Agility aims to increase the flexibility of a company. Then one would have to expect that now is the hour of the agilists. But it doesn’t, at least not consistently.
In several companies, I can see that a completely different wind is blowing right now. Back to command and control, announcements, the very old number. This seems rather paradoxical to me at first and I am looking for an explanation.

Laloux’s stages of society as an explanatory pattern?

Colleagues have used the Laloux categories and observed that the type of their organization regresses one or even two levels. Frederick Laloux (Reinventing Organizations, 2014) describes how groups / communities evolve – or regress – when they are under stress. Thereby he uses types

  • Tribal society: This form of organization is dominated primarily by the exercise of power over subordinates. In the more chaotic environment, fear holds the organization together. Examples include mafia structures.
  • Traditional: A highly authoritarian organization with formalized roles in a hierarchy and strict processes. Examples include many government agencies.
  • Modern: Competition, expansion and profits dominate this form of organization. Typical large companies are an example of this.
  • Postmodern: Shared values come to the fore next to hierarchy. Empowerment becomes an important means to achieve outstanding motivation.
  • Evolutionary: Here, self-management, wholeness, authenticity and alignment with meaning are the defining elements.

I find it a nice description of archetypes, but can’t draw much insight from it for possible reactions in the current situation – it’s too descriptive, too fatalistic, too much fate for me. If I follow this model, I will have to retreat into my shell and hibernate.

While this can be appropriate to exploit the inertial forces of a system (I’ve done it), it’s not really satisfying and has little perspective for action.

Can Cynefin help us?

I might get further by using David Snowden’s Cynefin framework for analysis rather than Laloux, and indeed I do find it there: Cynefin distinguishes contexts and categorizes patterns for appropriate action patterns:

  • Obvious contexts: the dominant action pattern is: perceive – categorize – react. This is the world of codified best practices, clearer restrictions and fixed hierarchy. The classic example is assembly line work.
  • Complicated contexts: an example is the repair of an aircraft on the ground. the dominant action pattern is perceive – analyze (as opposed to the simpler classify) – react. The practices are not “best practices,” i.e., not conclusively defined, but “good practices,” i.e., there are empirical values but considerably more leeway. The leadership picture is also different: in the maintenance example, it would be a Team Lead who gets advice from the specialists on his team. The knowledge is the experiential knowledge of the employees and usually a manual or similar.
  • Complex contexts: here there are many surprises, less predictable. The dominant action pattern is: test (“probe”) perceive – react. This can easily be translated into the main approach in an agile development project, where experiments feed a “discovery” or insight cycle that feeds into a “delivery” cycle like the Scrum sprints via the backlog. Here the self-organized team is appropriate and the leadership images around the “servant leader”. Another look at the role of learning: process learning and continuous improvement are baked into these processes – via mechanisms such as “probe”, i.e. conducting experiments and events such as the regular retrospectives.
  • Chaotic contexts: this is the typical emergency situation such as firefighting operations or traffic accidents with serious injuries. The action pattern is: act, sense, respond. There is no time to discuss. When you learn, you use the knowledge you have previously accumulated.

For the business environment, the current situation contains some elements of chaos – in some industries such as aviation, tourism and evtl automotive, it is clearly chaotic. Now I put the agile toolkit next to it, designed primarily for complex environments, and now I’m no longer surprised that leadership is less inclined to listen to what agilists have to say. If I want the ideas, values and human image to continue to matter, I have to find answers that fit this time. They can decide whether agility is pushed back or promoted in companies.
Before I get to that, I want to list factors that might argue for a boot or a backlash.

What fosters backlash

  • The good old muscle memory of organizations: the word Ken Schwaber has used since the early days of Scrum to describe that organizations tend to fall back into old familiar ways – even more so when confronted with stressful situations
  • The reaction of the losers of agility: as with any other change, there are also losers when agile structures are introduced: people who lose positions, influence, accustomed privileges and decision-making powers, or who are simply uncomfortable with the whole thing because it contradicts their personal way of working. They come out of the woodwork and take advantage of the situation
  • Finally, the superficial similarity between a hierarchical planning and division of labor that produces good results in a simple or complicated environment. It just seems fitting to pull out the old patterns and re-establish them.

The big misunderstanding here comes from the superficial similarity – and equating – of leadership in complicated or chaotic environments.

What speaks for a boost

  • Resilience, i.e. the ability to react to surprises, is essential to come out of the current situation in one piece. If these capabilities attributed to agility can be activated, they can be very useful, if not essential.
  • Business Agility. This requires another important building block: understanding that agility starts with operating in a changing market and that ideas about structures and culture derive from this: they are a contribution to a thriving business. All too often, agility is reduced to following certain rules, such as the Scrum process. This leads to the third point:
  • Agility is contextual. With a consistent orientation towards empirical work, (i.e. letting the consequences of experience flow into action) it brings the aspect of learning into the center of the work: Working is learning (Peter Senge)

Boost instead of backlash – ideas for strengthening agility in the crisis

  1. Stabilization and reassurance of values. When you put the values of the different contexts side by side, one constant immediately stands out: respect. The mirror in people’s behavior is: responsible action – accountability. If you strengthen this pair of values, you can achieve a long-term strengthening of the organization’s culture, especially in a crisis situation.
  2. Focus on the value proposition of agility: resilience has its value today, in a chaotic environment it feeds to a considerable extent on the lessons learned in the past: how can these lessons be effectively activated, what structural changes are laid out that can be harnessed, where is there trust capital that can be currently leveraged.
  3. Sharpening the target image, or: how to get out of the chaotic situation. It is tempting to activate the command structures in response to the crisis – and then just leave them active (“please, go ahead”). But they are not sustainably good, they use up what they have learned, i.e. they deplete the accumulated intellectual and cultural capital. Agility must contribute to the answer to the question of where and how to re-establish the appropriate structures, ways of working and culture for what will hopefully be a “just” complex world again.

I believe that responding to this situation will be important for the perception of the contribution of agility to the well-being of people and organizations. We agilists can be serious partners in leveraging different sources of knowledge and concepts if we don’t just retreat into our shells in a huff.

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Boost or backlash – what Corona does with agility

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