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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