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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.