Agility and Alignment: Strategy as an Empty Sphere of Action

When it comes to agili­ty, most peo­ple think of Kan­ban or Scrum at the team lev­el. And then of course the many scal­ing frame­works come to mind like LeSS, SAFe, DAD or Nexus. These frame­works pri­mar­i­ly address the ques­tion of how the work of sev­er­al or many teams on one or more prod­ucts can be coor­di­nat­ed and syn­chro­nized. Espe­cial­ly in lega­cy IT land­scapes with many depen­den­cies this is a legit­i­mate and fre­quent­ly asked ques­tion, which unfor­tu­nate­ly often obscures the far more impor­tant ques­tion of decou­pling, but that is dif­fer­ent sto­ry. The focus will now be on the ques­tion of how to give agile orga­ni­za­tions align­ment at dif­fer­ent flight lev­els with cor­re­spond­ing plan­ning hori­zons. And to this end, it is impor­tant that strat­e­gy remains an emp­ty sphere of action that is filled with con­tent from bot­tom to top.

Klaus Leopold, who coined the term of the dif­fer­ent flight lev­els, dis­tin­guish­es three orga­ni­za­tion­al improve­ment lev­els. On the oper­a­tional lev­el, the indi­vid­ual teams work accord­ing to their indi­vid­ual agile meth­ods (Klaus cer­tain­ly prefers Kan­ban to Scrum, but that does­n’t mat­ter here). At the lev­el above, the nec­es­sary coor­di­na­tion between the teams and prod­ucts takes place in order to joint­ly gen­er­ate val­ue for the cus­tomer. And on the strate­gic lev­els at the top, the over­all direc­tion is set for them all. Like in this pic­ture.

Source: Klaus Leopold

These flight lev­els cor­re­spond to dif­fer­ent plan­ning hori­zons. At the top lev­el, the strate­gic goals for the next few months are set, while at the oper­a­tional lev­el the teams deliv­er con­tri­bu­tions to these goals in sprints of a few weeks, which, coor­di­nat­ed by the mid­dle lev­el, result in a coher­ent and use­ful whole. All lev­els have an agile rhythm, but the cycles vary in length accord­ing to their plan­ning hori­zons.

Agili­ty in this sense is there­fore not pos­si­ble with­out hier­ar­chy. Quite the con­trary, it is this joint ori­en­ta­tion that makes agile teams effec­tive and pow­er­ful in their self-orga­ni­za­tion. How­ev­er, every (new) hier­ar­chy has its pit­falls, espe­cial­ly in the course of a trans­for­ma­tion of a tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tion into an agile one as it can also be mis­un­der­stood or delib­er­ate­ly abused.

The idea is not to give orders from top to bot­tom. The idea is to pro­vide align­ment for auton­o­my. And this requires that the rough direc­tion is giv­en from top to bot­tom, but the details as to what and how exact­ly and in which order must come from bot­tom to top. The strat­e­gy forms an emp­ty sphere of action bound­ed by joint­ly devel­oped emer­gent prin­ci­ples of col­lab­o­ra­tion. The teams then fill this sphere in a self-orga­nized way with the nec­es­sary actions to attain the strate­gic goals.

Strat­e­gy is ini­tial­ly an emp­ty sphere of action, bound­ed by prin­ci­ples. It is required for the unknown part of the way. For the known part, a plan made up of rules is suf­fi­cient.
Ger­hard Woh­land

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