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Business agility: utopia or common sense ?

  • Agility

An Agile transformation is not a walk in the park. Many companies launch it, hoping to gain velocity and performance, but they come up against their own reality and only manage to set up a few squads that do Scrum. They fail – unfortunately – to become Agile, in the sense of the state of mind, and therefore see little benefit from it.

And yet, Agile values and principles respond to a bunch of positive mechanisms for the women and men who actually embrace them. Many studies in psychology, sociology and neuroscience show that these ways of working are much more consistent with human needs, motivation and collaboration.

Hence my question: is agility a futile utopia or, on the contrary, common sense to explore urgently?

Why it is so complicated to implement agility

As an Agile coach, passionate about my job, I see it clearly: despite all the enthusiasm and the time spent, it is sometimes very complicated to spread the “good word” in the face of the realities on the ground. Challenge shared by many other coaches, regardless of the company.

And for good reason, there are many obstacles.

Agility requires valuing individuals and their interactions, and on a frequent basis. However, in reality, it is sometimes difficult to have enough time from stakeholders, sponsors, or even access to end users. These people are rarely seconded to actively participate in the project. And when they are, they have to deal with priority conflicts, if their management is not sufficiently aligned with the Agile system in place. The problem for the Agile team is therefore that there is not enough quality feedback on the work done. It is therefore almost impossible to verify and improve the value, the team can only rely on incomplete information.

Agile teams are supposed to be self-organized and self-managed. A mature team, which will have already experienced this way of working, and which benefits from an optimal framework, with a product vision and committed people, including maybe will happen. But in reality, it rarely happens like that, and the teams need a minimum of supervision and coaching, so as not to drift. This need can be felt on coordination between teams, on the definition of roles and responsibilities between members, on the product vision and the prioritization that can be made of it.

An Agile team must be able to constantly adapt to change. Here again, reality catches up with it, as soon as it operates in an environment that imposes heavy bureaucratic processes on it (which is often the case in large companies) and tight deadlines on defined scopes (in the end a good old V-cycle method). Furthermore, not all individuals are comfortable with change and do not all have the necessary resilience for this type of context. This requires coaching support and takes time, which companies do not have.

That being said, and despite this reality on the ground, Agility, in many respects, is a way of working much closer to the natural needs of people, in terms of motivation, balance and learning.

Agility, a quest for “human” common sense

As research advances in the fields of psychology, sociology and neuroscience, we see that Agile values and principles provide a much more suitable framework for the functioning of the human brain. This is what should invite us to explore its possibilities all the more, because it gives us keys to improving team performance, based on fundamental needs.

Autonomy and empowerment, supported by self-determination theory

The work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan has shown that autonomy, a sense of competence and belonging are among the basic psychological needs of humans to stay motivated over the long term. These three factors call intrinsic motivation, which is much more durable than the motivation that arrives through external factors, such as an individual bonus, for example.

Since Agile teams are empowered and autonomous in their way of achieving the objective given to them, they are better able to develop their performance over the long term.

The learning capacities of the brain

The work of Todd Maddox, in particular, has shown that the brain’s behavioral learning system learns through interactions and immediate corrective feedback. This system is also more likely to repeat behaviors that will be rewarded, rather than “punished” ones.

The Agile principles bring precisely the notion of receiving feedback frequently and as soon as possible. Teams will learn from their failures as users can give them feedback on what is being achieved. Likewise, error must be shown and seen as a way to learn and improve. This positive reinforcement must allow the members of an Agile team to capitalize on the information received: positive and negative, and treat it as the best way to create value.

It was very interesting to see this week how SpaceX employees, and Elon Musk, commented on the disintegration of the Starship rocket.

It is good to try and learn and welcome this event.

Developing the Growth Mindset

Following on from the previous point, Agile companies are learning companies. Psychological research by Carol Dweck on the growth mindset has shown that we can all develop this learning mindset. Whatever our age, whatever the field. The human brain is plastic, that is to say that the paths that allow information, our thoughts to circulate, can be constantly transformed, as long as we watch it and put in place practices. for that.

Thus, when we decide to set up learning rituals or use the technique of small steps, to find solutions to our problems, we capitalize on this extraordinary capacity of our brain.

And the more an Agile team learns and proves to itself that it is capable of solving the challenges given to it, the more it will be able to innovate and perform.

Agility does not stop at these few examples. There are many other principles that confirm this common sense in the way of managing the women and men who evolve within this Agile framework, in particular the sustainable rhythm, or even collaboration and communication, as a factor of trust, commitment and job satisfaction.

How can we invite it into the ways of working, despite the constraints.

How to do Pragmatic Agility?

At this point, I think it is worth remembering that Agility is a framework, which requires excellence and self-discipline. This framework must allow companies and their teams to apply Agile values and principles, according to their context. It is also often difficult to make an Agile transformation into a Big Bang, so take action gradually and methodically.

Facilitate interactions, despite availability constraints

It is possible to identify and set up a certain number of regular meetings, planned in advance, which will make it possible to secure the presence of the stakeholders. Agile leaders can work with sponsors and managers to align and make sure people are available, at least in those slots.

Communication is key and, as an Agile leader, you must be able to bring the necessary vision so that everyone understands the why and the objectives to be achieved. It is equally important to communicate this information frequently to stakeholders, to engage them in the process.

Concrete tools:

  • techniques: videoconference, chat, virtual whiteboard
  • vision and OKR (Objectives and key results)
  • common rituals: demo, planning, daily scrum, retrospective

Allow self-organization, with the necessary support

The Agile leader will have the role of setting the framework and letting the teams define how they will achieve the objectives set for them. As a servant leader, you must allow them to help them when they need it: either in the position of coach, by questioning them so that they identify their resources, or by taking concrete actions when the challenges go beyond power and team capabilities.

The Agile leader will also have the vocation to find the necessary compromises, so that Agile functioning can emerge, despite the constraints of the environment. He will be there so that the transition to more agility can be possible, with the help of Agile coaches.

Concrete tools:

  • open questions (how, what, who, what…)
  • interpersonal relationships
  • problem solving (root cause analysis, 5 whys, brainstorming, etc.)
  • conflict resolution

Encourage learning and continuous improvement, to allow the company to evolve, one step at a time

Finally, it becomes crucial to invite teams to adopt a growth mentality and to learn continuously, in order to improve continuously. A very first step is to set up retrospectives, and to ensure that the action plans are carried out, so that everyone benefits from them.

For this learning to happen, you also have to allow failure, and value it as a lesson, and trust the team to manage corrective actions. An Agile leader must be able to create this space of safety so that his teams can honestly and effectively address the problems that arise.

Concrete tools:

  • retrospective
  • micro learning
  • pair programming
  • celebrate: successes and failures

It is thanks to these small steps that the company will be able to progress towards greater agility, and succeed in transforming its culture and working methods, for greater performance and efficiency, at all levels. And this transformation can also bring much more since agility allows people to have more satisfaction, motivation and commitment in their work. Agility can and must be pragmatic, to allow everyone to evolve towards a better framework.

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