April 24, 2014

Agile Coaching Blog

A Strategy for Growing Organizational Agility

In a previous blog post and the accompanying white paper, we talked about organizational agility and the dangers of myopic agility. As is more fully detailed in that post, the most common form of myopic agility happens when companies enable, develop and empower team agility but give little or no attention to other aspects of organizational performance. Team myopia, as we termed it in that post, eventually results in a gradual leveling off and then a decline in an agile team’s capacity to realize its full potential.

Taking a holistic approach to growing and developing agility, while perhaps initially more difficult, yields far greater results more sustainably than focusing solely on the relatively quick fix of myopic agility. Rather than mere team agility, what you really want to go for is a broader, organizational agility.

Two Managerial Foci: Strategy and Design

Managers committed to growing broader organizational agility should focus on two areas: Strategy and Design.

Strategy is about orienting a shared vision for agility across your organization; determining initial, broad steps for getting there; and then, finally, acting to grow and improve, iteratively and incrementally. In this sense, strategy is emergent, not fixed: it provides line of sight without committing to big upfront decisions.

Design is about creating conditions across the broader organizational environment that will foster the growth of capabilities that are a match with your vision for agility. It is about identifying which capabilities you need to grow, and then creating conditions that allow for their growth.

Design and strategy work together—they are two sides of the same coin.

When it comes to organizational agility, strategy and design are two sides of the same coin.

The strategy side helps to bring about a clear line of sight, in terms of where you want to go, to continuously track where you actually are at any given moment, and to make adjustments in your strategy based on what you are learning. The design side acknowledges that if you want to change peoples’ behavior, you need to focus on altering the rules, structures, systems and processes which condition that behavior. This, too, is an ongoing, iterative process. The strategy side helps us to think about where we’re going, to take steps in getting there, and to assess where we are with respect to our vision. The design side helps us do the actual work of building particular organizational capabilities.

Strategy is the topic for this post. Design will be addressed in a future post.

A Strategic Approach for Growing Agility

Strategy is about creating a vision for agility and determining initial, broad steps for getting there. We have identified a common strategic pattern, which has four basic steps. The details of this pattern will depend largely on your company and your goals.

  1. Be Clear Why You Are Doing Agile
  2. Create an Initial Strategy for Your Transition
  3. Begin
  4. Improve Iteratively and Incrementally

Step 1: Be Clear Why You Are Doing This

The first part of gaining clarity is that you want to address the question “Why Agility?” for yourselves, as managers.

It is important that you, as leaders and managers, have clarity—again for yourselves—as to the Why: “Why agile? What do we hope to achieve through agile practices? What does it mean to me personally?”

Clarity around the why (of anything, really) is a source of passion and endurance, and it helps you to stay focused on the broader organizational outcomes you are committed to. Goals that arise from such a deep sense of the why tend to translate more readily into real, practical institutional outcomes, including, perhaps most importantly, the outcome of improved organizational performance.

The second part of gaining clarity is engaging people in your organization: sharing with them your own vision for agility, and creating occasions that invite them to do the same for themselves. Experience has shown—and the research seems to bear this out—that when leaders envision organizational direction and purpose, and when they share that direction and purpose with associates in such a way that they are invited to do so for themselves, an important basis for broader organizational achievement is created.

Step 2: Hypothesize an Initial Strategy

Create a strategy, but don’t hard code it; it will evolve as you learn. Nevertheless, having an initial point of departure is important to help you get started.

One extremely powerful tool for strategizing is the strategy map. In short, a strategy map helps you answer the question for any given strategic goal: “What are the minimum conditions which need to exist in order to realize our goal, and how can we bring about those conditions?” It also helps you determine the feasibility of a goal and to thoughtfully answer the question “Can we really do this?”

Step 3: Begin

Determining and taking your first strategic step is critical. What precisely your first step looks like will depend on what is most important to you, what you are already doing, and what is immediately feasible. As such, there are many different start-up strategies. For instance, you might start with a single pilot team. Or you might start with a larger program. You might go all in, bringing a number of teams up together. Or you might begin by resolving large organizational challenges.

There are an endless number of possible strategies, in a variety of combinations of the above. There are two things to bear in mind, however.

First, however you start, you want to do so as early as possible, while still making sure you have the minimum support structure in place to make those early efforts successful.

Second, you want to take a first step (or series of steps) that has the capacity of yielding (a) early wins and (b) early information. Early wins help build necessary positive energy and attract positive political alignment. Early information is the kind of information that can tell you if you’re on the right track and what next steps are likely to yield best results.

Step 4: Improve Iteratively and Incrementally

Now that you have started, you need to create a management infrastructure to help you incrementally improve. What are you improving? Ultimately, you are improving your organizational capacity for agility, much of which happens on the organization front.

This step is the heart and soul of your strategy, and where most of the action takes place. It is essentially an experimental activity: it is iterative, incremental and cyclic, and its results are emergent and, as such, cannot be predicted too far in advance.

Such a process has a long pedigree in both organizational improvement efforts and within the field of operations and even warfare. It has the following structure: Try, Observe, Orient, Formulate, Try (Again)

Organizational Agility requires a strategy

Try

You start by actually trying something. This is your first experiment. This can be a new pilot team, a skunk-works project, or a new program—whatever it is that you have selected for your Begin step above.

Observe

Then you observe what happens. What kinds of struggles is the team (or teams or program) having? What challenges? What kinds of bad behaviors is the team exhibiting?

Orient

Next, you gather your observations and hypothesize what might be happening. This is the orient stage.

The orient stage is probably the key stage, so you want to be as rigorous as possible.

It is way too tempting to simply solve things as quickly as possible. And yes, you want to do that, in order to help the team keep on moving.

However, the challenges and struggles which the team is having often points to deeper organizational characteristics.

If you could discover what those are, and then solve for those, you not only resolve the immediate presenting problem, but you resolve the conditions that gave rise to that problem in the first place. This provides for a deeper, more sustainable approach to problem-solving, and contributes to your overall management goal of continuous organizational improvement and organizational agility.

Formulate

In the next stage, you formulate your next experiment. Note the term experiment—it helps us to remember that deep issues cannot always be solved right away. In fact, sometimes we need to try a couple of things just to understand what is really happening.

In formulating your next experiment you need to ask the questions: What do we hope to achieve? What do we expect? What are our success criteria? How will we test?

Try (Again)

After formulation, you then begin the cycle again by executing the next experiment—the next try stage. During this stage, you would conduct any or all of the experiments you identified during the Formulate stage.

A Strategic Approach to Organizational Agility

Such an emergent approach to strategic design recognizes the fact that we can’t possibly know everything up-front, and that we will need to learn as we go. And yet, it also recognizes that we need to have a rational way to get started, and we need a basic roadmap that we can follow, at least initially.

Remember that you first need to get clear on the why of agility—It might to “Comply with a regulatory enironment” or “Be able to test and verify new product ideas faster.” Or it could be a specific institutional challenge—something like “halve the time it takes to get viable new products out” or “double delivery throughput across the board.”

You will also need to create a structure to support doing the important work of change design and testing (described above in the Orient step). Some organizations have a dedicated enablement team. In other organizations, a senior leadership team takes on organizational agility as one of their key initiatives. Whichever route you take (and there can be others as well) it is important to recognize that whatever you do, you will find yourself up against any number of forms of resistance, including your own, and you will want to give up, or you will want to water down your vision in order to more comfortably conform to current reality. What support structures will you need to put in place to help you take a step forward at such a key moment?

Conclusion

We have articulated a pattern for strategizing the building of organizational agility in your company. The next element we need to consider is the design component, which has to do with creating conditions which support the emergence of organizational capabilities that are congruent with your particular vision for organizational agility. We’ll discuss design in a future blog post.

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