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

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.

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.

Wasted cognition

I came across this in Peter Diamandis’s Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think:

“Wikipedia took one hundred million hours of volunteer time to create,” says [Clay] Shirky. “How do we measure this relative to other uses of time? Well, TV watching, which is the largest use of time, takes two hundred billion hours every year—in the US alone. To put this in perspective, we spend a Wikipedia worth of time every weekend in the US watching advertisements alone. If we were to forgo our television addiction for just one year, the world would have over a trillion hours of cognitive surplus to commit to share projects.” Imagine what we could do for the world’s grand challenges with a trillion hours of focused attention.

Get off your couches, people!