Journey Insights

While the journey never ends, the first step is to understand “why”. What defines your company and it’s purpose? In many ways, this will define the way you work together, cooperate and create value for your customers. At every point along this journey, each domain will have a different level of fluency. Focus on those which are currently the most constraining or disruptive to your overall business agility.

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Becoming an agile organisation is an incremental process. There is no single point you say to yourself, ‘Yesterday we weren’t Agile, but today we are. Success!’ However, you can say, ‘Today we are more Agile than yesterday!’ Your journey to business agility can be formal, through a transformation programme, or informal, through ad hoc changes addressing problem areas. Regardless of the mechanism, your business agility journey begins with a set of clear organisational goals. Ask yourself; what is your organisation trying to achieve.

And it’s not an easy journey. The systemic nature of transitioning to business agility can have a profound impact on individuals. Across the entire organisation there must be inspiring leadership, clear communication and a common purpose to create champions out of everyone. And there will be people in your organisation who do not wish to work in this way and will leave. There’s no value judgement in this, simply needing a different way to work. Respect and understanding must be shown to everyone, even those leaving.

However, despite the complexity of the transition, the benefits to business agility are manifest. Starting with the ability to rapidly respond to competitive challenges, disruption and changes in demand. In fact, an agile organisation can do more than just respond, you can be the challenger and disrupter in an uncertain and unpredictable market. Staff satisfaction and retention is higher and, with a general reduction in management overheads, operating costs are lower. Finally, because agile organisations are purpose driven, you are able to be more responsive to your customers or wider purpose.

Pattern Impediments

Not all organisations will succeed in their business agility journey.

Cultural Impediments

Misunderstanding Business Agility:

The most obvious success factor is for an organisation to understand the nature of business agility. Business Agility isn’t Scrum or Kanban applied outside of IT. Business agility (like agile itself) is a set of values. It’s not about doing more with less or working faster. It is a culture of collaboration, adaptability, engagement and accepting (and leveraging) uncertainty for their (and their customers) competitive advantage. This is a fundamental change in the way an organisation operates.

Misunderstanding “why”: Organisations needs to start the transformation for the right reasons. This means where there are dysfunctional teams, high attrition or teams with low-morale, attempting to transition to business agility won’t work. Organisations need to focus on solving these issues first and, while there are some elements that may help, do not make the mistake of assuming business agility is the answer.

Structural Impediments

  • Lack of systemic buy-in: Because it’s a cultural change buy-in and commitment from across the organisation, and the differing perspectives they bring, is needed. And I mean across the organisation – both vertically (from the do’ers to the organisational executives) and horizontally (from IT to Finance to HR).
  • A narrow focus on “my” team or “my division”: With buy-in from across the organisation, an organisation must begin to transform supporting processes. This makes the difference between local agility and business agility.
  • Lack of customer involvement: …
  • Understaffed teams (or doing too much): …
  • Size of company matters – What is the size. 2-4, 15, 50, 150. Roles, complexity, risk, failure changes at each plateu, Dunbars number, SME definition changes.

Transformation Impediments

Treating it like a transformation: Business agility is a journey. There is no point you say to yourself, “yesterday we weren’t agile, but today we are. Success!”. However, there are points you can say, “today we are more agile than yesterday!”. The journey to business agility can be formal, through a transformation program, or informal, through ad-hoc changes addressing problem areas. Regardless of the mechanism, your agile journey begins with a set of clear organisational goals. What is your organisation trying to achieve by becoming agile? As every organisation will have different goals, so the process to become agile will differ as well. Generally, corporate goals relate to improving adaptability in a changing marketplace, driving higher quality work, improved customer & staff satisfaction, sustainable management processes or reducing overheads.

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Imposed transformation: Provide continuous transparency to the entire organisation about the changes; both the activities being undertaken and the reasons behind them. As Simon Sinek famously said “start with why”.

  • Under (or over) emphasising training and coaching:  Training and coaching is also necessary but too often organisations focus on training (because it’s cheaper) and assume that a 2-day course makes their teams agile “masters”. Sadly, it takes a lot more than that to master anything. 10,000 hours seems to be the popularly adopted duration. Ongoing support, such as coaching, can make all the difference for teams. It also helps if teams invest in training the soft skills such as communication.
  • Competing transformations: …

Process Impediment

Lacking portfolio management: Let’s start at the top-end; most organisations have very poor portfolio management processes. Successful business agility brings agility into portfolio planning and limits the number of projects being delivered simultaneously. Effort should be focused on bringing a small number projects (the most important projects) to completion before teams move onto the next project. Higher maturity organisations can start to move away from project portfolios towards product portfolios.

Agile isn’t one size fits all: As more teams and divisions take part in the transformation, different types of agile frameworks and practices need to be adopted and applied. This decision should be driven by the teams themselves.

Lacking Technical Agility: Organisations need to invest in the technical agile practices as well as the leadership and business practices. Technical agility (and not just for software teams) is critically important. If all you think about when someone says agile is Scrum, and not XP, TDD or Pair Programming, then you are missing a significant success criteria.

Avoiding continuous improvement: Organisations and teams must start with the retrospective.

Leadership Impediments

Delegating actions: Leaders need to trust teams to make decisions; to delegate the outcomes they want them to achieve, rather than the actions they think need to be done. An agile leader will give their team the trust and authority to decide on the right set of actions to achieve the given outcome.

Cognitive Biases

“A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgement, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.” – Wikipedia

We are all guilty of these at one time or another–a pattern of thinking that, when examined, is clouded by our own judgements and has only a passing acquaintance with logic and reality. Even when we are aware of our biases, they still, insidiously, act upon us. Business agility , by its transparent and collaborative nature, is resilient to many of these biases, but, at the same time, susceptible to others.

Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favour information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. This is most commonly expressed during our beloved stand-ups. We will focus on the positive information if we believe that the iteration is going well and vice-versa, should we believe the iteration is going poorly. This can lead to scrum masters and team leaders not acting on negative trends (what Deming described as special causes) or falsely acting to “correct” a team operating within expected bounds (what Deming described as common causes).

Self-Serving Bias: Self-serving bias is the distortion of people’s perceptions due to the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem. In a strong collaborative and team environment, especially one where failure is encouraged, the impact of a self-serving bias is extreme. Individuals who base their self-esteem on their seniority within an organisation or their ability to deliver will, unconsciously, present biased information on progress, capabilities or defects, limiting the ability of a product owner or other team members to make informed decisions.

Information Bias: Information bias is the tendency for people to seek additional information before making a decision, even if that information will have little to no impact on the outcome. There is a tendency in agile teams to collect a significant quantity of metrics from workload management systems, tracking systems, CI environments, etc., but then not using that information in any substantial way. It should go without saying that this management behaviour is a waste (in the lean sense of the word) and can have both a human and financial cost.

In-group Bias: In-group bias refers to the tendency of people to favour members of their “group” or, in the agile case, team. This can be seen in teams that regularly self-organise with the same people or teams that compete for common resources (such as access to DBA’s or user groups) without consideration for the project or organisation as a whole. This bias can subtly damage, and ultimately destroy, the ability for an organisation to operate in a collaborative, transparent and agile manner. Efforts to build agile organisational structure can counter this, but still requires business leaders to maintain vigilance.

Bias Blind Spot: The last bias is probably the most insidious. The bias blind spot is the failing of people to identify and compensate for their own biases. In various studies, the majority of participants have consistently rated themselves as less vulnerable to cognitive biases than the average person. If you have read this article and thought, “These don’t apply to me–I am very self-aware”, then you are probably succumbing to the bias blind spot. Be aware that biases operate subconsciously and may be contrary to your conscious decision-making behaviour.

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