A lingering confusion arises out of the collision between traditional company management mindset and Agile implementation – a phenomenon known as Fake Agile. Signals include adopting the vocabulary without changing much or, worse, infusing conventional thinking with a ‘we-are-Agile’ declaration leaving some people feeling reassured nothing is changing, and others confused. Agile as a mindset can play a vital role in a company’s evolution. Apart from products designed cheaper and faster aimed to delight the customer, Agile prepares individuals and companies for handling greater complexity and for moving into the level of self-collective responsibility essential for self-management. The upcoming World Agility Forum in Lisbon, Portugal, September 29th, 2019 is asking:
“Will Agile succeed at moving past the fake version to attain the status of a genuine mindset shift?”
I am not an Agile practitioner, but I do understand agility: cognitive, physical, emotional and social. Also, I grasp the difference between the linear thinking behind so much of traditional decision-making and the kind of holistic broader spectrum thinking needed to work with the unpredictable and complex.
In my role as a facilitator transforming stuck and messy situations, I perceive the deep dynamics that sit quietly but effectively underneath the surface. While everyone is busy, these forces are working for and against the achievement of lofty goals. A couple of tensions show up when I sense into the implementation of fake Agile versus what is needed in order to work effectively with complexity. Tensions illuminate opportunities to do something different, to pay attention to the underlying conflicts and put that energy to a useful purpose. Otherwise, projects attain incremental movement or none at all. Incremental progress is not enough. When business models can be declared obsolete overnight, or entire sectors see their mainstream operations replaced by a better tech solution, complacency is deadly.
Tensions Fueling Fake Agile Implementation
Centralized controlling companies are implementing Agile to get their products created and delivered faster while ‘delighting’ the customer. Hopefully, the customer is in the equation as a participant. Hierarchically structured organizations are not designed for either complexity or speedy response. Nor are the processes or reward systems. Engineering predictable outcomes are believed to be how quarterly results are attained. Introduce an uncertain element into the expected equation and tensions will arise becoming even more magnified by imposing Agile.
A Look at the Obvious Tensions
90-day delivery times come with a high need for certainty. Contextually, the workplace is often running on an adrenaline high and low trust. In contrast, Agile feels uncertain and unproven. Expanding the Agile methods into a mindset fit for agility, especially in complex conditions, is a bolder leadership calling that nothing in a traditional company rewards.
Draw on courage and fear to try something different. Trust the people a company has hired to do something that matters. If the goal doesn’t matter, why should people care? Being explicit on the value to the customer and the larger world is vital.
Highly pressured workplaces come with risk-averse, often rigid mindsets. When companies fail to adapt to what is going on in the larger world, stress is handed off to employees. That makes the workplace a highly stressful and unsafe place to be. Biologically you can grow or protect yourself, but you cannot do both at the same time. It is natural to resist any change that is perceived as unsafe emotionally, socially or psychologically. If punishing risk-taking is a company habit, deep down everyone knows it is not safe to experiment with anything new. Pretending to change while doing nothing is a reasonable response particularly when the workplace is loaded with fear of loss or failure. The other significant factor is how metrics reward behaviour. If people are asked to risk learning and doing something new, then rewarded for doing the same thing, no one should be surprised when pretending is more appealing than adopting and experimenting. Most performance management systems reward individual, not group achievement, embedding limitations into the dynamic.
Results will improve by sharing responsibility for focusing on experimenting and learning by engaging with the customer and cross-functionally across the organization. Making this move also requires courage on everyone’s part so caring and belonging must be cultivated and not assumed. A shared goal needs to have meaning and real value, otherwise, you are asking people to put their head out so it can be more easily lopped off. Not exactly an enticing proposition.
The fundamental skills needed today do not rely on handbooks or methods but on investing and trusting that within each person showing up to work every day, there is a ton of untapped potential wanting to contribute. By working together, you reclaim control of how to respond, replacing the fear of losing control. Shaping a positive future through the messy part of Agile implementation can develop the skills necessary to close the complexity gap pervasive in the world of work and life.
Implementing Agile (or any other transformation) requires heart-centred care to support meeting the gap between the challenge and the goal. Ignoring basic human needs usually results in a temptation to restore stability by rolling back to past practices. When metrics are interfering, bolder action is required. Managers can help remove the built-in limitations, freeing teams to get work done without restriction. Perhaps the most exciting thing about fake Agile is that it points directly to opportunities for personal and organizational growth. Both are essential and imperative.
The World Agility Forum is in Lisbon, Portugal September 29th, 2019. A panel with Steve Denning and others will discuss fake vs real Agile implementation and look at Agile implementation in different cultural contexts. October 23rd, Dawna Jones will be presenting Navigating the Messy Middle at a speed talk for Agile People Sweden, October 23rd, 2019.
Listen to Dave West talk about Boosting Agility on the Inspirational Insights Podcast and the counter-intuitive aspects of why Agile reduces risk with Nancy Van Schooenderwoert and Brian Shoemaker, coauthors of Agile Methods for Safety Critical Systems.