Agile transformation? Yes, absolutely. There is hardly any organisation that does not experiment with agile frameworks, sends agile coaches into teams and trains managers on agile leadership workshops. Unfortunately, most agile transformation approaches miss out on two very crucial points. In this article, we share our view on the current struggles of a variety of agile business change endeavours and explain what we think is missing.
“Agile” apparently is the answer to everything
The fact that we live in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) is no longer news to anyone. Digitalisation and globalisation have been the big drivers of VUCA in the past. In order to act appropriately in this complex environment, organisations have been forced to change their operating models and ways of working. The redemption is called “agile”.
But the road to an agile organisation seems rocky. Objectives and key results instead of key performance indicators, Management 3.0 instead of command and control, Scrum in place of fixed project plans – the list of changes is long and reaches across all levels of an organisation.
It is a debilitating process: The change away from the classic hierarchical company with long-term strategies is a challenge for everyone involved. Managers are expected to hand over responsibility to teams which they often don’t even want or can deal with.
Secretly, many probably hope that this “hype” will soon be over. Of course, there have been changes in the past, but none have been so universal and closely linked to the personal change of each employee.
First mistake: Agility at any price
Unfortunately, it is very rarely questioned whether there are certain fields that should be “spared” from agility. If agile, then all of it. Better to be more agile than not enough, right? How else could you explain that teams are being tortured with the scrum hammer or that most departments are being restructured just like Spotify? Everything has to be self-organised, iterative and with as many Post-Its as possible.
Let us be clear: Scrum is a great framework and Spotify an operating model worth to consider. But just as we as individuals are all very different, with diverse preferences and needs, organisations are also highly diverse. In fact, every organisation must develop its own (agile) personality.
Whether you call it change agents, agile coaches or transformation facilitators, all of them have one important thing to do: Getting inspired by all the different agile methods and tools out there – but in the end, adapt them to your organisational reality and make it your own!
Second mistake: The agile approach isn’t sufficiently holistic
In general, there is a second common mistake not necessarily related to all the agile efforts. While everyone is so deeply “agile-focused”, organisations tend to miss the bigger picture. A closer look at a classical management book will help us here: Gareth Morgan introduced in 1986 different “Images of Organization”. One of them was focused on learning and self-organisation using the metaphor “Organisation as Brains”.
If we consider organisations as brains, this has the advantage of being able to react quickly and flexible to constantly changing external circumstances through appropriate ways of acting. In this context, we speak of organisational intelligence, which is achieved through so-called learning in double–loops.
Learning in double–loops has its origins in systems theory or cybernetics. A practical example:
In the production hall it drips from the ceiling. The manager orders the cleaner to remove the puddle and the technician to fix the leak. Two weeks later it is dripping again. The cleaning lady and the technician come again. This time the floor stays dry for three weeks. The manager changes his strategy and investigates the cause. It turns out that the purchasing department has a new directive to buy production goods at the lowest possible price. Therefore, a large order of low-quality connectors was placed.
After three rounds in the single loop, the manager has understood that this approach is not effective. Researching the causes means switching to what is known as double-loop learning. It describes reflecting on the appropriate course of action.
Establishing double-loop learning
So in a nutshell, we can speak of double-loop learning with the core competence of reflection. This sounds simple, but it isn’t. It takes time to regularly rethink established ways of action and if they are still appropriate. And as human beings are creatures of habits, it may even feel uncomfortable and exhausting to challenge usual reactions. But it’s worth it, because when organisations function like brains, the flexible and countless interconnections ensure a highly vivid and innovative culture.
You can start building organisational intelligence, by encouraging exchange and asking powerful questions. They encourage reflection and therefore guarantee an appropriate response to constantly changing impulses. This is how holistic transformation is made possible. With partly agile forms, but also more classical structures, depending on how it suits one’s own organisational “personality.”
It is often more difficult to do less than to be constantly busy. But this article has shown that it is worthwhile to take a step back and let the agile busyness be busyness for a moment. To all organisations out there, whether large or small, take inspiration from market leaders, but it’s necessary to understand that there can be no best practice in complex environments. Take time to reflect, exchange and bring the core principles to life in order to create your own solutions to become a learning organisation.