»Agility« has become a key term for anyone keen to show that they are »ahead of the times«. Yet, at the same time, use of the word often elicits negative reactions and rejection. Beyond showmanship and buzzword bingo, however, the term hides valuable notions and concepts that can enable teams, organizations and managers in VUCA situations.
The notion of agility that is often encountered in discussions is usually notably imprecise; this may be so because the term has a wide range of nuances that come out in different given contexts. I will briefly sketch out these different aspects of »agility« in the following in order to bring some clarity to the discussion. At the end of each paragraph, references to earlier texts are included that cast more light on the topic touched on in the paragraph.
The thesaurus provides several synonyms for »agile«: words such as »nimble«, »active«, »spry«, »lively«, »brisk«, »quick«, »swift«, »lithe«, »supple«, »fit«. This range of associations is largely related to activity, which has to do with the etymology of the term: the Latin word agiliscomes from agere, »to do«, »make« or »act«. The current range of meanings emerged primarily from the software industry, where programing and project methods have been »agilized« by way of alternative approaches.
In 2001, seventeen persons from the programing sector signed the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which focused on four points: individuals and interactions were considered more important than processes and tools, just as working software was taken to be of greater significance than comprehensive documentation. Customer collaboration was favored over minute contract negotiation and greater importance was placed on response to changes than following a plan. The manifesto resulted in twelve principles: client satisfaction, openness for change, iterative development, intensive collaboration, focus on a motivating environment, face-to-face communication, working software as a measure of progress, constant pace, technical excellence and good design, simplicity, self-organization and self-reflection. This list provides a good summary of the mindset it takes to achieve success in any agile practice and configuration.
Agile Practices and Methods
Agile practices and methods are designed to each in their specific way turn the above-named principles into practice. In the software industry this includes approaches such as Adaptive Software Development, Crystal, or Extreme Programming. Scrum has by now emerged for the fields beyond software development. Scrum is the best known among a range of agile methods. It endeavors to reduce effort as much as possible by defining a development framework within which a team of developers organize themselves to work empirically and iteratively in what is known as increments to achieve the product. Each (partial) function of the product should be completed – including planning, development, realization and testing – within short intervals known as sprints (no longer than 30 days each). The team of developers, who organize themselves to deliver the product functionalities, work together with the Product Owner, who is responsible for the product, and the Scrum Master, who ensures that the few existing rules of scrum are adhered to. Together, they regularly reflect on product, process and cooperation in order to increase efficiency and learn from each other.
An agile team is usually a small group of colleagues who have a clear, shared goal that they aim to reach by self-organization without a supervisor. That does not mean that an agile team lacks leadership. Informal leadership usually emerges from within the team or group out of each type of task and situation: one member will adopt topical leadership for a time, for example, but will pass it on once the situation changes. An agile team can, but does not have to, use agile practices and methods. Ideally, however, an agile team will reflect regularly on themselves and will, if necessary, accept supervision. Transparency and an open feedback culture are fundamental conditions for a group to be able to work as an agile team. The team should be as diverse as possible. Ideally, agile teams are interdisciplinary and cross-functional. The members should have different and complementary T-profiles: i.e., all team members are generalists (horizontal bar), but in addition can each provide depth in a different area of expertise (vertical bar). This makes an agile team best prepared for complex situations and unexpected events.
An agile organization aims to realize the values and principles of the agile manifesto whilst retaining the greatest possible proximity to their client. While there is no clear definition, most agile organizations are described as decentralized organisms that shift »power« from the center to the periphery. Minor, autonomous units which carry responsibility for themselves closely »dock on« to the client in order to recognize and fulfill the client’s wishes without delay. These »cells« are independent of each other; therefore, the organism as a whole will not be in danger when a single unit is in trouble. At the same time, the minor parts of the organization are able to unite with others by way of collaboration if that brings an advantage to all concerned. This structure makes it possible for the entire organization to be established or disbanded at speed: it can at any moment be rescaled »upwards« or »downwards«. A service platform at the center of the organization seeks to bundle the synergies of the parts of the organization and makes them available to the periphery. At the same time, all organizational units are tied into a dense network so that they can learn from each other.
Also see the blog entry Organism
Agile strategy goes beyond exact planning by defining a fuzzy vision (Bouée) that is broad enough to permit a range of approaches. The primary approach is one of effectuation. The actors are guided by the means that are already available and identify the potential that is inherent in all potential goal options. Financial planning is not focused on return on invest but on the maximum affordable loss: this minimizes risk. Strategy is implemented iteratively, step by step, employing efficient tactics and putting circumstances and coincidences to use rather than trying to eliminate them. The establishment of trusting partnerships that use co-creation and risk minimization make a solid base for such an effectuation strategy.
Agility can only be fully realized by an alternative form of leadership. Management will no longer position itself above the team and at the head of the organization, but instead will lead from the side or out of the center. Leading agility means to trust in and enable the potential of the employees’ intrinsic motivation and the abilities of individuals and groups to organize themselves (Theory Y). A leader who supports agility curates topics, is available to coach the team and will provide and accept detailed and intensive feedback. Such kind of leaders consider themselves the organization’s gardeners: they foster and cultivate a culture of trust and appreciation within which the entire employees’ potential can come to full bloom…
Agile Transformation and Agile Culture Coaching
Companies and organizations who want to establish agility usually face a massive cultural shift. Agile transformation means generating change in many aspects of agility at the same time: bringing people into a new mindset and introducing agile practices into use, building new teams and re-configuring organization, creating new strategic plans and leadership models. These changes can be professionally designed with the accompanying help of experts who have substantial knowledge on the topic of agility and are able to deal with people, organizations and cultures out of their experience with processes. In order to support agile transformation from within companies, SYNNECTA will offer a new qualification in agile process accompaniment (including preparation for Scrum Master Certification) from April 2016: Agile Culture Coach Training.
More information on Agile Coach Training available here (German).