Agility aims to increase the flexibility of a company. If so, one would expect that now would be the hour of the agilists. But it doesn’t, at least not consistently.
In several companies I notice 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 levels 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 under stress. 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 are mafia structures.
- Traditional: A highly authoritarian organization with formalized roles in a hierarchy and strict processes. Examples of this are 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’s, 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 pattern of action 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 room for manoeuvre. 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 a fire brigade operation or a traffic accident with serious injuries. The action pattern is: act, sense, respond. There’s no time to argue. When you learn, you use the knowledge you have previously accumulated.
The current situation contains some elements of chaos for the business environment – it is clearly chaotic in some industries such as aviation, tourism and possibly automotive. Now I put the agile toolkit next to it, designed primarily for complex environments, and now I’m not surprised that leadership is less inclined to listen to what agilists have to say. If I want the ideas, values and image of man 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, let me list factors that might argue for a boot or a backlash.
What fosters a 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 habitual 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, familiar 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
- And finally, the superficial similarity between 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 in order to come out of the current situation in one piece. If they manage to activate this ability attributed to agility, they can be very useful, if not essential.
- Business Agility. This requires another important building block: the 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 flourishing company. 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. allowing the consequences of experience to flow into action), it places the aspect of learning at the centre of the work: working is learning (Peter Senge).
Boost instead of backlash – ideas for strengthening agility in the crisis
- Stabilization and reassurance of values. When the values of the different contexts are placed side by side, one constant immediately stands out: respect. The mirror in people’s behaviour is: responsible action – accountability. If you strengthen this pair of values, you can achieve a long-term strengthening of the culture of the organization, especially in a crisis situation.
- Focus on the value proposition of agility: resilience has its value today, in a chaotic environment it is fed to a considerable extent by the lessons learned in the past: how can these lessons be effectively activated, what structural changes are in place that can be harnessed, where is there trust capital that can be currently leveraged.
- 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 a hopefully “only” 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.