Agility - organizational madness or courageous path?

March 4, 2020

Agility has been promoted for some time as a means of choice to more rapidly adapt projects and organizations to a digital world. Anyone who sees how large, powerful organizations can fall victim to disruptive change understands the panic that this creates. There is the pressure to face up to digitalization and to benefit from the technological possibilities with innovative offerings or an automated operation. At the same time, there is a desire to be as fast and agile as a start-up.

The variety of agile frameworks or methods is large, and the multitude of associated terms now fill many books and seminars. In many cases, however, the word ‘agile’ is simply prefixed to well-known terms. The concept is not new and has proven itself for years in both classical product development (simultaneous engineering) and software development (Scrum). Project teams are also applying these working methods more and more successfully in transformation projects.

More recent developments are intended to extend the application of agile working methods to entire organizations or at least parts of them. Employees want more autonomy and less hierarchy. Agile organizations should allow the highest form of self-organization of all employees. The highest level of the Maslow’s pyramid of needs can be addressed for all employees, self-realization. A sustainable high level of job satisfaction and the intrinsic motivation of all employees is the goal.

In addition, the legitimate wish of the entrepreneur is that his employees constantly use their skills and energy optimally for the company. Ideally, all employees themselves recognize where they are currently creating the best added value and do so of their own free will. It would be the highest form of work efficiency, the ‘oiled living machine’, so to speak. The dream of a ‘self-organizing company’ with dedicated and happy employees should come true. Some organizations have already courageously embarked on this path.

However, there are doubts whether this can be implemented sustainably in any organization. The origins of the agile concepts lie in Sociocracy (mid-20th century to the 1970s: Kees Boeke; Gerard Endenburg, engineer) and Holocracy (2015: Brian Robertson, software developer). The approaches to an agile organization have developed the concept further (‘Reinventing Organizations’: Frédéric Laloux). 

These concepts read well and seem very coherent. The idea of creating an almost idealistic organization sounds tempting. In principle, an ‘algorithm for humans’ is to be created, the ‘oiled living machine’. In reality, we observe the following resistances and design errors:

1. Self-determination

Not all employees want a high degree of self-determination or they do not always have the prerequisites to acquire these skills. Agile working requires a high degree of personal maturity, discipline and ‘self-leadership’ from all actors.

2. Rules

The rules for agile working (e.g. agile manifesto) are complex and must be really internalized by all parties involved. Because only if everyone ‘plays along’ can it work well at all.

3. Cultural differences

There is little room for cultural differences or emotional dimensions. Ignoring these, however, misses the human reality. The ‘technical assumption’ that humans can be turned int into a ‘living machine’ is simply not correct. The contradiction of a complex set of rules requiring the subordination and classification of everyone, with the right to autonomy, becomes obvious.

4. Communication

There are very high demands on the communication skills of all parties involved. The dynamics of self-organization require that all participants always know who needs to be informed about something, or where to get a missing piece of information. In case of doubt, far too many emails are sent to too many addressees. As a result, there is a flood of communication. It will be difficult and time-consuming for everyone to filter out the relevant information. Further channels (social media, etc.) increase the complexity of communication.

5. Reporting

Stringent reporting, which normally condenses information in a hierarchical structure, thus enabling timely analysis and decision-making, is almost impossible.

6. Objectives

For all employees to move together and in the same direction, the objectives and priorities must be clear and coordinated. In a dynamic environment, this can change quickly, and in a self-organized agile way of working, this clarity of priorities must be constantly re-established. The amount of work and time involved can be very high, depending on the size of the organization. There is also the question of who sets the objectives and the direction of action.

7. Classic tasks

The classic task of matching an organization’s existing skills and capacities with a schedule is not eliminated by agile working. Agile organizations risk that activities that are perceived as unpleasant, or things that are not considered as important, are done late or not at all. Who voluntarily takes on the task of taking over stringent, comprehensive documentation in an IT project? The task is usually essential if you want to use a “piece of IT” longer than the project team members are available.

8. Responsibility

Flat hierarchies and largely self-organized agile work make it difficult to assign and take on responsibility. Responsibility for larger blocks of tasks or even customer orders only makes sense with predictable and reliable access to resources. This is where the freedom of the individual typically ends. Responsibility distributed to agile teams tend not to lead to any responsibility at all, especially in the event of a conflict.

9. Interaction with customers

Agile ways of working seek a much stronger interaction with customers in order to get feedback quickly and to incorporate iteratively into their own work. Basically, this is good, even if the methods of focus groups, customer surveys, satisfaction analyses have been around for a long time. The decisive factor is when iterative work leaves the internal space and actively involves the market with the customers during a development. Airlines expect a perfectly functioning product (airplane) and not an ‘immature green banana’. Customers of a game app are probably a little more generous and willing to participate.

10. Transparency

Agile work should also be achieved with the greatest possible transparency. Almost all information is accessible, everyone can and should think further. Especially along the classic functional interfaces, this leads to better results. However, here too the dose makes the difference to the poison. When too often everyone gets involved in everything, the focus on one’s own task is lost. The great transparency is sometimes also a welcome distraction and excuse for not completing tasks.

Conclusion

The desire for more agility is understandable and also the attempt to bring as many agile elements as possible into the whole organization is justified. After all, the complaint about an ‘encrusted silo thinking’ has been going on for many years. At the end of the day, it is important to weigh up the opportunities and risks in relation to your own company and not to rush after hype and possibly plunge the organization into chaos.

Alternative

Before converting projects or even entire organizations to agile working, there is the possibility to try out agile methods with temporary interventions. Within the framework of transformation projects, 2-3 day workshops with agile approaches can be held. The number of participants is ideally around 20 to 80 people. Here you can see whether the participants are open to further dissemination of agile methods.

The benefits can be assessed in concrete terms and the risk and costs are manageable. A step-by-step approach is a good way to proceed, with the classical hierarchical organization with its advantages remaining virtually an ‘anchor’. Where possible, tasks in the company can be done with a ‘project procedure’. This makes them more suitable for agile processes. In our experience, in addition to mindset and method, the physical environment also plays an essential role in the success of agility. We would be happy to discuss the possibilities in detail.

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