Why We Can’t Become Agile?
Most modern organizations are built on a basic blueprint that matured in the early 1900s and hasn’t changed much since. This industrial-age paradigm operates on a principle I call ‘predict and control’: they seek to achieve stability and success through up-front planning, centralized control and preventing deviation. Rather than continually evolving an organization’s design on the basis of real tensions sensed by real people, the predict-and-control approach focuses on designing the ‘perfect’ system up front to prevent tensions (and then on reorganizing once those at the top realize they didn’t quite get it right).
This model worked well enough in the relatively simple and static environments faced in the era in which it matured: the industrial age. In fact, it was a leap forward from previous approaches, enabling new levels of coordination, production and progress. In today’s postindustrial world, however, organizations face significant new challenges: increasing complexity, enhanced transparency, greater interconnection, shorter time horizons, economic and environmental instability, and demands to have a more positive impact on the world. Yet even when leaders embrace the need for new approaches, the predict and-control foundation of the modern organization often fails to provide the agility desired and needed in this landscape of rapid change and dynamic complexity.
Two Centuries ago, most people worked in manufacturing. We created systems that could create products according to plan and quality. Most people had a basic education and performed a small piece of the complete workflow. Today, most people work in the knowledge economy. We’re highly educated, smart, responsible people. But we’re still using the old factory model.
People are trying to change this model now. The agile movement tries to bring this change to the world. But there are a couple of forces working against our desire to create the organization of the future.
The #1 reason we don’t become agile is that we implement agile practices in a system that’s not designed to be agile. The system is based on power, hierarchy, command and control. The core of agile is self-organization, transparency, empowerment, putting customers first. If we keep our old system in place, we cannot fully achieve this core.
#2: the people who need to carry the change are the people most affected by the change. True agility means relinquishing power; removing hierarchy; distributing decision making. People in the positions with power have worked hard to get there. They derive a sense of value from their status and positions. Most people won’t support a change that means their own position gets destroyed.
#3: Agile is an IT movement. In some organizations, IT forms the core of the organization. But in most organizations, it’s (unfortunately still) a support function. The agile manifesto was created by technologists to change the way software is made. That created the movement. What we need today is a move beyond IT (‘business agility’). This implies that we need new materials, theories and practices (such as Holacracy and reinventing organizations). It also means that we need non-IT consultants, coaches and trainers.
Most organizations start by doing scrum at the IT team level. What the above shows is that this is a good start AND we need to do more. If we truly want to become agile, we must start the change at different levels. We need a few people on the top of an organization who realize the change is much bigger than ‘let’s do scrum’. We need to move the discussion towards organization wide change and replace the IT terminology. We need people in the middle to help design the change that brings the company at a better place, even if that means losing one’s job.
I wholeheartedly believe that an agile organization is the organization of the future. People become happier in a system that gives them freedom and authority. A system that is not based on politics and hierarchy. A system based on trusting people. A system that’s not only after ‘maximizing profits’.
Last week I gathered several experiences that show this system CAN be created:
During a meetup, a manager working in a large insurance company in Jakarta said ‘I realize that true agility implies I may loose my job. But I don’t care. There is enough work in the world and I’ll always find something new. I have been a freelancer, have shifted jobs before. All will be fine’.
9 Months ago we did a workshop with several IT teams in a large Indonesian conglomerate. They had been doing scrum for about a year. The #1 complaint: disruptions from higher up. Although no names came up, we understood that something needed to change ‘from above’. Everyone was asking us to help the leaders get insight in how to support the agile teams. The CIO had the same insight and drives the change to agile.
7 Months later, the leaders were ready to accept that something needed to change. Because they are all super-busy, we decided to run a workshop on a Saturday. It got postponed 2 times, but eventually, it happened. About 20 people came and many were skeptic about agile being the right model (at this stage). But no matter what, we had 3 big action points at the end of the day, all three directed at positive change towards agility. The leaders committed to that (signed, videotaped and put on the wall).
In a new organization, it’s much easier. I own a software services firm (Bridge Global), which I started in 2005. We’re moving towards full agility, but even with a group of 100 people, I can see the forces above working against the change. Because I believe change agents need to ‘eat their own dog food’, in my new company Ekipa, we’ve fully embraced a non-traditional ‘system’. The basis is laid out in ‘Ekipa reinvented’, our ‘operating model’.
Change is not easy. Implementing a new ‘system’ in an existing organization takes time, likely many years. If people at different levels see where to go and keep driving the change, it WILL happen.