Agile teams don’t scale! They spread (if conditions are right)

Background

Agile teams definition: “Small, smart, dedicated, in-place teams who have the necessary range of skills to seize a new opportunity as it arises. The agile teams manage themselves and are fully accountable for what they do”.

With technologies and competition accelerating, companies are hoping to shift into a more flexible organisational model. The buzzword for this is agile. Agile once considered a radical alternative to command-and-control-style management and is now “rolled out” across a broad range of industries. It is an exciting concept in businesses.  Having these teams mean that in the already happening future of merging artificial intelligence with real intelligence will allow these smart teams to direct much larger teams of remote workers and digital humans. This combination of in-person, remote, and digital workers will allow the teams to react quickly to new opportunities and quickly retreat from failures. It is clear why this concept is so attractive. These teams can be the biggest winners in the digital era.

However, while the concept is widely appreciated, we seem to get stuck on trying to scale, “roll out” or duplicate by using existing, none effective, change management practices. Agile teams are new and, in most cases, fundamentally different way of thinking and operating. It requires a deep change.

Deep change

Deep change happens when we fundamentally change the way we think. It allows something different to grow and spread across the organisation in a way that is sustainable and has long term benefits.

As leaders and change agents we usually focus on activating the self-energizing commitment and energy of people around changes that they deeply care about. However very little if any attention is given to the limiting conditions that exist in all organisations. These limiting conditions might stop the agile teams from forming, these might slow or stop them growing and deliver business results or these might hold them back from spreading. Only by addressing these limiting conditions organisations can really become agile.

The diagram below, inspired by the book Dance of change by Peter Senge describes the self-energizing process of deep change and the conditions that limit it.

deep change diagram 

Seed phase – limiting conditions

Seed the idea of agile teams – Create Small, smart, dedicated, in place teams.

Time flexibility and availability –most people at work are overloaded and under constant pressure to do more with less. However, like with any significant change people that are part of an agile team, should have enough time to learn, develop and embed a new way of thinking and working. To achieve that the teams should be able to control their own time allocation. The teams should also prioritise what to do or not and how much time is directed to learning, planning, reflecting and collaborating. With limited time as a constant reality, start small!

Psychological safety and trust – at the core of the agile team is the ability to experiment, fail fast, learn and continually improve. Teams should feel safe to share their learnings and trust that being open and honest is advancing both their own and their teamwork. It is important to allow the trust to develop through clarity and consistency of Organisational values, leadership that “walk the talk” and encouragement for exploring personal and organisational values alignment.

Help availability – agile is a new practice in most organisations.  It is a new way for individuals, teams and organisations to think and operate and it requires a significant amount of support and help. Help should come in the form of coaches who are able to guide and challenge the team for new learnings, sponsor availability to remove bottlenecks and protect the team initiation and other experts to complement capabilities gaps. Many organisations have not achieved the commitment level required to cause agile to be successful. If you are an executive sponsoring who this change but have no time to participate, if you are a manager but you sit on the fence to see if the experiment will be successful, or if you add this activity as just one more thing to do then don’t even start.

 

Grow phase –  limiting conditions

Grow the agile teams – allow them to manage themselves and be fully accountable for what they do

Measurements in use – Measurement is an important part of building credibility and feedback is key to agile learning. However, if the measurement is used as a lever to change behaviours you are undermining reflection and openness of the team to new learning. For example, if you created the expectation that agile is about short term ROI you will negatively impact the team ability to meet expectations and undermine the overall value that can be achieved from this change.  Instead, organisations who are committed to the success of agile, should consider balanced measures including performance, value creation and team health and use these as real-time, constant feedback to support learning and growth.

Local management of interdependencies – agile teams that are interacting with non-agile functions might feel misunderstood and unsupported. The organisation has to feel comfortable with allowing the teams to manage their interdependencies at a local level and the team must learn how to become aware of the system impacts of their own activities.  Two critical capabilities required for that: the ability to collaborate with others and system thinking.

Tolerance for self – directed teams -The agile teams require a successful arrangement of power moving away from direct and control to setting direction and adjusting in order to achieve their purpose. If the organisation’s tolerance for independence and self-governance does not increase, then this leads to a clash over autonomy between the local group and the larger system. The best way of increasing tolerance for self-directed teams is through setting a hierarchy of purpose where at every level there is an awareness of the purpose and direction of the organisation while considering the current reality and developing the capabilities for local management of interdependencies.

Spread phase – limiting conditions

Ready and able to seize a new opportunity as it arises

Organisational learning – the overall ability of the organisation to accept, learn and adopt new thinking is critical for spreading the agile teams. If you have invested all your focus on the growth of the initial teams and have not worked on developing learning capabilities across the wider community, spreading will be impossible. To overcome this limiting condition, organisations have to break the “silos”, distribute experts’ knowledge and allow participation and sharing of knowledge across all stakeholders.

Culture flexibility – Fear and anxiety are the most prevailing limiting conditions for any change to be successful and sustainable. This fear is rooted in the most common culture in organisations, the culture of winners and losers. It means that for new ways to spread other ways and the leaders that currently practice these must loose. It raises questions like: “am I safe?”, “am I good enough?”, “can I trust others to say I don’t know?”. On top of psychological safety, organisations must accept, demonstrate and embed diversity. Diversity will allow for a smoother inclusion of new thoughts and practices.

Evolving purpose – As agile teams grow in capabilities, deliver business results and gain credibility, they demand more self-governance, the ability to define their own boundaries and purpose and to set new targets.  As teams are learning to be aware of their context and collaborate with others, boundaries should be allowed to evolve.

 

Summary

The concept of agile teams as the winners in the future of work is taking hold with many organisation. To enable the agile teams to spread organisations must alter the limiting conditions that cause these ideas a premature death.

 

@Hadas Wittenberg is a Future of Work enabler and the founder of Adaptive Futures.

The reason you don’t recruit the best talents

I found it interesting to read an article on the NZ Herald talking about the industry of personality tests as a way used by organisations to reduce the risk of recruiting the wrong people. (p.s. as opposed to increasing the chance of hiring the best people). It’s unfortunately, supporting my view that the challenge we are facing in New Zealand and elsewhere is a problem of talent waste not shortage. Our fundamental assumptions about work are causing our economy to be stuck on no growth and less pay.

When I arrived in New Zealand 17 years ago I was lucky. I somehow landed an interview on the first week with a hiring manager who was open minded and inclusive. He had no issue to consider someone for a leadership position that had no New Zealand or industry experience and not the best English. If I was not that lucky then and try it today, I would have straggled to even pass the “sophisticated” screening tests.  When later, I asked that person why he thought to hire me, his answer was “ability to demonstrate positive attitude, overcoming hardship and a passion for the task at hand”.

I took that answer as a guiding principle when later looking for people’s potential. However, throughout the years I was surprised to learn what are the common hiring and talent growth strategies and the way it is limiting potential with a set of assumptions that haven’t been tested. The current economy in New Zealand is of very low unemployment rate. This is considered a good problem to have. However, in this economy many of the existing recruitment and talents growth strategies are making organisation’s talents challenges even worse.

Some examples:

Screen for average

Organisations screen based on past skills and personality traits out of a very limited and not in their control pool. Because organisations assume these can limit mistakes. Most organisations recruit the same way: post a job, screen resumes, interview some people, pick whom to hire.  This is hiring for average.  Most top performers are not looking for work precisely because they are top performers, so they won’t be in that pool anyway. Further to that we apply screening as if we had plenty of candidates to select from based on criteria that no one can prove or link to performance. For example, why do we assume that to be an awesome UX designer in a bank requires previous experience in precisely the same job in the banking industry???.

Entrenching biases

Existing practices like Job descriptions and hiring decisions are entrenching biases not just based on gender, age, ethnicity etc. It is now becoming worse by the flooding of personality tests and AI key words, proclaiming to identify a fit with the organisation and the job before you even talk to the person. Most organisations are not really aware of the culture they currently have, and even if they do, not always this is the one they wish to have.  What makes up a person is far more complex than a set of words or letters combination to describe their personality. With a year of research I found no evidence that anyone showed a validated, predictable link between common tests used and performance. All we do is screening out diversity. Even the approach of matching with a model persona designed based on your current top performers is problematic as it ensures more of the same. (There are decades  of validated research about human personality psychology and motivation that are very useful for people to increase self awareness, it is more our understanding of how to use these researches that is the problem).

Filling the gaps

Hiring managers usually compromise on appointments to fill gaps assuming they can fix potential shortcomings with some training. Designing effective training is hard. It has to be personalised, in context, and internalised over a long period of time. In most cases organisations don’t actually know what and how to cause sustained improvement in performance, particularly when considering that a big (even if unknown) part of high performance is influenced by the environment (i.e. the manager, the team, the organisation culture, and the leadership style).  Add to that the commonly held financial point of view of “we don’t expect to invest much in talent growth because we assume people move around anyway”. But what happens if you don’t? I passionately believe in expanding peoples strengths, ensuring every experience is a growth experience. This is a positive sum game, where everyone wins.  Current approach ensures no growth hence flat productivity at best and people do leave, particularly the top performers because they are motivated by personal growth.

No use of data

We would have been better if we actually used data sourced from personality tests and other screening and performance data points to reflect and improve. Currently we still use like/ dislike and personal intuition as the best predictor of future success. Even if data is available, it is used only as supporting material at the beginning. Organisations don’t usually go back to reflect and improve. With a new sense making model , there is a huge opportunity to create new insights and positive actions based on big data derived from knowing people, knowing organisations and knowing performance.

 

To summaries, in my view there is an ever growing industry that is trying to pull the short blanket to cover skills gaps. This industry made not much difference in recent decades to people’s fulfillment or productivity growth. We have to fundamentally challenge our assumptions about work and the relationship between people, organisations and performance and design new strategies for  a different future.

 

@Hadas Wittenberg is a future of work enabler and founder of Adaptive Futures.

Do we really have a talent crisis?

Based on the latest PWC CEO survey, “New Zealand CEOs are being ‘kept awake at night’ as a nation-wide shortage of people with digital skills threatens local businesses”. The survey highlights that while the problem of talent crisis is felt globally, it perceived to be bigger in New Zealand. The focus is on what is called digital skills with jobs for data scientists, designers and programmers being particularly hard to fill. PWC mentions in their report that this issue of talent has been raised a few years ago and so far we are not seeing enough progress to solve it.

The talent crisis – origins

I believe that the talent crisis and the environmental crisis originated from the same fundamental values and beliefs of the western society that we are living in. Some of these beliefs are:

  • Economic growth is the most important indicator of success – this is in many cases exclusive or at least dominating indicator for growth in the political, financial and businesses agendas. It was interesting and encouraging to read the New Zealand Treasury publication of the Living Standards Framework.
  • Mass production and efficiency – the belief that these are the best ways to achieve abundance needed for human consumption. This fundamental belief drives our education system and management systems.
  • Consumption – We are now obsessed with the notion that consuming goods is the best and in many cases the only way for happiness.
  • Progress – the belief that has driven the industrial revolution that technology will solve all human problems and hence with technology innovation progress will continue forever. The climate changes are a good example to why we should view everything as complex and interdependent.

The talent crisis – possible ways forward

Climate changes and pollution are a clear symptom of the environmental crisis. It is now forcing most governments, financial institutions, scientists, and organisations to take actions. The talent crisis is not yet that visible. However assuming it caused by the same beliefs, I suggest we take a similar approach to address it. This approach has to go as deep as changing our beliefs:

  • Take a holistic approach– Human talent is diverse and it brings value in many and sometimes unpredictable ways.  I believe that in order to create the talents of the future we should consider redefine talents, how these are being applied and how we reward talents that are creating value in paid and non-paid jobs.
  • Sustainable behavior – Organisations can approach talents in a way that improves people, community, and overall social performance as well as meet their own needs. For example: spending effort and time discovering already existing talents within an organisation before trying to replace or buy externally, sharing skills that are in short supply by creating and supporting true freelancer’s open market, considering and having clear strategies for an ongoing retirement of skills and the development of new ones.
  • Self-management – enable an environment that allows people to grow and develop their own talents in their own unique way. Businesses and management should step away from trying to control how people enabled in this environment and allow more flexibility in applying their talents in unexpected and creative ways.
  • Nurture diversity and interdependency – environment strategies emphasise the critical role that biodiversity plays in the earth overall health. In a similar way, organisations should focus on developing strategies that nurture the diversity and focus on enabling collaboration and interdependency

 

 

 

 

 

@Hadas Wittenberg is a future of work enabler

The probable future might not favor most humans

It seems that in the last few months, everyone is joining in on the predictions and speculations regarding the Future of Work and the anxiety levels regarding this topic are increasing. It is not hard to see why many are confused:

  1. The first signs of mega changes in big corporates, where a significant number of jobs are dramatically changing or altogether disappearing.
  2. The war for the scarce skills required with the emerging new technologies and new ways of working is heating up.
  3. The lack of clarity on an individual level about the future of work.

In essence, we are looking at three megatrends:

  1. Technology – e.g. Big Data, Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning, Nanotechnology, cloud and Internet of things.
  2. Globalisation and socio-economic and demographic changes –e.g. mobility of people and goods, aging population, millennials.
  3. Social expectations – i.e. transparency, distribution of knowledge, no hierarchies, equality and diversity, convergence.

Personally, I don’t share Elon Musk’s warning about “Artificial Intelligence as an existential threat to mankind” being optimistic and hopeful, I believe we as humans will do better. However, I do think a crisis is looming and if we do nothing the future might not favor most humans.  I call it the talent crisis. How we as Humans adapt to this changing world is the key to what is possible and what is probable.

The future of work – The invincible syndrome of the professionals

I like to use the analogy of a product when describing talents. Consider your collection of abilities, skills, knowledge education and experiences as your unique and valuable talents products. In a digital era, it will be wise to continually adapt your products, through being agile and tentative to the market expectations, focus on what is valuable, being ahead of the competition by pivoting all the time, keeping relevant.  Think about Netflix and the blockbuster chain and now original content creation, Uber and the taxi companies and now food delivery. How many of us actively continuously working to be ready when disruption to our own jobs will come?

The future of work – The (non) relevancy of career paths

We start to assemble talent at kindergarten, and then batched by age we go through the education system and then work, mostly dictated by the subjects we picked up at school and usually one job at a time. At doing that we became addicted to job titles and career promotions. The problem life is not linear; the notion that you can take your subjects learned at schools like Math and English and apply these to real-life problems is redundant.  Talents evolve organically and now also rapidly. We create our lives as we explore our talents and vice versa and we have to adapt our learning in that way.

The future of work – Best practice does not favor humans

The other big issue is the lack of diversity inherent in the system (known as best practice). Human talent is tremendously diverse. People have very different abilities and preferences. But most systems (education and work) are not designed for accepting diversity; they are more like production lines designed for efficiency. So the reason so many people are opting out of education, or left behind at work is that it doesn’t feed their passion. We have to start enabling a way in which people understand and recognise their own talents as early as possible and are encouraged and enabled to develop their own solutions of how to grow, nurture and use their talents for value creation.

In recent weeks I traveled the country talking to many people about the future of work and I am hopeful with the talents and passion I met and the shared concern for the future. However, we are still missing a sense of urgency and a call for action on every level. The future of work requires new and different mix of humans’ talents and the catch is that these talents are also the ones required in order to design it. So are you doing something about it, or waiting for what is probable?

@Hadas Wittenberg is a Future of Work enabler