Dimensions of Agility

»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.

Agile Mindset

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.

Also see the blog entries VUCA-Aikido, Improvisation, Agile and lean

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.

Agile Team

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.

Also see the blog entries Multitude, Pirate Leadership

Agile Organization

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

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.

Also see the blog entries Chinese Strategy, Narration, Effectuation

Leading Agility

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…

Also see the blog entries In-Waste-Ment, Curation (German), Irreparability, Pirate Leadership

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).

Johannes Ries

Irreparability in Business: Doing your best without being perfect

How you are, how the world is – this is the irreparable.
(Giorgio Agamben)

In his small, but philosophically very dense booklet The Coming Community, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (also see the German blog entry on state of emergency) elevated the irreparable to act as a symbol of being itself: »The irreparable is neither an essence nor an existence, neither a substance nor a quality, neither a possibility nor a necessity. It is not properly a modality of being, but rather it is Being that already always gives itself in the modalities, is its modalities. It is not thus, but rather is the thus

In the business world, this notion sounds strange, and not only so because the sentences cited above are not quite the style typical for management literature. Taking something that is defective, broken, damaged and blemished as being the symbol of true being? That sounds not only strange, but simply stupid. Every client would complain about an irreparable product and have if repaired or replaced. However, business is not only about products, but also about the people who make the goods. I think that for people in business, irreparability is relevant in two ways: Firstly with reference to the topic burnout and secondly with respect to establishing a positive culture of dealing with mistakes.

Regarding the first point: As long ago as in the 1990s, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (he has been mentioned before on this blog with reference to rhizoms) gave an enlightening sketch of the current state of our society. He called it a control society, which follows on from the previous disciplinary society in his view. The disciplinary society of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century disciplines its citizens in »enclosing milieus«, which use rules and regulations to clearly define what is allowed and, more importantly, what is not. The control society, on the other hand, is a delimited society, where in everyone is potentially allowed anything under the paradigm of freedom and independence; yet the individual is directed by means of »ultra-rapid forms of free-floating control«. The individual receives subtle suggestions to continuously have to make something of him- or herself.

In the disciplinary society, people taking on a new role had to »start again at nothing every time«, and they therefore »never stopped starting«. People in the control society »never finish anything«, wrote Deleuze. There will always be further aspects of performance that can be optimized and there will always be further possibilities of education and training that have not yet been used … The failure to make full use of one’s own potential is considered a deadly sin in the society of control; apple watch and self-tracking bracelets are its new status symbols. Byung Chul Han (who has also been introduced on this blog as a proponent of story-telling) followed on from Deleuze when he identified this excess of positivity in the society of control together with the simultaneous lack of all (negative) boundaries as the original reason for the burnout phenomenon. We are not strained by pressure from above, but by home-made pressure from inside.

When I suggested that we meet the new challenges of the VUCA world with VUCA-AIKIDO, I introduced the basic stance clarity, outlining a competence I consider vital: »I know (my) limits«. In a VUCA world that produces a control society as defined by Deleuze, which lack boundaries to the point where people are driven into burnout by their excessive yearning for self-optimization, it is essential to know how to set boundaries. In this context, it constitutes a boundary to admit to imperfection and permit oneself not to be perfect. By granting yourself shelters of irreparability, you are enabling yourself to confidently deal with the subtle demands of the control society: You will decide where to invest the time and resources that are available in order to become better. You will also decide where to remain less than perfect, to stay as you are. This does not mean asking for less application. It means to give one’s best in selected areas without having to be perfect in every realm.

Regarding the second point: Businesses that work in production necessarily focus on quality (as well as the dimensions time and cost). Faulty products are rejected and not brought to sale. The more bearing the product has on safety, the greater the focus on quality, of course. This treatment of the product often also reflects on the treatment of people. This means: the more bearing the product has on safety, the more importance is given to the need to agree, the insistence on process compliance, status orientation, etc. in the company culture. Focus on a perfect product often produces perfectionist people in companies.

Add to that our cultural and religious historical background, which also places behavioral faults into an existential context. The great sociologist Max Weber showed the close links between Christianity and our modern economic methods even in the early twentieth century. The way mistakes are dealt with in companies can also be interpreted in this light. In Christianity, a behavioral fault is easily considered a human fault: a sin and therefore a barrier to access to Christian paradise. In analogy, companies are quick to question their employees’ right to be in the company when they have made a mistake. The search for a »guilty party« is often more important in businesses than the attempt to fix the mistake. Take Giorgio Agamben’s plea for irreparability as a counterpoint to this culture: »Without refuge and nonetheless safe – safe in its being irreparable.« True being is what it is: real, faulty and blemished.

I am of course not calling for carelessness or deliberate sabotage; my aim is different. Stability and security are lost in the VUCA world. It is therefore an entirely predictable consequence that the error rate will increase. This enormously increases pressure on perfectionist individuals in a company culture that is focused on continuous optimization. At the same time, experimentation is the only way to find out what will and what will not work in a VUCA situation. And experiments sometimes fail. In a VUCA situation, it makes sense to act first in order to then be able to make a fast judgment on whether the actions were helpful or not (see Dave Snowden’s Cynefin approach for complex and chaotic realms, as outlined previously on this blog). I believe that in a VUCA situation, a mistake is one thing above all others: a valuable informant! Mistakes help adapt behavior accordingly and to improve without attaining perfection. That is why I believe that openness for experiments and valuing mistakes as opportunities to learn are important elements of the basic stance intuition in my suggestions on VUCA-AIKIDO.

I may have to stress once again here that I do not want to praise what is known as minimum performance or to demand less achievement in business. Instead, I want to support companies in establishing a company culture that allows the employees to realistically do their best without having to be perfect. I am convinced that this is the healthier and therefore also the more sustainably successful method of doing business.

I think that the use of strokes from transactional analysis is a useful model for the establishment of a high-performance company culture that still accepts the individual’s irreparability. The founder of transactional analysis, Eric Berne, described the establishment of a trusting environment that fosters achievement as early as the 1950s. Interaction with others and attention from one’s fellows is a basic need for every human. Indeed, research and reports have shown for centuries that humans literally die when these two basic needs are not met. Berne defined a »unit of attention« as a stroke. When we meet, we exchange strokes with every »hello« and every nod of our heads. And when we start a conversation, this exchange of strokes continues …

The word stroke has a double meaning that is important to this context. It can connote an act of kindness when giving a caress, as well as a negative action in the sense of a blow. In analogy, strokes that are exchanged can be positive or negative. All messages and actions that signal »I like you« send positive strokes. Conversely, all messages and actions that signal »I do not like you« send negative strokes. Another very important aspect of the stroke model is the difference between conditional and unconditional strokes. Conditional strokes are focused on the other’s actions, behavior and performance. They always also include »because-information«: I (don’t) like your behavior, because you are (not) doing this or that. Unconditional strokes, on the other hand, are focused on pure being. They relate to the person themselves, their essence and existence and are therefore much »stronger« than conditional strokes are. Unconditional strokes like »I like working with you!« or »You’re a real idiot!« (both without a »because« of any kind) have a much greater effect than conditional strokes like »Good work!« and »This was a mistake!« do.

In correlation, there are four kinds of strokes that people in companies exchange:

  • Unconditional positive strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person that I fundamentally value them as a person and do not question their work in the company in itself.
  • Conditional positive strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person what I value in their behavior and which aspect of it they should maintain.
  • Conditional negative strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person what I don’t like in their behavior, what could be improved.
  • Unconditional negative strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person that I fundamentally do not like them as a person and generally question their work in the company.

This list in itself may already show which stroke behavior can establish a trusting yet at the same time performance-oriented company culture: unconditional positive strokes (1) build fundamental trust in oneself and others. They are the most important basis for a valuing company culture, yet in my experience they are also the most neglected ones in companies. When I give the others in the company the feeling that they count as human beings and that their workplaces are safe, I fundamentally raise their motivation to perform. This sets up the basis on which conditional positive strokes (2) can establish confidence: I make the other person aware of their strength and what they should keep doing by giving feedback. Conditional negative strokes (3), on the other hand, foster self-criticism and are the basis for learning development: I give the other person feedback on where they have the potential to improve and what I would like to be different – giving them a basis on which to change their behavior. (The exchange of conditional strokes are familiar to many who work in companies as feedback. It is therefore useful to use the familiar rules of feedback: I-messages, concrete examples, focus on attentive behavior, …) Unconditional negative strokes (4) should be avoided in all instances. They result in nothing but destruction of confidence and trust in the other person, in frustration and demotivation.

In this context, I want to stress one thing above all others: When a criticism is being voiced, it is vital that the person being addressed understands at all times that the criticism is levelled at their behaviour and not at their person. People are too quick to »hear« strokes that are intended to be conditional and negative as ones that are unconditional and negative. The most sustainable way of avoiding this is to send out enough unconditional positive strokes. This experience appears to confirm the following rule of thumb: The more unconditional positive strokes I send out, that more »severely« will I be able to demand performance without disencouraging my employees and losing their trust.

Managers and employees often report that unconditional positive strokes are in too short supply in companies. This is probably due to the circumstance that they are generated via “waste”, albeit in a positive sense of in-waste-ment, a concept I have sketched out before: giving a partner attention without an agenda, taking time for conversations about non-business topics, investing in community-building, »sense-less« activities, … This in-waste-ment produces a lasting feeling of value and fundamental trust. This brings me back to the beginning of this text: Unconditional positive strokes also include the recognition of the other as an irreparable being. Giorgio Agamben, again: »Seeing something simply in its being-thus – irreparable, but not for that reason necessary; thus, but not for that reason contingent – is love.« Translated into the context of companies, this reads: »As (imperfect and blemished as) you are as a human, I value you. Let us find out together how you can do your best in the company …«

The stroke model is more than a mere guidance for behavior with others. It can also be a useful tool for putting yourself in perspective. Giving oneself enough unconditional positive strokes reinforces anyone’s own confidence in (work and private) life.

To accept oneself and others as not perfect and then making the best of that: this may sound like sixties romanticism. Yet in my experience, I receive the most attention from managers and employees in my workshops when I present the stroke model. This reflects how relevant this topic is for companies. I am utterly convinced that those companies that fundamentally recognize their employees’ irreparability and have confidence that they all do their best will be the most successful companies in the VUCA world.

Johannes Ries

Out of the precarious moment into an uncertain future: Successful effectuation in VUCA situations

The differences between an Indian slum, a Brazilian favela and the banking district in Frankfurt, between a discriminated Roma group and a company department, between a family on benefits and the boardroom members of a DAX enterprise are apparent: poverty v. wealth, powerlessness v. power, underprivileged v. privileged … No business school and no MBA degree will waste even a single thought on people who live in conditions of precarity – how they are and how they deal with their precarious situation. However, I believe that the business sector can learn from these people and the cultures that they have established under extremely averse conditions. After all, slum dwellers, the poor, minorities, outsiders and other fringe groups who have to master their sheer survival day in day out are experts on precarious situations – in other words, they are VUCA experts.

The VUCA situation is usually perceived like an state of emergency in companies: it cannot be met with the usual management and leadership tools. Although their physical survival is safe, people in companies regard the situation of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity to be precarious, because our well-being is firmly attached to stability, security, simplicity and explicitness. I have referred to the cultural philosopher and artist Yana Milev in an earlier blog post. She works on strategies for an emergency design in response to the state of emergency. Philosopher Isabell Lorey also addresses precarity in a completely new manner as an opportunity. Thanks to a great number of case studies, social scientists – foremost among them the cultural anthropologists – have met and are aware of confident experts in really dealing with precarity: people on the fringes, people who are marginalized, nomads, the excluded and other groups. These people have to live with the constant possibility that everything might come to an end by the next day, or at least change radically, and have to be ready for that.

I myself was able as a cultural anthropologist to study survival strategies in the face of a permanent state of emergency on fieldwork with Roma/gypsies in Romania (see Welten Wanderer, 2007). To me, one of the most interesting aspects was their completely different approach to time: the Roma/gypsy groups who I was privileged to meet also lived as marginal people who live for the moment. Michael Stewart, Sophie Day and Evthymios Papataxiarichs used this phrase as the subtitle for their wonderful anthology Lilies of the Field (1998), which draws a non-judgmental and equal portrait of the cultural survival strategies employed by Hungarian Rom, Untouchables in India, London prostitutes and other groups in precarious situations. According to the cultural anthropologists, they live like »lilies of the field« (cf. the bible verse Mt 6:28), who do not worry about tomorrow but are able to act confidently in the here and know while trusting (in God) that the next day will bring opportunities to survive.

As long ago as 1966, Oscar Lewis conducted his enlightening studies on the Culture of Poverty, where he established that people in a permanently precarious situation are particularly focused on the presence, even »forget« how to plan for a future beyond the immediate tomorrow. As I was sitting in clay huts and shacks without water or electricity supply during my own field research and was allowed to participate in the lives of the inhabitants of these shantytowns, I realized how much of this fixation on the present is a matter of self-protection: if you are caught in deepest poverty, thinking of tomorrow will only drive you mad or send you into depression …

Yet this fixation on the present in marginalized groups does not mean that they deliver themselves to the future as submissive victims. They go into the future step by step, »without a plan«, which can be of great advantage to them. There is a remarkable inventiveness to the way in which marginalized persons use bricolage, resourcefulness and improvisation in order to find solutions to problems. At the same time, they focus onkairos moments: opportunities that suddenly arise or come about, that are useful to those who grasp them on the spot and react flexibly to their presence. People on the fringes of society establish intensive relationships based on trust, thereby building tightly woven networks and systems of patronage that act as a safety nets in crises. Even though these groups can often not escape their poverty and precarity in this way, they are still equipped with successful coping strategies in the face of a state of emergency.

Our future-oriented society considers it a lack of planning skill to act out of the moment. However, the experts on precarity are in fact demonstrating an interesting new approach to handling VUCA. In order to perform successfully in a VUCA situation, those in the business world will need the same coping strategies as are used by groups on the fringes and in conditions of precarity in order to secure their survival amid poverty. This hypothesis is supported by the results of research conducted by Professor Saras Sarasvathy from the USA. She researched the behavior of successful businesspeople, far removed from milieus of poverty as they are. Interestingly, she identified quite similar aspects to be factors of success for entrepreneurs. Just like marginalized groups in a state of emergency, successful entrepreneurs will act »out of the present« and without overly narrow, concrete aims in mind »into« a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous future. Sarasvathy called this type of action effectuation; it is in strong juxtaposition to the linear-causal and goal-oriented school of thought that is generally preferred as a logical and goal-driven approach to handling the future.

Like the fringe groups outlined above, successful entrepreneurs also focus on four central Effectual Principles:

1. Means

In linear-causal thought, we set a goal that we want to reach and then conclude from that which means we require in order to achieve that goal. Ideally, we will have some of those means at our disposal, but will still have to generate others in order to reach our goal: We have to collect information, build up competence, create structures, establish contacts … Whoever has ever been involved in a company’s strategy process will confirm how firmly business planning adheres to this route.

All of this makes perfect sense if the one, set goal will remain stable in the long run. In a VUCA situation, however, it is anything but certain that a goal set today will still make sense tomorrow. Today’s effort invested in a future-oriented establishment of means can turn out to have been senselessly wasted energy by tomorrow.

An effectuating venture, on the other hand, proves to be VUCA resilient, as it generates future (options) from existing present potential. Effectuating planning does not set off from the one goal that is to be reached in the future, but from the means that are available in the present. All existing means together make up the potential from which a range of possible goals can be identified. Strength-oriented gathering of potential sets off from the plenitude that actually exist rather than from a scarcity seen from a future point of view. This plenitude allows the entrepreneur to start acting today.

2. Affordable Loss

The principle of affordable loss concerns finance and investment planning. In linear-causal thought, we create an (imaginary) business plan, in which we calculate a notion of the future income situation. We set certain conditions under which we will be able to make a (maximum) profit with (minimum) effort. This means it is often necessary to invest in the beginning, as the means to reach our goal still have to be generated (see point 1). In expectation of a large profit, which also requires a large investment, it makes sense to borrow money from others for the start. If our business plan is good, we can calculate the ROI point exactly: that moment in the future when the (assumed) earnings will balance the (assumed) investment and from which time onwards we will make a profit.

What happens, though, when a VUCA situation makes the future ever less calculable? A financial plan that makes assumptions on the future, and then bases large investments for large profits on this plan, is an increasingly risky enterprise. If the future is uncertain, the (assumed) earnings are also not certain. Debts make us less free and steal the flexibility we need to react to new situations speedily.

An effectuating finance and investment plan is contrary to linear-causal thought: it sets off from the bird in hand and does not strive for the two in the bush. That means, planning is focused on the loss that can be afforded in the present and not on the profit that is hoped for in the future. As planning includes the VUCA-aware knowledge that the venture can also fail, the entrepreneur asks: how much money can I afford to lose at the moment in order to realize a venture? The investment therefore never crosses the line to becoming dangerous. If a venture requires more capital than is available to the entrepreneur, the effectuating entrepreneur will not enter a debt dependency. Instead, they will find trustworthy partners (also see point 4), who are willing (also without endangering themselves) to join the investment and in return enjoy a proportional share of the profits. In this way, effectuation shares investment risks and safeguards financial survival through cooperation.

3. Leverage Contingencies

These first two principles alone ought to add up to the way in which the two schools of thought approach circumstances and coincidences. As linear-causal thought sets a firm goal and follows an exact plan of means attainment and financial investment, it must attempt to control the circumstances that will actually arise and avoid surprises. Every coincidence can ruin a venture, as it can cause deviance from the plan. When the real circumstances of the future turn out to be different from what had been assumed, the goal attainment plans will have to be adapted; in the worst case the goal will even have to be shifted. In an earlier blog post, I have already outlined the basics of this school of thought based on the Prussian warfare theorist Clausewitz.

However, VUCA situations are making it ever more difficult to control the circumstances of the future. Rising volatility and increasing complexities make it more and more probable that we will be surprised by coincidences and therefore will be facing realities tomorrow that will differ from what we were able to assume today. It is therefore much more useful to chose an opportunistic (in the positive sense) tactical approach in a VUCA situation, as I outlined in the above-mentioned blog post at hand of the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tsu.

Sun Tsu described an effectuating approach to strategy as long ago as two and a half millenia before now: the strategist needs to open up to surprises, always being in charge of the now and able to make decisions for future actions out of the actual moment. Entrepreneurs who set off from the extant means and do not focus on one goal only, but are able to aim for a range of options in a wider spectrum of goals, and who at the same time are able to react flexibly without debt obligations and fears of being ruined, will be (largely) independent of the circumstances in which they will find themselves in the future. This can make coincidence a possibility. In this context, a changed situation is not a crisis of the plan, but always an opportunity for further action (cf. the double meaning of the word in Chinese).

4. Co-Creation Partnerships

The linear-causal approach asks: who do I need in order to realize my venture? We search for the missing piece to our venture in others. In doing so, we want to be able to define exactly what we need our partner for. In companies, this very aspect is enacted in often endless discussions about interfaces. As we are obliged to follow a clearly defined goal »from above«, we have »a right« to be supported by other parties, who are not part of the process. If we do not receive this support, we make demands that are accompanied by the frequently serious and debilitating arguments in a silo culture.

In VUCA situations, dealing with others becomes a key skill. This is why I suggested interactivity as one of the six basic stances of successful VUCA AIKIDO. When all plans and ventures collapse, it is useful to have a broad web of trustworthy relationships to catch and hold you in an emergency.

An effectuating entrepreneur will not try to define the interfaces but create wide junctions. Such entrepreneurs will look for people they value, with whom they can establish firm relationships of trust. Sarasvathy visualized this approach with the image of a patchwork quilt: a so-called »cracyquilt« that is sewn together out of firmly connected individual patches to make one stable surface. To effectuating entrepreneurs, the central question is: Who do I get on well with, who can I trust and who is ready to take part? A web of trustworthy partnerships is one of the central means for effectuating out of the present into the future. It magnifies individual potential and at the same time offers security amid the uncertainties of the VUCA world.

Experts on precarity possess a basic cultural skill: living in the moment. It will now be apparent that there are advantages of effectuating action to the economic world: While linear-causal thought always requires a future that can be planned as well as a stable environment, the VUCA situation offers an ideal context for effectuation. The effectuating mindset does not consider VUCA to be a problem, but an opportunity. That which is there already opens a wide range of options, possibilities and paths. The future is always open – it is and remains our choice what we will make of it out of this moment …

Johannes Ries

Both agile and lean – ambidextrous but not Janus-faced!

Applying what is proven and exploring what is new.
(SYNNECTA’s long-standing claim)

Ambidextrous organization: this term was coined by Robert Duncan in the 1970s and picked up by James March in the 1990s and more recently by several other authors to describe a core future competence of organizations. The word ambidextrous comes from the Latin ambo (both) and dexter (right hand) and designates the ability to use either hand with equal skill. In the context of companies, ambidextrous organizations are simultaneously efficient and flexible, adaptable. They can make maximum use of what is there (exploitation) and explore what is new (exploration).

My blog contributions so far have focused especially on the aspect of adaptability and the potential for exploration by companies in a situation marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), as well as the search for adequate forms of behavior in the face of VUCA, e.g., in the realms of strategy, organization, cooperation and leadership. I remain convinced that companies will in the future be confronted more and more frequently with VUCA situations and that, therefore, exploration will gain importance. At the same time, I do not mean to say that we should forget exploitation. Companies will continue to act largely in situations characterized by being stable, secure, simple and explicit (SSSE). In such situations, it is sensible to act differently than in a VUCA situation.

In order to chose the right approach, it is initially important to be able to define the situation one is in at all. The Stacey matrix (named for Ralph Stacey) can help to do so: Stacey established a correlation between the degree of agreement on the path to be taken and the degree of certainty of that path. If, for example, all parties in the company agree on which path is to be taken, and if it is also clear how this path should be taken, the organization is in a simple situation, in which it makes sense to rely on tried and tested standards, submit these to tight monitoring and continuously improve them. The situation is different when there is disagreement on the path, for example because of great diversity among the stakeholders. If the path to reach the goals becomes additionally more uncertain – for example, if there is not enough information available or technologies to reach the goal have yet to be developed, the organization is entering an increasingly complex situation (and if disagreement and uncertainty both increase to the maximum, the environment even becomes chaotic). Standards are of little help in a complex situation. It makes more sense to »negotiate« paths via open forms of cooperation and to foster creativity and innovation.

Welshman Dave Snowden set out the Cynefin Framework, in which he similarly differentiates between four different domains for organizations: obvious and complicated domains are clear enough to be able to establish what needs to be done out of best, resp. good practices. Complex and even more so chaotic domains lack in clarity so greatly that only emergent resp. novel practices can help. The difference between the first two and the last two domains is the following procedure: in simple and complicated domains I see what is happening, categorize and analyze the reality I have sensed and then react with reference to the results. In complex and chaotic domains, on the other hand, I begin by probing and acting. Only then do I sense what happened and react accordingly in my next step.

Both the Stacey matrix and the Cynefin framework can be very helpful in organizations in order to identify the current situation, for example in a project landscape. In workshops, it has served me well to use pinboards on which to order the separate (part) projects into the Stacey matrix or the four Cynefin fields with the participants. It was usually easier to decide afterwards which procedure would be best suited for the given (part) project.

In obvious and complicated domains it makes sense to raise exploitation efficiency via standardization, as the situation is sufficiently stable, secure, simple and explicit (SSSE). Efficiency programs, such as those related to lean, are a sensible choice in such cases. Complex domains, on the other hand, are characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA); exploration of agile methods of working will be more useful in these cases.

I will not give a detailed explanation of lean and agile approaches, but I will give a short, differentiating outline of them. The lean approach comes from the automotive industry and is focused on batch and mass production. It is aimed at creating a lean business that uses optimized processes and continuous improvement to produce as inexpensively as possible and in best quality with the fastest processing time. Efficiency is raised through continuous identification and removal of what is considered waste. Standardization plays an important role in order to reduce changes and to generate comprehensive processing security. At the same time, the business will ideally be fully transparent with regard to all figures.

Agile approaches, on the other hand, come primarily from the IT branch for the generation of individual products (which can then be »cloned«). The process is iterative and strongly includes the client, creating the product in continuous increments step by step from the first, rudimentarily functioning raw version to the final version. The agile approach has full flexibility, especially in order to be able to react to altered conditions by changing the product fast and inexpensively. Short cycles include phases of work (often known as sprints), followed by collection of open feedback. This is to avoid running in the wrong direction for too long, and enable early adaptation.

I have found that agile approaches often have to struggle against a reputation of chaos and anarchism in companies (although that is quite unjustified), but are usually not considered dangerous. In contrast, the announcement of a new lean project often has half the employees fear for their workplaces or at least assume that »harder times« are upon them. The creation of transparency is often experienced as an increase in totalitarian control. This is somewhat justified, as many lean projects in Europe really do not seem to be based on the original lean philosophy from Asia. Many lean programs in European companies are in fact squeeze outs that aim to tighten the belt. Again, it is not rare that they are initiated from the outside with the help of consultants equipped with stopwatches and that they are »beaten« into the organization from top to bottom, making extensive use of hierarchical authority.

Lean programs that are implemented in this manner clash significantly with agile approaches. Agile work is not possible when there is pressure from above: Agile work is pivotally based on personal organization in teams and Pirate Leadership, which are utterly necessary (according to the Ashby Law) in order to sufficiently depict the external complexity of the environment inside the organization in order to achieve directive authority.

Let me return to the ambidextrous organizations I introduced at the start: If an organization is able to lead lean and agile at the same time, it can really be ambidextrous in handling exploitation and exploration. Our current use of lean approaches, as briefly described above, however, raises a massive barrier for the realization of ambidextrous action in many organizations. Instead of realizing the advantages of being ambidextrous, organizations often involuntarily establish a Janus face and speak with split tongues. When employees are on the one hand expected to organize themselves, communicate without hierarchy and think creatively (in order to realize exploration and agility), but at the same time are pressed into the organization’s efficiency programs with a heavy hand (and experience exploitation only in its truly negative sense), two fundamentally juxtaposed leadership discourses compete with each other in the same organization. This conflict will not make the organization ambidextrous, but it will generate a double bind in the organization’s culture that undermines the employees and stalls the organization.

Such Janus faces can be prevented if organizations conduct lean projects while focusing on an attitude that was originally at the basis of Asian lean philosophy. With this attitude, lean organizations actually empower their employees. The employees are given a wide range of responsibilities of their own in order to raise potential efficiency. The spotlight is on team work and managers consider themselves supporters and coaches to the employees. The resulting culture of transparency is not experienced as a threat (as it is not a tool for control by authoritarian leadership), but really serves constant improvement together with open feedback in a healthy culture of mistakes. All of that is then compatible with agile approaches.

With this attitude, lean and agile approaches in an organization both display the same, valuing and calculable face of management. It speaks with a single tongue in a clear language of reliable organizational culture. Within this environment, the employees are able to use both their hands to have a strong grip on efficiently exploiting the SSSE world while also successfully exploring the VUCA world.

Johannes Ries

New Leadership for a New World – A diagnostics instrument on the issue of VUCA


The leadership situation of today and tomorrow is characterized by planning ambiguities, the demand for faster adaptation and abrupt strategy alterations. VUCA is the term that was coined to describe this situation. Is your organization prepared for it?

Since last year, we have been experimenting with diagnostic tools that will be able to find your position and to provide an answer on how well organizations are really prepared for this situation. A report from inside the development of the tools for a guided future check for organizations.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff

A diagnostics instrument on the issue of VUCA

Is it really true you are in a state of VUCA in your organization? Is the situation of your business really that volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? How do the employees and managers in your organization see it? Does the context make a difference – the organisation as a whole, a given team, a given individual? Which aspects are considered to be the most challenging? Where have successful coping strategies emerged already?

We have captured the VUCA phenomenon in several blog entries and demonstrated a range strategies to address the situation. Before an organisation or one of its units takes a measure in order to better handle its existence in a world assumed to be in a state of VUCA, it is advisable to find answers to the questions above. It is only once those answers are before us that can we start to think about possible consequences and interventions.

In this context, it is particularly useful to engage in a guided reflection on the status of your own organization. We have therefore taken a step in that direction by designing a questionnaire in preparation for our last SophiaWorkshop. This tool enables us to find out how the people in an organization really experience their situation. It is not concerned with the measurement and evaluation of objective VUCA indicators but rather with capturing subjective and individual perceptions.

VUCA is often employed to describe the outside world or the organizational context of a business: increasing volatility on the markets makes planning more difficult, for example, as it emerges that the required assumptions and predictions do not fully apply. Many such external factors exist. However, internal factors – »home-made« ones – also play an important role. Certain structures, processes, cultural patterns and ways of behaviour can result in, or at least increase the likelihood of, a situation where employees and managers perceive their environment to be lacking the necessary stability, certainty, simplicity and clarity. That can result in a number of dysfunctional behaviours and limit the organization’s ability to react to the above-mentioned uncertainties in the outside world. The questionnaire focuses on these aspects.

We are working together with the University of Manchester and Carolin Hauner in the framework of her Master’s thesis in order to develop the VUCA diagnosis tool and to continue to sharpen the focus of the questionnaire. We will also work together with industry partners in order to make sure that the result will be a useful tool. If you are interested in taking part in this process of co-creation, please be in touch to address details and the means of cooperation!

If you would like to use the VUCA questionnaire for your own organization in order to gain an initial insight into how the VUCA situation is perceived in your organization, please contact us at diagnostics@synnecta.com.

Thomas Meilinger
SYNNECTA Diagnostics