Doing vs Being

Let me get this out of the way first - Agile is not the point. I see a lot of organisations wanting to "do agile". My question is always "Why?" Why do they want to do agile? Often I find that there is no why. They want to do agile because doing agile is what you do these days, or doing agile is what our competitors do. Doing agile is seen as some sort of magic formula for success. Do these things and good things will happen. No one is quite sure what good things they will be, people talk vaguely about efficiency and faster/better/cheaper. But that doesn't really matter, whatever happens, it will be good.

All these efforts will fail. The organisation will end up doing a bunch of agile things - standups, boards, retros and so on, but the end result will be - nothing. No change in any real measures of organisational success. No improvements in ROI, no improvements in time to market. Nothing. Why? Because doing agile is not the point. Agility is a way to deliver business outcomes. Business outcomes are the point. Not doing agile. The outcome organisations are really looking for is to become agile. Becoming agile means they can respond quickly to changing markets, deliver what their customers need before their competitors do and so on. Becoming agile as an organisation is not the same as doing agile practices. Yes, the practices are important but they aren't the full picture. If all you do are the practices, you will never become agile. As a mathematician would say, they are a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition.

The organisation needs more than just agile practices to generate real results. Real organisational agility requires a radical reshaping of the way the organisation operates. It requires a new way of thinking from senior leadership right down to operational teams. It requires new ways of thinking about the way work moves through the organisation. It requires new financial models. New ways of working. New ways of collaborating. New decision making structures.

True agility starts with a cultural and structural change, not with standups. Over the next few posts, I'd like to lay out what I think are the elements of the changes required, and how agile (and related) techniques can help achieve that change.

After watching many organisations struggle with becoming agile, some succeeding, others (most) failing, I have identified four crucial changes organisations need to adopt for success.To become truly agile, an organisation needs all four, but just implementing one will achieve results. The key changes are -

  • Distributed decision making

  • Measuring what matters

  • Focus on flow

  • Inspect & adapt

Distributed decision making requires the organisation to move decision making down the organisation rather than concentrating it at the top. If an organisation wants to move fast, removing decision making bottlenecks is crucial. Decentralised decision making is critical for establishing truly autonomous teams that can deliver customer needs quickly.

Measuring what matters recognises that measurement drives behaviour. People will seek to optimise whatever they are measured on, so poor measurement systems will drive bad outcomes. If you want people to work in a new way, you must change the measurement system to reflect that new way. Otherwise people will optimise the old measurements by continuing to work in the old way.

Focus on flow flips the way the organisation sees work from a resource efficiency model (keeping people busy) to a flow efficiency model (getting things done). Resource efficiency models are great at keeping people fully occupied but terrible at getting value delivered. Work shuffles from one busy person to another and ends up spending most of its time waiting in queues. Flow models free up work by eliminating queuing.

Inspect and adapt allows organisations to respond to change. Traditional up front planning locks an organisation onto a predefined trajectory and makes it difficult to change direction in the face of changing conditions or new learning. It locks an organisation into rigid, inflexible processes. Adopting inspect and adapt allows an organisation to harness change to improve and grow.

Underlying all these is a cultural change. The organisation needs to adopt a culture that enables these four key changes to succeed. If you think about a garden bed that's in the shade, gets no water and has poor soil, plants in it may survive but they certainly won't thrive. The dominant culture in most organisations is like that bad garden bed. What the organisation needs is the cultural equivalent of a well tended, well watered, well positioned garden bed to let the four key changes thrive rather than just struggle for survival.

Before jumping in and making changes, what the organisation needs first is a plan. What is the goal? Where are they now? Where do they want to go? What key results do they want to shift? What do they want to do first?

An organisation's capacity for change is limited. You can't rush in and change everything at once. Work out what change will get the organisation moving in the right direction. That might mean focusing on one of the four changes to fix a burning issue and implementing the rest later, or it might mean adopting a small amount of all four and gradually turning up the dials as the organisation matures.

it is also vital that the organisation's plan embodies the new way of working. It must enable distributed decision making, it must focus on flow, it must be based on measuring the right things and above all else the organisation's plan must be able to inspect and adapt.

The plan must also address culture. Culture doesn't just happen. You need to work to make the change happen.

Over the next 5 posts, I'll dig deeper into the four key changes and the cultural change required. I'll start next time with Distributed Decision Making.