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The Agile Challenge

Posted by Stephen Parry on Mar 8, 2016 8:53:31 AM

The Agile movement is growing every day, and it is a very effective model that encourages intimate collaboration in order to overcome the deficiencies within an organisation. However, there are two problems with this model. While it works great with small teams, it is very difficult to scale up – even using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Secondly, it works best as a tool to circumvent institutional roadblocks instead of addressing them directly and changing the culture. As a result, the roadblocks stay in place as impediments to future innovation.

So, as more and more teams embrace Agile thinking, problems with the institutionalised designs, roles, measurements, targets, processes, and most importantly, the management culture are never fixed – just avoided. Therefore, an organisation’s ability to adapt becomes dependent on teams working well in spite of the entrenched way of doing things.

This is a nonsensical way to run an organisation and is really just a symptom of the top-down, mad drive toward increased efficiencies at all costs. Indeed, a point has been reached where well-meaning staff have little choice other than to focus blindly on their assigned task, while everything else becomes “out of scope” or someone else’s problem.

These issues, unfortunately, don’t go away either when the models are scaled-up using SAFe. The complexity of the workarounds simply increase to the point where the company itself and SAFe become barriers. While well meaning, SAFe is a symptom of the disease it is trying to cure. It is a brave, but flawed, attempt at controlling Agile. It is seductive to those who think they can impose a SAFe central control structure on Agile, because it is anything but safe in practice, as it takes the Agile out of Agile.

I suggest that initially Agile itself was a response to the rigidity of the Command and Control model, a way for work to get done against a backdrop of corporate entropy and a growing culture of de-personalization within the workplace. However, Command and Control is attempting to reassert itself by introducing a SAFe work control system where people are again reduced to functionaries within a process, where insight and innovation are ranked well below efficiency and cost. People cannot be forced to be Agile and innovative. Agile and innovation need willing contribution.

Many Agile enthusiasts were extremely wary of SAFe when it was first introduced. However, they came to see it as inevitable and, as a result, have become proponents of it. This is shocking and is a stark reminder of what happened to the Lean movement in the past. Consultancies have created Lean control systems to drive efficiencies, which has put the movement back fifteen years. It has not recovered, and many brave souls are fighting a losing battle against this ‘fake’ type of Lean.

I will be the first to admit that for managers who simply want to get a project completed, Command-and-Control Agile is probably going to work, although it is really just a way to “kick the can” down to the road for someone else to take care of later. So, what is the alternative? We believe it is an approach called Listen and Adapt.

With Listen and Adapt, the customer and staff drive innovation, and every part of the business is able and is expected to address the customer’s needs quickly, because the adaptable framework anticipates changing requirements and “Listens” for change signals. This model creates a cultural transformation, resulting in becoming more intelligent with their responses to competitive marketplaces.

Listen and Adapt builds organisations that promote thinking and collaboration. The outmoded ways of working and organisational barriers are removed, while changing measurement systems along with the services and products themselves become the norm.

A lesson learned from start-ups around the world is that the best way to create value is through the willing contribution of all staff and managers. It drives and secures long-term prosperity by creating unprecedented loyalty from customers and employees alike.

So, while Agile teams are constantly trying to work around internal roadblocks, Listen and Adapt organisations are continually dismantling the barriers to innovation, increasing willing contribution, and ultimately, contributing to greater wealth creation.

Is your organisation spending more time struggling against internal barriers than it should? Contact us today to discuss running an internal half- or full-day Adaptive Organisation Simulation workshop.

Topics: Customer Value Principles