People mostly believe that agility needs to start top-down and that they need management support first but I know many organizations where the top-down approach failed and many others where the bottom-up approach was successful. And more importantly, I see it as a fundamentally wrong question. Agile is not about hierarchy, but collaboration and self-organization so agile needs to begin by experiencing work at small self-organized teams. As teams experimenting with an agile way of working, learning from it, and gaining their own experience and success, they develop the mindset and influence the teams around. It’s like a snowball effect. Once organizations have decent experience with team-level agility, they quite naturally start experimenting with different scaling approaches and form multi-team collaborative ecosystems where organizations usually start seeing the real business impact of the change. While experience with the agile way of working is growing through the organization, the executive team and board of directors have to get their hands-on experience with teamwork and self-organization. Although their personal experience is helpful in scaling, it became critical when agility is applied at the organizational level which usually implies changing the culture, structure, and leadership role.
It all sounds very simple, but there are a few important pieces to focus on. Agile organizations give teams higher autonomy than traditional ones, allowing them to take ownership and responsibility for their decisions and collaborate. But no collaboration is happening without trust which is the most common obstacle we are facing in the organizations. Unfortunately, the higher in the hierarchy, the harder is to gain the trust and overcome the artificial harmony. Trust is a pre-requisite for any collaboration. Transparency on the other hand is an enabler. Without it, there is no collaboration as misunderstanding and politics take over. Finally, the last piece you need to have is an evolutionary purpose which is strong enough that people are willing to give up their own individual goals in favor of the common goal.
The most usual benefits of business agility are better communication & collaboration, better ways of working, speed to market, and customer satisfaction. No surprise here. But I’m missing one which is nowadays the most common reason why organizations shift to agile. It’s innovation, creativity, and adaptability. In other words, the ability to better respond to the VUCA challenges of the nowadays world. The new world brings new challenges and requires new ways of working. The organizations which could not innovate are not here anymore. So better to start now. Business agility can make your organization competitive in the VUCA world.
Agile organizations are collaborative, creative, and adaptive networks. They are like living organisms, operating on different principles. They naturally flatten the hierarchical structure, making the Org chart quite unimportant. They are based on autonomy, self-organization, and empowerment, leveraging the power of self-organization and instead of hierarchical leadership, they rely on emergent leadership which is not tight to any position but can emerge from different situations and needs on the fly. In Agile organization everyone is a leader. Everyone can take a step and take over an initiative. If that initiative gains the interest of others, they form a team and support it. The radical transparency takes care of feedback and corrects any ideas which are not supporting the overall purpose we are all trying to achieve.
And here is the reason why traditional organizations are generally afraid of loosening the fixed positional power structures and giving teams autonomy. They are often scared of emergent leadership and I’m not surprised by that. In order to make it work you need to have a collaborative culture with high trust, transparency and safety, and strong evolutionary purpose which creates alignment among different parts of your organization so they are heading towards the same direction. Without a clear purpose, everything might look like a good idea worth of trying and higher autonomy usually only creates chaos, while strong purpose helps people to test their ideas by asking a simple question “If we do that, how does it going to help to get closer to the desired state defined by the purpose?” and if it doesn’t we don’t do it and figure out something else which will help us to get there. Radical transparency will allow any initiative to be tested by the crowd and filter weak ideas already before they start. The safe to fail environment encourages people to take over the responsibility and come up with their own ideas. Finally, the collaborative environment will support good ideas. In an agile organization, nothing is fixed. Sometimes I came up with an idea and others form a team around it, next time I join the initiative as a team member. Leadership is emergent and structure liquid.
Now, do you need it? That’s up to you to decide. It all depends on the overall business environment and the challenges you need to work on. Are they predictable and repetitive? A fixed structure will help you to be faster. Are they unpredictable and hard to plan? Are you regularly facing the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) challenges? Then more flexible structures with emergent leadership will be necessary to crack the challenges and be successful in nowadays constantly changing world.
Autonomy is a topic that is in my mind for a while. How come that in some environments it’s so simple to let it grow and some others are so much struggling with it. The more I think about it, the more I feel it’s about trust or fear of losing position, power, or comfort. And environments with no trust are not places where agile is much successful. In order to allow autonomy in even a small group as a development team, the trust must be there. I’ve seen the companies which were struggling to allow teams to choose their own name. “What if they choose something offending?” Like really? Now if you deal with such low trust, there is no way Scrum can work. I’ve seen organizations where they track when people are in the office and have so many restrictions that their computers become useless. “What if they don’t work and play games? Or not coming to work?” Isn’t that funny? The more restrictions you create, the more time people spend on breaking them or the more demotivated they are. Neither will help you to create successful products.
“Trust is prerequisite, transparency enabler, and purpose of the driving force for autonomy.”
Building trust takes time. Start small, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Ask yourself what is the worth thing which can happen. Ask what are those people around you scared and how can you help them to feel more confident. The second ingredient in the mix is transparency. Being transparent about what needs to be done, what the success looks like, and what are the things we want to avoid is crucial. People learn by doing. Be transparent with the feedback. Perfection is not useful, it’s all about learning from small failures. Finally, the third ingredient in the mix is a purpose. Autonomy without a purpose only creates chaos. The higher the autonomy, the stronger the purpose needs to be to glue it together. To give everyone the same goal, belonging, identity, the reason for why they are there.
Imagine a kid’s camp. The Red group is defending the castle, the Blues are trying the take it over. Kids are naturally forming small autonomous teams, making their own decisions on the fly. They share information as they move forward. They don’t need any detailed instructions, any KPIs, any manager to give them process. All they have is a strong purpose. Your organization is not any different. Trust is a prerequisite, transparency enabler, and purpose of the driving force for autonomy. Building such an environment requires a portion of agile leadership.