What is agility?

Agile is on everybody’s lips these days. Everyone’s talking about ‘going agile’ or ‘being more agile’. But what does this actually mean?

Perhaps a bit of the history of agile is on order first. The term ‘agile’ started to emerge around the turn of the century in the software development community.  After many failed attempts at delivering software following the engineering principles & practises used in tradition engineering (the Waterfall Model),  they soon realised that the way they were developing software wasn’t working and that they needed to change. Thus was born the many variants of agile methodologies and practices that we see today, such as Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, LeSS, etc. What’s really critical here is that we don’t focus on the methodologies but rather on the fact that these luminaries understood their customer’s needs and the environment in which they were working and adapted accordingly.

This is the crux of agility:

…being able to quickly respond to changes.

The first ingredient for agility is customer delight – being able to satisfy the customer’s needs as quickly and as often as possible with valuable products and services. Customer’s needs change regularly in this complex, digitally connected world and businesses need to be able to adapt and change in step with them. When we focus instead on the inner workings of the business we fail to notice when the customers takes a left turn. We we finally look up we’re surprised that the customers aren’t there anymore.

The second key ingredient to agility is to reduce complexity by descaling work. In a VUCA world, we generally have the best success when we deal with small, manageable problems one at a time, and then moving on. Trying to deal with a massive amount of moving parts is a recipe for disaster.

The third ingredient is a recognition that the organisation is a system and that agility needs to be embraced organisation-wide. Each part of the system is inter-related and needs to works together, so if one area changes, all areas need to change. This isn’t someone else’s problem – if you’re part of the system, you need to be part of the change.

Underpinning all this is probably the most important ingredient of all – a culture that supports and nurtures learning, change & growth. Leaders need to hold the space, giving permission for and accountability to people to figure out the best way to delight customers, knowing that the efforts may not always work, but supporting them in their efforts to learn, grow and adapt from their experiences.

Put all these ingredients together in the right quantities, provide the right cultural environment to allow for growth, and you’re on your way to true business agility. But don’t expect it to be easy – change is difficult and you’ll be challenged at every turn. But with change comes growth. 

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ― Albert Einstein

For example…

One of the issues that often arises in teamwork is that of terminology. You’re in a meeting explaining yourself using what you think are perfectly understandable words but after a bit of back and forth you realise that the others aren’t understanding what you’re saying in the way you mean it. Or worse, you don’t realise that there’s been a misunderstanding and you leave the meeting thinking everything is sorted, only to discover a while later that the team has gone off on the wrong path.

Thus the 3rd Ground Rule is:

Use specific examples and agree on what important terms mean.

This rule is all about specifics – specifics in situations and specifics in language usage.

Situational specifics

Abstract thinking may be great for philosophy, but when we’re trying to communicate in a high-performing team and we need action, it’s so much easier for us to relate to specific concrete examples. This is especially true when we’re trying to resolve issues in the team. In these instances, a clear situational example of what happened when and by whom helps to set the context within which further discussion can take place. If you’re trying to air a grievance and you start with “you always do [insert that thing they do here]”, there’s a big chance that the person can deny your grievance, as it’s almost impossible for someone to do something all the time.

Language specifics

One of the first artefacts I try to establish during any project is a glossary. Besides the usual role of clarifying the meaning of terms, I often find that the glossary is also used to define the single term that the team agrees to use whenever there are multiple terms are in use in the organisation. I know it might sound silly to go to the trouble of clarifying the words we use in a project, but you’ll save yourself quite a bit of time and frustration in the long run.

This is a relatively simple rule, but it’s surprising how easy it can be to get it wrong!

Flow the info

In the last post I wrote about assumptions and their effect on team performance. One of the most basic assumptions you often encounter in teams is that others have the same information you do. Hence, the second principle:

Share all relevant information

Let’s take an example – the traditional requirements gathering phase. The Business Analyst sits with the business person while they explain what they want this new system to do. The analyst takes notes and documents what they believe the business said. They then take this documentation back to the business, who, when reading someone else’s interpretation of what they said, realise that there were quite a few things that they forgot to mention that were in their head that would’ve made their requirements clearer.

When these docs are signed off and given to the developer to build from, the developer looks on in amazement at the analyst, wondering where all the detail they need is. So the analyst and developer make a trip to the business to get the info they need. The relevant information here is that which the developer needs to turn the requirement into a system.

The Agile solution to this problem is to remove unnecessary handoffs and potential miscommunication by simply having everyone work together full-time through the entire process. This way the team can make it clear what information would be relevant to them to help each other start sharing it more.

A key point to make is the use of the word ‘relevant’. Oversharing is not constructive. If it doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it. Only share what is needed to progress the discussion or the work at hand. Anything more is waste.

The boons and busts of assumptions

I’m assuming we all know the choice phrase: “Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.” If you don’t, well there is the problem with assumptions right there.

In my previous article I listed 8 behaviours that contribute to a high performing team. The first on that list is:

  1. Test assumptions and inferences.

It’s first for a reason. Humans have evolved advanced behavioural traits to ensure survival on the wild plains of Africa. We are great at pattern recognition, until we’re not. Our assumptions and inferences are examples of our application of pattern recognition. When we see someone behaving in a certain way, we review our memory for events that match that behaviour, then we infer the reason behind the current behaviour from the reasoning behind the historical behaviour. Many times our assumptions are correct, (After all, we did manage to survive this long!) however that’s not always the case. In our modern world, cause and effect can be a lot more complex than: “see a rustle in the bush – must be a lion! – run away and climb tree immediately!” In a business team context we are faced with people from many walks of life, cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. We also have the issue that language doesn’t fully express the nuances of what’s really going on in our thoughts, and that’s not even taking into consideration that many people in our teams are not even communicating in their native language. Put this all together and it becomes obvious why working in a corporate environment can often resemble a war zone.

But it doesn’t have to be. A lot of conflict can easily be avoided by making sure that the initial messages exchanged between people are understood properly. This is where the behaviour of testing assumptions comes into play.

Practically, there are 2 steps to this process:

  1. Becoming aware of the assumptions and inferences you’re making; and
  2. Testing these assumptions with the other party in a way to minimise defensiveness.

Becoming aware is the most difficult. We’re remarkable good at seeing when others are making assumptions but not so good at observing it in ourselves. Understanding the Ladder of Inference makes this process a lot easier. If you understand the steps you go through to come to a decision based on the data that has been supplied, you can stop and question yourself at any point on the ladder.

Testing these assumptions with the other party then becomes easier.  You first replay what you’ve seen or heard and ask whether they see it differently. Then you play back the assumptions or inferences you’ve made based on that data. If they see it the same way, you are at least seeing or understanding the situation in the same way. If it’s different, you have the opportunity to clarify the situation.

This technique helps both parties realise they’re at least looking at the same hymn-sheet. Whether or not everyone wants to sing that particular hymn is another issue. You may still need to have a difficult conversation.

What makes a good team?

Communication is tough. Many of the issues that arise in the workplace relate to miscommunication in some form or another. We think we’re saying something but it’s being interpreted differently, or we are actually saying the wrong thing. Miscommunication can lead to an erosion of trust, which is crucial to a high performing team.

Roger Schwartz came up with a list of Ground Rules for effective groups or teams to help with this situation. They are:

  1. Test assumptions and inferences
  2. Share all relevant information
  3. Use specific examples and agree on what important terms mean
  4. Explain your reasoning and intent
  5. Focus on interests, not positions
  6. Combine advocacy with inquiry
  7. Jointly design the next steps and ways to test disagreements
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues
  9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed

They sound so simple, looking at them written down like this. But these rules are based on a Mutual Learning model of the world, rather than a Unilateral Control model and it’s not easy to change your mental model. It takes discipline, commitment, self-control and persistence.

Each of these rules have a lot behind them, so I will be unpacking each of these rules over the next few blog posts to delve more into why these are so important for teams.

Stay tuned!

Emotional sign posts

Over the past few weeks I’ve become increasingly aware of how valuable our emotions can be for us.  I’m not talking about letting your emotions out instead of bottling them up inside. I’m talking about their use as indicators of the unconscious, sign posts along the way to a better understanding of ourselves.

I recently attended a workshop on system psychodynamics which was, to say the least, quite enlightening. Besides the fascinating theoretical learnings of a new field (for me at least), the key learning I took from it was how the unconscious manifests in many bizarre and subtle ways. There were many times I felt my heart rate increase immediately after someone in the group said something I wasn’t sure why, but yet it happened. I also found myself responding internally (I wasn’t always open enough to blurt out what I was thinking) in ways that took me by surprise. Halfway through the 2nd day I started to get the hang of it and I felt as if I were sitting on my shoulder observing myself and the emotions that were rising and swirling inside of me. I realised that I didn’t have to be a slave to these emotions but could rather observe them and instead use the rational part of my brain to unpick and unravel them to see where they came from. The unconscious is a murky place, but when the prefrontal cortex is in the driving seat with the brights on and the amydala is strapped and gagged in the back, quite a few realizations float into the beams. The emotions surface along the road, flashing brightly, warning us that there is something ahead that we will (eventually) need to deal with. We can choose to ignore the signs, relishing the reckless speed and the throb of the blood rushing through the veins, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we go careening off the side of the road into a ditch of despair.

We are complicated animals. There are so many things we don’t know about ourselves (yet). There are so many aspects that we try to hide, or project away onto others so we don’t think we’ll have to deal with them. Observe your emotional sign posts and perhaps you’ll find yourself on an open road with bright blue clarity above you.