The missing links: why efforts to effective agility still clash

April 26, 2024
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6 min read
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This article is part of the How we work section.

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Is Agile finally dead? Agile, both as a methodology and a mindset, has become dogmatic. Its original ethos of continuous learning, evolution by practice, and focus on value creation, has been largely neglected.

The question decision makers might start with is ‘what is effective agility?’. If you’re responsible for increasing the agility of value delivery and already leading an agile working management intervention in your workplace, it’s a question that clarifies focus. The collision between Agile and structural and cultural barriers — e.g. lack of information, incentives to stick to a plan, predefined goals,(you name it) — make it impossible to go fully agile, even at an operational scale.

Why does this keep happening? What are the options for moving forward?


Once upon Agile

Most know that agile methodologies are based on the Agile Manifesto, a set of values and principles that prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan. These values and principles provide a framework for agile methodologies characterized by iterative development, continuous improvement, customer collaboration, flexibility, and empowerment.

Yet, what are the real roots of Agile? Travel further back in time to the last century, markets were much more stable and more predictable. That’s the environment where linear approaches conceived for mass production were born, e.g. the Waterfall way. However, post-World War II the context changed again. The Japanese approach to the manufacturing industry was undergoing a period of rapid transformation. Known as Lean Manufacturing, their approach emphasized the elimination of waste, continuous improvement, and the empowerment of workers to make decisions and suggest improvements to the manufacturing process. The characterization of the market was moving towards high levels of volatility, ambiguity, and unpredictability. The need to be: agilis –from Latin, “nimble, quick”, started to be noticeable in the business world.

Observing the evolution of Agile provides clarity on why agility, and the methods used to achieve it, is more of a mindset than a toolkit. Understanding and or fully embracing the changing context over time, gives insight into how the methods need to adapt to the complex nature of the challenges faced. It is too tempting to fall into the trap of concentrating most efforts on operational agility, becoming too focused on process and methodology, rather than on the underlying principles and real value creation of being agile.


Common Challenges

The State of Agile report over the last ten years provides clear evidence that: while Agile adoption is going mainstream, the key challenges reoccur. Thirty percent (30%) of respondents identified at least ten different barriers to its adoption. Among the most significant ones are “inconsistencies in process and practices (46%), cultural clashes (43%) and general organizational resistance to change (42%)”¹. That has proven to be true also from Cocoon Pro’s many years of experience in the field.

Four questions we repeatedly hear from clients are:

#1 Can we have an agile delivery system of teams and keep our strategy-setting processes and command-and-control cascade as it is?

No, strategic agility also needs to be developed.

#2 Can we implement Agile by following a “checklist” of practices?

No, a different understanding is needed of how reality works by the people that will embrace the new practices. Over-reliance on tools and processes can lead to a lack of flexibility and adaptability.

#3 Is Agile more efficient and will it help save on costs?

Maybe, if costs are measured holistically and in the long term, but agility will generate redundancy — just like any living system copes with complexity, so will human systems. Agility is effective, but not necessarily efficient.

#4 Can we implement an organizational setup that guarantees agility by having smaller autonomous structures (usually called teams, squads, or circles)?

Maybe, but the organizational setup depends on trajectory and context (who you are as an organization in your ecosystem and who you long to be). Structural agility is not about the type of structures implemented: it is about the flow of work, it is about organizational dynamics.


Where to from here?

In the quest to discover how organizations can improve, it’s vital to bring attention to the whole depth of the human system: its technical layers, its social layers and their intimate interrelationships. Tools and methods are just the entrance to being agile. Engaged people — their synergy and style in working together — as well as how they relate to the processes and tools, nurture the evolution of the system towards the desired direction.

“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out.”

— Dee Hock, former CEO of VISA

There’s no magic recipe. As human systems are different from each other and continuously evolving, the surroundings are continually changing. Organizations need to be nimble, to evolve who they are in the market continuously as context evolves. Operational agility can work by itself only to some extent. The ability to adapt quickly to immediate changes and challenges will not succeed without the support of strategic and structural agility. Without strategic agility, an organization will struggle to anticipate and respond to significant changes in the market, customer needs, or technology. Without structural agility, an organization will struggle to adapt its modus operandi according to the changing strategic postures.

Flexibility matters. Without it, the needs of employees, customers and suppliers are not met. Change challenges the entire psychology of the company’s mindset. A pivotal aspect of organizational agility is to observe the patterns of behavior that each change activates. This is the interaction between the formal systems, processes and the informal relationships that make everything work effectively. If agility is to become embedded as an organizational response to the external environment, the contribution from engaged employees requires focusing on realizing effective organizational agility.


Conclusion

Arguably, the term “Agile” has become too broad and diluted to be meaningful, yet recovering and understanding its nimble and adaptive essence can leverage the potential of your organization towards effectiveness in turbulent times. The road towards making the delivery of value more agile can be overwhelming. Being observant of the dynamics helps navigate the uncertainty.

Agility is not about speed, it means being adaptable and responsive, which requires a culture of innovation and willingness to experiment and learn from failures. Speed will follow.

It is not a one-time goal that can be achieved and then forgotten. It is an ongoing process of continuous improvement and adaptation.

Requisite variety needs to be developed to cope with increasingly volatile, ambiguous, and unpredictable markets. The same level of variety existing outside an organization must be reproducible inside the organization. It cannot be present only in the part of the organization that is directly delivering value — either in products, software. It’s a way of seeing and being that needs to be embodied for the whole organization to thrive in today’s market.

Operational agility needs to be harmonically coordinated with strategic agility and structural agility. Most of the challenges working against the effectiveness of Agile are systemic, and cultural, connected to how the organization behaves and how it functions. Without these three elements, an organization will find it difficult to sustain its ability to respond quickly and effectively to changes and challenges. For this transition to happen, the evolutionary path towards being agile should therefore be threefold: operational, behavioral, and psychological.

It is about worldview. Reading context requires agile thinking and holistic sensing.

Finally, as with any methodology or framework, it’s important to approach Agile with a critical eye and adapt implementation to meet the unique needs in context.


References

[1]: Digital.ai. The 15th State of Agile Report.

https://info.digital.ai/rs/981-LQX-968/images/SOA15.pdf


This article is part of the How we work section.

If you would like to receive updates on this and other topics related to the evolution of the world of work, subscribe to our newsletter here: https://cocoon-pro.com/#subscribe

If you want to know more, or engage your organization with this approach, please get in touch, here: https://cocoon-pro.com/get-in-touch/

This is the account of our staff at Cocoon Pro. Wish to know who are the people in Cocoon curating our content production?Have a look at the people page on our website here. For any question or feedback we would be happy to hear from you! Reach out here: hello@cocoon-pro.com