July 24, 2014

Agile Coaching Blog

Organizational Agility & the Dangers of Myopic Agility

For those of you who have been managing and growing agile teams for some months, see if the following sequence of graphs doesn’t ring a bell:

Exhibit A: The Early Signs of Myopia

Without organizational agility, performance lags over time.

This depicts a time-lapse illustration of a typical agile team performance over, say, six to nine months.  By performance, I mean level of team innovation, enthusiasm, productivity and stakeholder engagement.

The phenomenon depicted shows a team that starts off all great guns. Then over time, continuous improvement, reflective action, performance and overall enthusiasm begin to level off. Finally, those levels begin to fall.

What’s Happening Here?

Well, what’s happened is that this agile team has found itself bumping up against significant institutional blocks. Existing rules, structures and processes slow things down. Managers who haven’t yet learned how to facilitate self-organizing teams block, in subtle and often unintentional ways, team progress. Lack of genuine customer engagement leaves the team focusing on increasingly tactical issues. Political forces are too often aligned around the us-versus-them mindset that often accompanies any kind of potentially successful organizational change. In short, this team (like so many others) has hit an institutional ceiling:

Without organizational agility, many agile teams find they hit an institutional ceiling

Unfortunately, an all-too-common management response is to try to get teams to work harder. Teams are asked to work evenings, weekends, to cut corners—to do anything and everything to meet the deadlines. This leads to burnout, further drop in quality, missed sprint goals, and loss of focus. In the end, you undermine the practices and the discipline that are the source of your salvation.

Or managers try to find ways to motivate teams, or they try this-or-that to try to re-inject that original energy. All to no avail.

A More Holistic View of Your Organizational Setting 

The simple—or perhaps not-so-simple—fact is that if it is to be sustainable, effective agile practice must move beyond the agile team and address the broader organization.

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The above picture portrays an organization as a spectrum of performance capabilities—things that organizations are capable of doing. These capabilities are depicted as five spectral bands. In this spectrum view, each band represents an aspect of organizational performance.

  • The Execution band refers to the day-to-day, moment-by-moment practices by which work gets done. We usually think of execution in terms of software teams and, as such, includes development and engineering practices (e.g. configuration management, testing, design, programming, integration, etc.) as well as other activities such as requirements validation (e.g. user stories) and release planning (e.g. story point estimation).
  • The Delivery band refers to the practices by which executed work is delivered to stakeholders. This can include how product delivery is managed (e.g., as projects), how requirements are established and shared with a delivery team, and even how portfolios of product deliverables are managed and delivered. This realm of performance typically falls under the name project management.
  • The Product/Business Strategy band refers to how products are envisioned, how they reflect and help to realize broader business goals and strategies, and the degree to which they elicit profound customer engagement, whoever the customer happens to be. It also refers to an organization’s capacity for what Clayton Christensen refers to as disruptive innovation–the capacity to introduce innovations that redefine the broader market space in which a company’s product falls. This capability is most commonly captured with the term program management.
  • The Organization band refers to the organizational structures, processes, and systems that determine how work gets accomplished in the broadest sense. This includes things like performance management, governance, regulatory compliance, reporting structure (who reports to whom), approval processes, budgeting, and so on. What does it take to get things done? What obstacles do people run into when trying to get work done effectively and efficiently? These are the kinds of questions that are addressed within the organization band.
  • The Leadership band refers to the ways in which managers and leaders—at all levels of the organization—manage and lead. Do leaders tend to rely heavily on directive, command-control leadership approaches? Are people encouraged to take ownership, and hence greater risks? Or are they encouraged to look upwards, managerially, for direction and permission to take action? Are leaders able to see the larger picture, the greater complexity? Or is their frame of reference narrow and overly simplifying, resulting in management strategies that are ultimately debilitating and ineffective?

Myopic Agility

The problem is that most companies focus all of their energy and attention on one or, at most, two of these bands—They practice myopic agility. There are a number of forms which myopic agility can take:

Delivery Myopia

One of the most common forms of myopic agility is maintaining sole focus on agile team delivery (the delivery band), while ignoring the other bands.

One form of myopic agility is delivery myopia

With this form of myopia, agile teams are doing (or trying to do) some specific practice, such as Scrum. They go through all the right motions, such as doing sprint planning meetings, stand-ups, reviews, and retrospectives. However, their engineering practices are not very agile. Neither is their product strategy.  Meanwhile teams run into all kinds of organizational and technical hurdles. After a while, teams cannot deliver stories, their quality deteriorates, and the lack of alignment with product management begins to sour relations. Before you know it, you are beginning to think that the old way may have been better.

 

Team Myopia

Another very common form of myopia is team myopia.

Without organizational agility, companies can develop team myopia

Here, we’re a little better off, because at least now we have engineering (Execution band) practices on board, so delivery is a little smoother, and overall quality is higher. However, at some point the team becomes adrift in terms of delivering value to product management. Or, product goals are constantly shifting, causing churn and constant rework for the team. Meanwhile, teams run into the kinds of organizational and leadership challenges they run into under delivery myopia. Though less obvious than delivery myopia, team myopia will eventually undermine the team’s efforts.

Product Myopia

As Lean Startup continues to gain a greater foothold in the industry, we are seeing more and more of this kind of myopia. Teams are trying to implement practices of Lean Startup (the product/business strategy band), without dedicated delivery teams (the delivery band), without solid engineering practices (the execution band), and without proper organizational or management support (the organization and leadership bands).

In the end, these efforts are not producing the results they could. That’s because even the best—the most lean, the most adaptive, the most emergent—Product strategy can’t be concretely realized without effective delivery (and execution); even if there is a reasonable level of leadership and organization-level agility.

Organization Myopia

You’ve probably seen examples of management interventions, such as TQM, Six Sigma, reengineering—all of which share a lack of rigorous support along the other bands. Or, you’ve been a part of classic organization development (OD) efforts that fail to stick due to inattentiveness on the product, delivery and execution fronts.

All of these are forms of organization myopia.

Leadership Myopia

Finally, there is the decades-long focus on leadership. Hundreds of leadership books are published each year. Many of these offer effective practices to improve leadership capability, such as the work of Chris Argyris, Bill Torbert and, more recently, Bill Joiner.

leadership-myopia360

It is our belief, however, that such practices are best supported when similarly concrete practices are brought to bear across other aspects of organizational performance–as for instance, in the areas of product management, product delivery, technical practices, and organizational structures and culture. I’d like to suggest that sustainable leader development is buffeted, and the adaptive initiatives of leaders supported when similarly adaptive and agile practices are brought to bear across the other bands of organizational performance.

From Myopic Agility to Organizational Agility

The fundamental problem with myopic agility—regardless of the target performance bands—is that even if all you say you care about is that single band (“we only care about team delivery,” “we only care about our product experiments,” etc.), your likelihood for sustained success is determined by the degree to which you are able to achieve congruent agile performance across the other bands.

At BigVisible, we advocate a holistic approach to building agility. Our target goes beyond team agility. Our target is organizational agility.

Organizational agility refers, in the broadest sense, to an organization’s ability to effectively sense and rapidly respond to change and complexity in ways that increase that organization’s capacity to thrive, all-the-while remaining true to its highest aspirations.

Taking a broader, organizational approach to agility recognizes the inherent mutual synergy of all five aspects of organizational performance.

Conclusion

Organizational performance is holistic: the bands are interconnected.  You can survive for a while with myopia, but at some point your near-sightedness will need to be corrected if you are to avoid crashing.

We will continue this conversation in a near-future blog article. In the meantime, you might want to read an article by my colleague George Schlitz that outlines an holistic approach to agility.

You can also download my white paper, which goes into more depth about strategies and design for organizational agility.

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