes.
- Transparency: Visually manage the work so that both the progress and the contribution of the team (performance) becomes visible to every one. In this way the need for reporting and formal progress review meetings is eliminated.
- Focus & commitment: Let the team focus and commit on one task at a time. It is the responsibility of management to ensure that people are not interrupted with other requests (ie: execution tasks). Multitasking kills speed and efficiency. Cheetahs can not catch gazelles if asked also to catch a few rabbits while running down.
- Radical collaboration within the team: Team members need to communicate and collaborate on a number of levels, both formally and informally, while working together. Let them sit together in the same location and communicate face to face. Asynchronous and written information flow through systems or forms kills speed and efficiency.
- Collective ownership & accountability: Teams must be held accountable for the quality and success of their work. Team members can not give any excuses (or blame anyone else) for what needs to be done. Even if each member has specific expertise, they must take responsibility whenever and wherever needed. All members must experience the consequences of collective success or failure.
- Continuous learning & growth: Teams must assume a ‘growth mindset’ in the face of problems while working. They should perceive failure as an opportunity to grow. In the building phase, it is important to ask ‘how?’ questions more instead of ‘why?’ questions. When the work is finished and the dust settles down, the turn of ‘why?’ questions comes.
How can Large Organizations be Agile?
How can these values and principles come to life? As mentioned above, for large organizations, “being agile” translates into “being ambidextrous”. They should continue exploitation, and in the meantime, they should find new value opportunities and shift some resources to work on these opportunities. First issue to resolve is to craft a proper governance model and structure to support ambidexterity.
To be continued…