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  • Writer's pictureSteve Hearsum

#Agile: Really?.... Or are you just jumping on the bandwagon?

Updated: Apr 3

In recent years organisations large and small have embarked on the quest for greater agility, often at the exhortation of senior leaders who are the antithesis of that and/or without clarity around what is meant by ‘agile’. It gets framed variously as:

  • ‘Agile’ – as in “we want to work in a way similar to that used by Agile software developers";

  • ‘agile’ – as in “we want to be more flexible”, without any clarity around what this is, and worst case as a euphemism for hot-desking and home-working;

  • ‘Agile’ – as in “we need to be adaptive and responsive”;

  • Agile’ – “we need more experimentation and innovation";

  • Or a delightful melange of the above;

  • Or something different (any other definitions you can add below, Hive Mind?....).

I had an exchange on LinkedIn with Janet Batson a while ago, when she posted something about the Cambridge University Press ‘Agile Team’. I asked Janet how she defines agile and she replied….

“Agile with a lower case would be, for us, about organisational agility and org learning.”

That raised a question, which I posed in response:

“So what is ‘agile enough’ and how will you know?”

And there we left it, as neither of us had an answer in the moment. I pondered, and linked this to what Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung Judge says about measuring agility:

“Agility of an organisation will come from active encouragement of experimentation and surfacing of divergent views; even allowing rule breaking. Leaders will need to recognize that people need the freedom to own their own power, think innovatively and operate in new patterns.” (Cheung Judge & Holbeche, 2015: 40)

Ummmm….. Methinks we hath stumbled on some possible measures verily and forsooth…

Measures for 'Agility'

Measure #1: if you “actively encourage experimentation”, that assumes you know what an experiment is and is not in your context (if you aren’t clear the first task is to define some parameters). Once you have that, how many experiments do you currently see, how many would constitute ‘enough’, what would be ‘too few’ or ‘too many’?

Measure #2: how many “divergent views” are currently expressed, (assuming again you have contracted around what makes a view divergent as opposed to merely slightly off or in raging agreement etc), in what areas/types of conversation do you want this to happen (assuming you do not want divergence everywhere as the more difference in the system the greater the energy and potential for chaos), and how many divergent views do you currently see, how many would constitute ‘enough’, what would be ‘too few’ or ‘too many’?

Measure #3: “allowing rule-breaking” implies awareness of current rules and therefore which ones are being broken or may reveal hidden rules that are now being challenged. Which do you want – or are comfortable with being - broken, and which maybe are you really uncomfortable being broken but recognize might need to be now you are aware of them, and which are – or become – unbreakable? Based on what criteria? Decided by whom? This one is a kicker: rules that are ossified may be cherished or clung to by many people, or by leadership teams managing their own anxieties. So here you get to agree a measure that will reveal just how (in)tolerant you are of dissent.

The second half of the quote above really talks to what is going on in the three measures I have suggested. One other thing I would pull out is this idea of “thinking innovatively”. A bit like agile, innovation is often eft ill-defined with a lack of clarity around how it is the same/different to creativity (it is different by the way) and experimentation (I can have an innovative thought but leave it as that without action).

Then again...

Later on in Cheung-Judge & Holbeche's book (2015: p46), they refer to:

"...the five key variables that the complex(ity) theorists mentioned as important to help organisations stay agile – connection, diversity, information, power differentials or levels of anxiety."

We could just as easily construct measures from those five. I also had a conversation with Mel Ross of Adapt2Digital re this, and she suggested the following as measures of impact:

  • Network - how wide and diverse your network circles are, and how well connected are you across your audience value chain (workforce, partners suppliers, customers...)

  • Influence - who is following you and listening and sharing?

  • Participation - how integrated are you and what membership/ownership do you have across different teams, projects, strategies?

  • Activity - how agile and nimble are you in terms of shifting your strengths where needed?

  • Sharing - how much do you share: the journey, the start, the end? As Mel puts it, "we look for those who share the journey openly".

Mel stressed that this is “all grounded in transparency”, again something that will challenge some leaders as they attempt to shift how they and their people work.

Easy answers don't (often) solve complex human system problems

If you like the idea of easy answers and pulling a 'tool' off the shelf that will give you an (apparently easy answer), the challenge is that "a methodology (like Agile) is not a system, it is a way of getting from A to B", as Eva Appelbaum of The Arc Group puts it. Too often it is not clear what difference a methodology is actually making, other than a painfully ineffective panacea in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety of some of those within the system, often at a senior level. Hence the reaching in some organisations for legions of consultants all peddling different tools and methodologies.

At a certain point, it doesn't mater what instrument you use if you are not willing to get into the conversations and decisions that are actually ripe.

So what?

As ever, it is worth asking whether this matters. In one sense, no, if you simply want to use agile as part of your organisational window dressing and rhetoric. At another level, it matters profoundly, because unless you have some idea of what you will see/hear/feel that will constitute valid data in evidencing change, you might as well just tell everyone you like the idea of basking in the reflected glory of all those organisations who are experimenting and learning whilst you jump on the band wagon for a bit.

But real agility, real experimentation?.... Naahhhh, can’t be arsed, it’s too risky... #irony.

And if your edge and stretch is around agility, talk to us. If we can't help, we know people who can.

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1 Comment

Sredharan Ramakrishna
Sredharan Ramakrishna
Apr 17

agile another hyped up word - attempt was made to apply this on a project i was stewarding, we have a document called master document register that captures the intended target date a document is planned to be issued, these dates were than replicated in the kanban board, what value does duplication achieve, so clearly a mis-understanding of agility for problem solving versus routine tools proven from time immemorial. I guess everyone on the client side patted themselves on the back and said Agile delivered the project but in reality my two PE's Hadzrin and Hakim had to do the daily grind of getting disciplines to honor their promises!

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