RSS

Category Archives: leadership

Are leaders and the company culture the real problems to agile adoption?

Most surveys about the state of agile, point to the existing culture and leadership as the primary causes of agile struggles. But are those two, and their derivatives, really the culprits?

Isn’t it curious that our goal, as agile coaches, is to deliver value by ascertaining how best to meet the needs that are determined by the organization, and yet we consider the organization itself to be the biggest impediment to doing so. Is it possible that the problem is not in the organization’s culture and management structure but in our own assumption that there is a singular definition of value and our determination to deliver on that definition despite the organization we are trying to transform? Could it be possible that the client organization understands what is value in ways that we do not?

G. K. Chesterton in this 1929 book, The Thing, said:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody.  And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.

There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

In other words, an organization’s culture has evolved for a reason and has likely been strongly influenced by what the organization has found to deliver value in the past.

Culture is a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. ~ Edgar H. Schein

Since it’s inception, any organization has had to learn what strategies, values, procedures, behaviors, and norms work within its environment. Those that do not further the company’s mission are discarded; those that do are retained and progressively improved over time. This history of learning, by trial and error, is rarely written down but forms the basis of tacit assumptions and norms — the collected wisdom about what leads to success within the organization. What is valued by the organization, then, gets encoded in the company’s culture and their bureaucracy. To the uninformed, this bureaucracy may at first glance seem capricious, brutal, and wasteful, but it is simply a way for the organization to ensure that people pay heed to what is considered important in that organization. For example, the “burdensome” security scans, reviews, and audits in some financial institutions only point to the organization’s belief that doing right by the client is important and that their personal data must be protected at all costs or that our brand is everything to us and we shouldn’t needlessly take on risk that might harm our brand image and reputation.

The Chesterton’s fence principle applies to agile introductions as well. Again, Chesterton’s fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. Just because there doesn’t seem to be a readily apparent reason for this fence to be here doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. What this means is that Agile coaches must first come to understand those values, strategies, and goals that are embedded in the client organization’s culture.

Most agile proponents however, are far too eager to tear down what exists, without first understanding why that exists, in order to put in place what they believe is “agile” and “better.” It is the rare agile coach that takes the time to first understand what the company values — most coaches are aware of one way of doing things (insert the name of your go to agile framework here) and want to jump straight into the mechanics of implementing it. They often do this because they want to demonstrate, to the client, that they themselves are adding “value.”

The result of not heeding Chesterton’s fence is that the agile coaches frequently run into “resistance.” This resistance is chiefly due to the client management’s perception that what they value and what their concerns are aren’t being considered.

Agile proponents come in and say we should discard X and do Y instead in order to not have to deal with the negatives of the existing X.


X     |       Y
|
+                |
-----------------|---------------
-                |
|
|

But clients believe (whether incorrectly or not) that the benefit of the agile evangelist’s point of view (Y) leads directly to a loss in what the client believes is important to her (X). In addition, they perceive that the new approach simply swaps in a different set of negatives.

What coaches could do instead, is to work together with the client to come up with a solution that explores how to get the “new” benefits without losing the benefits of the existing approach/culture. Instead of approaching the transformation in a “big bang,” where the existing culture and structure is swept away in one fell swoop, a measured incremental approach where we learn as we go might be better. Agile coaches could take an agile approach to agile adoption — drive organizational change incrementally and make course adjustments based on what they learn about the organization’s true needs and dynamics.

But clients believe (whether incorrectly or not) that the benefit of the agile evangelist’s point of view (Y) leads directly to a loss in what the client believes is important to her (X). In addition, they perceive that the new approach simply swaps in a different set of negatives.

What coaches could do instead, is to work together with the client to come up with a solution that explores how to get the “new” benefits without losing the benefits of the existing approach/culture. Instead of approaching the transformation in a “big bang,” where the existing culture and structure is swept away in one fell swoop, a measured incremental approach where we learn as we go might be better. Agile coaches could take an agile approach to agile adoption — drive organizational change incrementally and make course adjustments based on what they learn about the organization’s true needs and dynamics.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 25, 2018 in Agile, Coaching, leadership

 

Tags: , , ,

Can we get out off the Agile weeds?

I’ve been having far too many conversations regarding Agile frameworks, their implementation, and scaling recently. It seems to me that a majority of agile coaches and their clients seem preoccupied with rituals over results and I get the sense that people are too mired in the weeds and losing sight of the few basic things needed for becoming a more nimble and customer centric organization. So, here are some things to ask yourself:

  • Are we truly a customer centric organization? Do we actually get out of the building enough to understand our customers, their needs, their problems, and how they use (and struggle with) our products. Can team members do a “follow-me-home” or some other customer discovery practice – journey maps, customer interviews? Are product teams primarily focused on gaining customer insight in order to better meet their needs? Do we even care about customer delight?
  • Are we open to disrupting ourselves without the motivation of a crisis? Does our culture allow us to preempt crises, without much drama, by reinventing products and services offered or by changing the existing business model? Or are we complacent and reactive and buffeted by what are competitors are doing?
  • Do we have true business and IT partnership? No, I don’t just mean that a PO sits with the team or that there is a Product Manager who ensures that her POs are aligned on the order in which to build the identified features. What I mean is that the business folks and IT have the same goals, the same targets, the same key metrics – and that they together focus on the same desired outcomes (and not just the outputs). Think X-Matrix and OKRs here. Think collaboration (in the true sense of that word) and not just communication, cooperation, or coordination. Think the CIO meeting daily with the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to strategize.
  • As a company, are we good at making accurate decisions quickly? Can we get the right information to the right people making the right decisions at the right time? Can we provide the decision makers with relevant and timely feedback about their decisions? And then, do we encourage them to learn from mistakes and improve?
  • Do the IT folks sit together with people from Product, Marketing, UX, Finance, and Operations so that we have true cross-functional product teams? Do these product teams (small, collocated, long-standing, cross-functional) have the autonomy to determine their own best solution to meet the defined goals? Do they have license to experiment and learn? Do senior leaders trust them to do the right thing?
  • Are we providing open collaborative spaces for the collocated product team members? Or are we still struggling with ineffective communication amongst the distributed and/or dispersed team members?
  • Are teams keeping design simple and writing good code? Can they rapidly get feedback by integrating and deploying continuously? Can they release on demand? Do they demonstrate their working product frequently to their stakeholders and to their customers? Yes, inviting real customers to a demo is a good idea.

You’ll notice that these are independent of any agile framework used. You can actually start improving on all of these without even using the term agile. So what’s keeping you from moving off the rituals bandwagon and focusing on what truly matters?

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 24, 2017 in Agile, Improvements, leadership

 

Tags: ,

Executive Conversations At the Start of a Transformation Effort Are Key

To have a decent chance of leading a successful change effort it is imperative to have the right conversations, at the start, with the executives and stakeholders who will be instrumental in the success of the transformation effort. While starting at the team level and focusing on the process introduction is far easier, it is also the riskiest strategy long-term.

So what might you want to do during the initial session:

  • Ensure that the executives and sponsors are clear on why they are embarking on their Agile journey. Remember that Agile practices and methods are just a means to an end and not the end itself. Additionally, most transformations fail because people treat them as transitions instead — you want to make sure the leaders understand the difference between the two.
  • The leaders also need to be clear on what outcomes (quantified where possible) they want to achieve.
  • Change efforts succeed when leaders actively lead the change and remove barriers to higher performance. You may want to talk about the three key components of organizational agility — (1) leadership agility (how leaders lead, inspire, direct, and motivate others), (2) organizational structures (structures, rules and policies that facilitate how work gets done and how results are produced), and (3) organizational culture (collectively held beliefs, values, and assumptions that determine how people think and how they behave) — and how they themselves need to approach the leadership work differently.
  • Ensure they understand the concept of looking at things holistically — discovery, development, delivery, and leadership and how each affects the other.
  • Lay out at a high-level what the incremental goals might be — moving from tactical to strategic to aspirational.
  • Check their level of commitment on a 1-10 scale, where anything less than 8 indicates wavering commitment.
  • If committed, introduce the concept of an enablement team and ask them for recommendations on who should be on that team.

Make sure you keep engagement high — have the leaders work through exercises that get them up and collaborating.

Bottom line — in my experience, two to three hours spent with the executives and sponsors early on will prevent hundreds of hours of pain and suffering later on. What have your experiences been?

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 9, 2017 in Coaching, leadership

 

Tags:

Decentralize to be more nimble

Flattening the organization (i.e., reducing layers of middle management) by itself is not the answer to becoming more nimble. Flat organizations are still steered by the remaining managers and not driven by market pull.

Delegation is a small step in the right direction; however, decisions are still made by lower level managers and not by self-organizing teams nor those closest to customers.

Decentralized organizations, however, encourage decision making at the boundary where customer or market interaction occurs. Learning is fast, decision making swift, and pivoting easy. TJ Maxx is an example – purchasers can make on-the-spot decisions without prior approval or permission from head office. Contrast this with purchasers from other retailers who are bogged down with long-term contracts and have little leeway in who from and what they can purchase. Not surprisingly, TJX is one of the two retailers in the US growing despite a tough environment.

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 31, 2017 in leadership

 

Tags:

The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership

In partnership with George Trachilis from the Lean Leadership Institute (LLI), I’m making available material from LLI’s “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership” course. Check back every week for a new chapter from the course.

Week 17: A3 Examples: Standards, Standard Work, and Visual Management
Week 16: More A3 Stories
Week 15: A3 Stories
Week 14: A3 Thinking
Week 13: Why PDCA?
Week 12: Problem Solving to Develop People
Week 11: Root Cause Using 5 Whys
Week 10: Toyota Business Practices – An Example
Week 9: Toyota Business Practices Explained
Week 8: Problem Solving Towards Ideal Part I and Problem Solving Towards Ideal Part II
Week 7: What is Lean? Problem Solving, Improvement, and A3 Thinking
Week 6: Developing People
Week 5: Lean Thinking—Philosophy for the Long-term
Week 4: True North Values
Week 3: Toyota Production System Origins
Week 2: Problem Solving: The Toyota Way
Week 1: Great Company Characteristics

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 31, 2017 in leadership, lean

 

Tags: ,