The Agile Transformation: Think Big, Start Small, Learn Fast

For your agile trans­for­ma­tion you have to think big to break up silos, but at the same time start small to learn togeth­er with­out impos­ing a pre­de­fined solu­tion. Cru­cial to this is the pro­mo­tion of an open learn­ing cul­ture beyond infor­ma­tion hid­ing and cov­er your ass.

Lan­guage is some­times reveal­ing. Tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions con­sist of func­tion­al divi­sions that divide areas of respon­si­bil­i­ty, divide pow­er in terms of bud­get and head­count, and sub­di­vide val­ue cre­ation. Divide et impera, divide and rule, is a time-test­ed max­im since the Roman Empire, the core of which is to encour­age “divi­sions among the sub­jects to pre­vent alliances that could chal­lenge the sov­er­eign” (Wikipedia). The result is silos whose walls become thick­er and thick­er every year due to eval­u­a­tion and incen­tive sys­tems that are based on this maxim.

Think Big

With­out tack­ling this struc­ture and the under­ly­ing max­im, agili­ty will silt up with­in these silos. The small agile project with­in a divi­sion will hard­ly make a big dif­fer­ence, because the divi­sion itself is only a tiny part of the val­ue chain and there­fore the feed­back on the work of the divi­sion, which is so impor­tant for agili­ty, is only avail­able at the end of a long series of handovers.

Das kleine agile Projekt macht noch keine agile Organisation. Die agile Transformation muss Silos aufbrechen.
Source: Geek & Poke

A char­ac­ter­is­tic fea­ture of true agili­ty is to work across silo bound­aries along the val­ue chain in an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team. Hiro­ta­ka Takeuchi and Iku­jiro Non­a­ka already iden­ti­fied this exact char­ac­ter­is­tic in 1986 in their research on suc­cess­ful prod­uct devel­op­ment teams and described it in their arti­cle “The New New Prod­uct Devel­op­ment Game” (Har­vard Busi­ness Review).

In this sense, the agile trans­for­ma­tion must there­fore think big and break open silos in order to pro­mote inter­dis­ci­pli­nary coop­er­a­tion, reduce han­dovers and ulti­mate­ly short­en the feed­back loop of exper­i­men­ta­tion and val­i­da­tion. Oth­er­wise, the incon­spic­u­ous cater­pil­lar will not turn into a beau­ti­ful but­ter­fly, but rather into a some­what more col­or­ful cater­pil­lar, dis­ori­ent­ed and exhaust­ed by the sense­less the­ater of trans­for­ma­tion.

Start Small

There are no blue­prints for an agile orga­ni­za­tion and no mas­ter plan for trans­for­ma­tion, no mat­ter how con­vinc­ing the promis­es of the respec­tive con­sul­tants sound. The attempt to impose panaceas and seem­ing­ly proven mod­els on one’s own orga­ni­za­tion leads straight to car­go cult hell. Not because the blue­prints and mod­els are fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong or bad, but because they are not the result of shared expe­ri­ences. Agile trans­for­ma­tion is and remains a joint learn­ing jour­ney.

A jour­ney of a thou­sand miles begins with a sin­gle step.

Laozi (Chap­ter 64 of the Dao De Jing)

Every orga­ni­za­tion must devel­op a suit­able mod­el step by step in the course of the agile trans­for­ma­tion. An agile trans­for­ma­tion can­not be con­ceived on the draw­ing board and then exe­cut­ed by legions of change man­agers. Instead, it devel­ops itself in an agile man­ner from an ini­tial Min­i­mum Viable Prod­uct (MVP) through numer­ous inter­me­di­ate stages, the val­ue of which can ide­al­ly be proven with suit­able key per­for­mance indi­ca­tors.

Vom Kleinen ins Große.
Source: Hen­rik Kniberg

The lead­er­ship task in agile trans­for­ma­tion is not to select the best mod­el of an agile orga­ni­za­tion or to design one of its own and then roll it out. This top-down approach vio­lates the agile prin­ci­ple of self-orga­ni­za­tion because it degrades peo­ple and teams to pas­sive objects of trans­for­ma­tion, even though the goal is pre­cise­ly autonomous, self-respon­si­ble and active subjects.

Learn Fast

If you want to spare your agile trans­for­ma­tion this dead end, you are well advised to hang the role of the chess mas­ter on the hook and act more like a gar­den­er. The goal must be to cre­ate a set­ting in which a suit­able agile orga­ni­za­tion­al mod­el grad­u­al­ly emerges from the coop­er­a­tion of self-orga­nized teams. This joint learn­ing process can­not be short­ened by blue­prints.

Peo­ple don’t resist change – they resist being changed.

Peter Sen­ge

How­ev­er, learn­ing can be accel­er­at­ed through shar­ing and net­work­ing. Read­i­ly shar­ing expe­ri­ences and knowl­edge, espe­cial­ly out­side your own silo, is cru­cial. A pro­gram like Work­ing Out Loud can help here, but the role mod­el of lead­ers is cru­cial. As long as every man­ag­er con­tin­ues to put his or her own busi­ness in order, there will be no fruit­ful exchange of ideas and infor­ma­tion hid­ing and cov­er your ass will remain the norm.

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