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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.

Stop the waste of the latest management fad

When I came out of university in the 90s, it was TQM. Then we moved into BPM and Process Re engineering, followed by six sigma and lean and lately, graduated into scaled Agile. During these many years I learned how to work in and with top down and matrix management, management by objectives and by consensus.  I Experienced the cubical office, the open space hot desking and the mandatory bean bags. I refer to all of these as management fads.

What is a management fad?

I characterize a management fad by the following:

  • Easy to understand by using principles and visual concepts that come with a clear process for management on what to do and how to use
  • Is tailored to answer the current/ latest business world problem: diversification, globalisation, digitalisation, automation, etc.
  • Claims to be universal regardless the industry, culture, size etc. hence “easy” to copy from another company as “best practice”, so you can be as successful as they are.
  • And finally, it is promoted by well recognised management experts that make a lot of money out of it.

It is true, I have been part of that system. Every few years a new promise takes over as the favorite among management consultants and executives. These management fads are usually not “new” rather they wrap century old values of money and control into a “new” something. These fads also come with new jobs.  Like the ISO auditors, Process engineers, Six sigma black belt ninjas, Agile coaches and many others.  All, there to help management ensure the “cut and paste” is done correctly. Fads are not fundamentally wrong, some have profoundly changed companies, for better or for worse. Some even introduced useful ideas that stayed longer than the fad itself. However, fads over promise and under deliver, hence doomed to be replaced by the next ones.

Why do we have these fads?

When I reflect on how come we fall for these repeatedly, I think the answer is management laziness. I can explain. We all know that the world (and business) problems are becoming significantly faster and more complex.  We also know that in most cases it requires us to:

  • Enable multidisciplinary collaboration of passionate and capable people, wanting to achieve something bigger then themselves
  • Learning, course correcting and becoming better at, and staying with it, until the problem is solved
  • Focus on creating value and reducing waste with in context and adaptive approaches

But changing values and behavior, navigating the complexity and needing effort and courage to progress is hard so we go for the fad. Think about it, loosing weight is simple: eat less, exercise more – right? So, how come we have a massive industry, billions of dollars, millions of experts and similar number of books and we are still on a promising trend for obesity? Same with management, we know the principles, but we hope that by buying into the latest we can get a quick fix.

I say to senior management, stop it. There is no one size fit all, there is no method that is better than the other, there is no consultant that knows better than you what your vision is and how to motivate and keep you and your team on track to create,  there is no end date or a magic transformation, and there is no pink pill. There is only a purpose, a desire to learn, and care for the people around you. All with limited resources and hard work.

But…!

If you need external push or specific advice, absolutely, get help. Get a (real) expert, get a good coach, get a useful tool, get a process that works. But own it, cause the change. It is your job and your problem to solve.

 

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

Discovery Workshop

The secret for thriving organisations

 

 

Recently I discussed with an HR director about helping people to discover their passions and understand how they can use these effectively to create a meaningful and fulfilling work(places). The first reaction was “That sounds very interesting and great for the participants, I am sure we will be interested when we are not as busy as now”. Since busy is the new word for no, we did a bit more digging. So, the second reaction came “But what happens if they all decide that they should resign and do something else? It will be really confusing for the people and we can’t really afford that to happen”. I appreciated this comment, voicing an underlining assumption is a massive step forward. Subsequently, we continued the conversation.

The assumption

This director is not alone.  Centuries of hierarchy and control shaped this underlining assumption. For example, some leaders believe they should care and protect their teams from needing to make stressful decisions. Others assume that knowledge is power. Because they believe that if you want to hold the power you should be very selective about how you share knowledge, else anarchy will happen and you won’t be able to corral the people to do your will. Don’t go as far as the church or the king, look at the latest “transformation”/ “change” programme that you were involved in. What was the level of transparency, frequency and accuracy of information passing the organisation top down, sideways and bottom-up? How much effort was invested in editing the news to ensure work continues? How much time was invested in people creating value vs. waiting to see their fate?

The impact

Yuval Harary in his book, The 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, summarise it as:  “We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-chips hardly maximise the human potential. Indeed we have no idea what the full human potential is, because we know so little about the human mind. And yet we hardly invest much in exploring the human mind, and instead focus on increasing the speed of our Internet connections and the efficiency of our Big Data algorithms ”

Transformation/change programmes are hard and often fail also because the few try to use their power to push forward the many. But what if we change our assumption about the power of knowledge and the direction of energy and we learn how to enable organisations that attract the energy of the many, their passions and their motivations and use it to thrive forward?.  There are great examples of organisations that already do that (for example Patagonia, Buutzorg and The morning star). The common for all is that all the people involved with these organisations are powerful to do the right things for their organisation to thrive, they are pulled by opportunities to create real value and they will go the extra mile to make that happen. For that, we have to reframe our assumptions about power and control. We have to make sure workers regain the ability to think for themselves, shape their own future and tap into their full potential. The secret for thriving organisations is a simple equation:  PASSIONS + POSITIVELY MOTIVATING CONTEXT = VALUE AND FULFILMENT

What’s next?

I already wrote about the need for individuals finding their Ikigai, organisational purpose, breakthrough values and a higher conscious culture. I think what is missing is a conversation about leaders’ shared accountability to create a better future for all (not just for themselves or their shareholders or the selective few). We have to start investing in creating an environment of self-learners, motivated and powerful individuals. It starts with investing in people and leaders self-awareness and a way to make sense of that awareness for a better future.  Yes of course, some people are comfortable where they are, and some will realise their future is somewhere else. But most with newly acquired awareness will be better equipped to direct their energy instead of wasting it, looking for the opportunities to create value instead of waiting for the instruction manual, channel their energy for thriving, not for power and control games, and help leaders to be clearer on what positively motivate vs what is not.

If you chose to be a leader, you have taken a care accountability. You have to ensure a better future for the people in your care, not by further taming them but rather by ensuring they thrive in the future regardless of the circumstances.

 

 

Note aside: The mentioned HR director agreed to feature in this blog J

 

 

Hadas Wittenberg is a Future of Work enabler and the founder of Adaptive Futures. Adaptive Futures is a sense-making framework for people and organisations reimagining WORK that works.

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