Agility Culture

Over the last few posts we have looked at the four key things that organisations need to do in order to become agile - Distributed Decision Making, Execution Efficiency, Measure what Matters, Inspect and Adapt. In each of those I make brief mention of an "agile culture" that enables them. It's now time to take a deeper look at that agile culture and see what it is.

What is an agile culture? To me the culture is a set of organisational behaviours that enable agility to flourish. If you think about two garden beds - one has poor soil, little sun and get no attention. The other has good soil, plenty of water and lots of sun. If you plant identical plants into each bed, which one will do better (and it's probably best not to ask my wife about flannel flowers at this point - a lovely Australian native plant that flourishes on neglect in rocks by the side of the road but curls up its toes and dies when lovingly tended in our garden)? Agile culture is the well tended garden bed that lets agility thrive. All too often we see agility struggling - thin and weedy, straggly yellow leaves. That's because the culture wasn't there to support it.

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Inspect And Adapt

Over the last few posts we have been looking at the key changes I feel are necessary for an organisation to be agile, rather than just do agile. We have looked at distributed decision making, execution efficiency and measuring what matters. It's time now to cover the fourth key change - inspect and adapt.

This is probably the hardest of all the four changes for an organisation to adopt in anything but the most superficial of ways. By adopting inspect and adapt, they are not just adopting the need to continuously improve. They are also adopting a view of the world that is fundamentally non-deterministic. Where uncertainty is not just normal, but accepted and even embraced. Where long term plans give way to rapid experimentation. This may be a step too far for many organisations.

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Measure What Matters

So far we have looked at two of the four key elements for real business agility - distributed decision making and execution efficiency. It's time now to look at the third element - measuring what matters. Organisations tend to collect a lot of data They measure a lot of stuff. The problem with many of those measurements is that they are often data that is easy to collect rather than data that is important. 

What's the problem with that? Data is data. If it's easy to measure, why not measure it? Having more data has to be better than less. Not necessarily. There is something important about making a measurement that makes it vitally important to measure the right things, rather than just measuring stuff just because you can. The important thing about making a measurement is that measuring drives behaviour. As soon as you measure something, people will naturally try to optimise that measurement and if you're measuring the wrong things, that can drive some very bad behaviour.

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Execution Efficiency

It's time to continue our look at the 4 key changes needed to become a truly agile organisation. This time we will look at the second key change - execution efficiency. Now most organisations will claim to be efficient already. They make very efficient use of their resources - everything is scheduled to achieve 100% resource loading at all times and costs are kept to a minimum. Things are produced with the minimum number of people and at the minimum cost. What could be more efficient that that?

From a pure, cost efficient sense, they are right, so I'm going to carefully define what I mean by efficiency here. It's not cost efficiency. What I'm talking about is how efficiently the organisation can turn ideas into value. How long does it take, and how much does it cost to take an idea and turn it into a real product or service that generates business value? Isn't that the same as resource efficiency? No, it isn't.

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Distributed Decision Making

Imagine you are in a car travelling down the motorway. You are trying to keep to the speed limit (110km/h here in Australia). How good are you at doing that? Do you, like me (and most of the population) just follow the car in front with an occasional glance at the speedometer? A few hasty speed corrections when that occasional glance tells you that the car in front was doing 130 not 100? Now imagine that there is a police car right behind you. Does your strategy change? Mine certainly does. Your eyes barely leave the speedometer. You maintain absolute, tight control over the car's speed.

There are downsides to this approach though. While your eyes are firmly fixed on the speedo (that's Australian for speedometer BTW) they aren't firmly fixed on the road. While you are deeply focused on the operational details of driving the car (controlling its speed) you have lost sight of something very important - the road ahead. You may be sitting right on the speed limit but you have just driven past your exit. Or worse, you may have missed a sign telling you that the speed limit had changed and now the flashing lights are in your rear view mirror and you are being pulled over for speeding. Precisely the thing you were trying to avoid.

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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.

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Last Responsible Moment

Probably the least understood (or most misunderstood) lean principle is "decide as late as possible". I have seen it used to justify all sorts of weird decision-making policies that generally involve never making decisions, because surely as late as possible means leaving it until the absolute last possible moment, or even later. I have seldom, if ever, seen it applied correctly. So let's take a look at this principle and see what it really means.

The other way to express this principle is "defer decisions until the last responsible moment". There are two points of confusion here. The first is what is the last responsible moment? The other is what exactly do we mean by deferring decisions? Let's look at the last responsible moment. What is the last responsible moment? Does it mean the absolute last minute? Do we leave all decisions until we are absolutely forced to make one because otherwise the whole endeavour will fall flat? No. That makes no sense at all. Leaving decisions until they are forced upon you is hardly being responsible. Does it mean making decisions early because that's the responsible thing to do? Again, no. Making decisions early isn't using the last responsible moment. The last responsible moment is a really hard thing to define, so let's not try. Let's re-word it instead. The intent of the last responsible moment is to make decisions with the maximum possible information.

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Rigidity = Fragility

"We need to harden this process...make it more robust. Too many things are slipping through the cracks". How many times have you heard statements like that? Things that don't fit the process take extra time to resolve, so we make sure that the process covers as much as possible. As issues arise, we tighten the process still further. Spell out the entry criteria. Map the process steps in great detail. The problem is, of course, that no matter how much detail we have in the process, things still don't always fit so we document and harden even more.

We create processes and because we are humans working with incomplete information, there are gaps. Our natural instinct then is to fill in the gaps. Tighten the process. Specify, document, enforce. The problem is that this simply doesn't work. The real world conspires against us. Customers don't always want the standard product. You may have a carefully documented 30 day SLA but that doesn't help a bit when a key customer rings up and says "We know it's usually 30 days but we really need it in 10, can you please help? If not, your competitor has said they can do it in 10 days." You may only sell in lots of 100 but what happens if a good customer rings up and asks for an extra 35 because they have had a spike in sales but don't have the space to store another full hundred? The more rigid we make our processes the more often they break down.

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