While organizations might find it easier to first address the processes and tools they will use when they’re delivering agile projects, it is individuals and their interactions that ultimately determine the level of enduring agile success an organization is able to realize. The change required to enable long-term agility is cultural in nature. For change to occur, the beliefs and values held by individuals in the organization must be examined.
Organizational change cannot be mandated through top-down edicts and policy. An environment that fosters both individual and organizational transformation must be created. One way to help individuals through a change of this magnitude is through the use of deep questioning which is born out of genuine curiosity. This paper outlines a method of critical thinking through the use of Socratic questioning to enable individual, guided discovery and provides an example of its use.
Organizational agile transformations require much more than simple process implementation or adoption. Long-term success requires a broad and deep cultural change within the organization, which implies change at the individual level. The willingness to challenge beliefs and values that have long been held as truths requires courage and perseverance. The first of the four paired values stated in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (Beck et al., 2001, para 2) is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Yet, organizations seeking to transform themselves to enable agility usually choose to start by myopically focusing on processes and tools, addressing individuals and their interactions almost as an afterthought, if at all. This is somewhat understandable; it’s much easier to implement processes and tools than it is to change individual behaviors and interactions. But it is people and how they interact that foster learning in organizations, the cradle of agility.
Suggested Read: Agile project management with scrum
While serving as an enterprise agile coach for an organization, I was approached by the manager of the quality assurance (QA) team with several questions about agile. He was an ardent skeptic and seemed genuinely opposed to the idea of adopting Scrum within the product development organization that his team supported. Through several lively and engaging interactions over the course of a few months I witnessed an incredible transformation as he evolved from skeptic to active believer in and supporter of the transformation. However, this individual’s awakening didn’t occur solely through teaching and telling; rather, it occurred only after I became genuinely curious about the beliefs and values he felt were so unquestioningly true and began to ask deep questions about their origins. As a result of his individual metamorphosis, he eventually founded the organization’s first QA center of excellence (COE), which provided a support network of resources that enabled continued personal and professional growth. He was also the first in management to support individuals residing on stabilized teams.
Understanding Agile Organizational Change
It’s generally easy to boldly state that an organization needs to fundamentally change its approach to how it’s doing business, moderately difficult to identify the change that’s required, and supremely challenging to influence an organization’s culture directly and expect much to change. A recent industry survey cited the inability to change organizational culture as the largest barrier to agile adoption. The same survey found that the leading cause of failed agile projects was an opposing company philosophy or some other form of cultural resistance (VersionOne, Inc., 2013). Failure to positively influence organizational culture results in minimizing the potential benefits of agile, which can lead to dormant and mechanistic agile process adoption rather than impactful transformation.
Also Read: Agile innovation and the project manager
Why Agile Is Attractive to Executive Leadership
There are several potential benefits, both tangible and intangible, that may be realized from adopting agile principles, practices, and methods. Some of the most commonly understood tangible benefits include reduced time to market, increased quality, and a more expeditious return on investment (ROI); improved customer satisfaction, increased employee morale, and reduced risk are some of the many intangible benefits. When coupled with the fact that formal agile methods have achieved widespread use, effectively crossing the chasm of adoption, it’s understandable why executives are eager to embrace what could be an incredible weapon in their arsenal to improve their organization’s value proposition and competitiveness.
There is increasing awareness that embracing agile values, principles, and methods is becoming necessary just to stay competitive, let alone gain market share. One case study, from Intel, reported a 66 percent reduction in cycle time, virtual elimination of schedule slips, and improved communication and job satisfaction (Elwer, 2008, p. 12). While the promised results are both appealing and achievable, they are not realized through process selection and implementation alone; there are numerous obstacles to overcome, many of which stem directly from existing organizational culture.
Culture and Organizational Learning
First, it’s important to point out that agility is not a destination but a journey. There is no bar by which an organization can claim itself to be agile. However, an organization can consider itself agile enough at any particular moment if it has a shorter decision and execution loop than its competitors. In other words, if the organization can make quick decisions and swiftly execute, it may very well be more successful than its competitors.
The implication of this, of course, is that the decision-making should be pushed as close to the action as possible. Even one of the most rigidly hierarchical organizations in the world, the US Army, has realized this fact. Lieutenant General (Lt. Gen.) L.D. Holder argued that “an over reliance (sic) on a rigid, methodical planning process had … left subordinates without a clear understanding of the operation” (Dempsey & Chavous, 2013, para 1). That is, the overall goal and concept of the operation being undertaken needs to be communicated, but to improve the probability of a successful outcome, decisions need to be pushed to local operational authority. In organizations this would be equivalent to communicating strategy and relocating decision-making to the lowest level possible—in most cases, to the team level.
In many organizations this is an uncomfortable situation. For executives it requires letting go of certainty of control, and for teams it requires transparent individual and group accountability. To successfully enable this type of behavior requires cultural change, which first starts at the individual level. Adopting a process requires training and learning at the individual level, but enabling organizational agility requires the organization to transform itself into a learning organization. This requires the willingness to experiment and try new things and to abandon those things that are not adding value, or are reducing effectiveness. Agile will not solve organizational problems and dysfunction, but it is exceptional at illuminating problems and dysfunctions. Failure to comprehend this can lead to abandonded or failed agile initiatives.
Also Read: Agile planning process and methods
Organizational Barriers to Agile Transformation
So, what is it that impedes an organization’s ability to effectively change and shape itself to the realities of its business? One impediment may be an unwillingness to challenge management dogma that has been ingrained in the psyche of every business school graduate since the assembly line-driven Industrial Revolution. Agile is a disruptive management technology analogous to how the personal computer (PC) disrupted mainframe computing and how mobile computing has disrupted the PC industry. The fundamental problem that the Industrial Revolution, out of which management was born, was meant to address was managing people for maximum efficiency, consistency, and output. Our current situational reality is different. We must now use leadership and management to draw out creativity and innovation. We simply cannot manage as we have been traditionally. To change ingrained thinking requires deep introspection and discovery at both the individual and organizational level—and that implies culture.