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Is Agile the Answer to Managing Change?

Organisations are always looking for ways to create successful change. Agile is widely applied, sometimes with an almost a religious conviction but is it the only answer? If so what can we learn from Agile?

In 1990´s quality was the buzz word, putting quality standards on the agenda. The turn of the century saw the introduction of New Public Management on a large scale, especially in the public sector. Other emerging models over the last decade include GROW; LEAN and AGILE. Common for these models are focus on efficiency, delivery and performance.

A Date with Agile
A newcomer to the world of Agile can be blown away by all the jargon, almost like a secret sect; Backlog, Grooming, Stand up, Sprint, Retrospect, Scrum, Kanban. Flowcharts with carefully laid out steps interacting with each other on a multidimensional level. The value of the incremental approach, how the process immediately identifies mistakes or blockages on-route, not after project delivery, is evident. The feedback loops are immediate, the course of direction can be adjusted there and then. From the outside it looks like a polished, yet fragmented process responding efficiently to input ensuring the development of new solution. It slices the complexity in digestible pieces.

The part that both surprises and resonates most with me as an organisational consultant is the Retrospect; the time for the team to step out and view their own performance from a meta perspective; assessing what worked and what could be better. Maybe a contradiction in itself in an IT environment where most factors can be measure or adjusted, and where the focus is on efficiency and optimisation. But the Retrospect is the part that is missing in most organisations, yet crucial for innovation and learning. To reflect on collaboration and communication that produce performance, or not, is vital for any team wishing to be high performing. And when we look at the origins of Agile we can see that the “softer” side was of essence to the initiators.

The Source
To learn more about the intensions of Agile, we go to the source; the Agile Manifesto. Signed in February 2001 in Utah, US by 17 software developers from different backgrounds who were looking for common ground, the Manifesto values the following:

The Agile Manifesto

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more” (Source: http://agilemanifesto.org.)

What is not Working with Agile?
Seasoned Agile experts say the Retrospect is where most Scrum masters struggle. More familiar with IT systems than human systems, a Scrum master may feel uncomfortable and even lack appreciation of the layered interactions of humans, at times unpredictable and difficult to understand. Brought up in a paradigm of measure, adjust and control, relationship building and facilitating dialogue are not always an obvious skills set for a Scrum master. Likewise, daring to deviate from linear processes, in order to respond to what is trying to happen and emerging, can be a daunting challenge and bring many out of their comfort zone.

Agile is being implemented across different sectors, functions, organisations and culturesometimes with disappointing results. Agile seems to need national cultures with low power distance and low uncertainty avoidance to work well, and  “extra” efforts have to be placed to create the right crash barriers to be able to make it work.

It seems that wherever we turn Agile is the answer, in my view too good to be true. To what extent is Agile the answer to the needs of future organisations? In order to given an answer, we need to look at emerging trends. Yuri Van Geest, of Singularity University, Netherlands identifies five shifts in organisational focus:

  • Moving from closed to open (eco) systems
  • From financial targets to purpose driven
  • Hierarchy is being replaced by networks and teams
  • From eliminating risk to celebrating and sharing mistakes
  • Authority will be replaced by autonomy

But despite his predictions I find that many organisations remain in the land of fragmentation, analysis, measurement, command and control leadership styles. So I ask myself; are these organisations ready for the paradigm shift we are in the middle of; a digital revolution with implications on mankind beyond the scale of the industrial revolution? And can Agile propel them forward?

Learnings from Agile
Modern organisations appreciate that the speed of operations means working in shorter intervals with a continuous attention on feedback loops. Trial and error, testing and failing are part of the daily practice allowing adjustments to be made quickly. With Agile issues to be solved there and then through dialogue. The interaction is horizontal and not up and down hierarchies. The stand-up sessions where everyone participates 100% stimulates, and even necessitates collaboration and support. Avoiding prescriptive solutions, the team explores their way through the process, suited to their context and requirements. But does the approach work with all kinds of issues, regardless of complexity and scale? What happens if we bring Agile into the management team meetings and the board rooms?  What will it require and what will it offer? Can using Agile at the top of the organisation remove bottlenecks, drill through blockages and increase the speed of vital decision- making processes? Can it help the organisational leadership to adjust and redirect positions and strategies at a pace that enables and sustains change in the organisation? And is the organisation ready for it?

A Possible Conclusion
The original ideas of Agile is useful for any team wanting a place in the organisations of tomorrow; people and process first, customer at centre, collaboration and responding to change. Agile gives the human interaction a formalised role in the process through the Retrospect. Albeit that many Scrum masters struggle with the role, competence and skills can be developed to facilitate this aspect at sophisticated levels. I see that Agile can be the leverage in at least two ways; giving the human interaction dimension a formal and recognised place in the sphere of technology, and secondly help speed up processes, accountability and output in management teams and board rooms.

Will Agile be around in the next decade? Most likely not. There will be another emerging model trying to answer the needs and the predicaments of current organisations. But if Agile can help organisations speed up processes, incorporate and formalise feedback loops, help adjust direction while keeping a relational and collaborative focus, I am in!

Anne Rød is an author, keynote speaker, facilitator and executive team coach. She has written several books and articles on organisational communication, change and intercultural teams. The latest book Creating Intelligent Teams available on Amazon. She is currently doing her doctorate on organizational change. See www.anne-rod.com and www.rod-baum.com for more details.

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