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Q&A on the Book Compass for Agility

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Key Takeaways

  • Business agility describes an organization’s ability to serve as a healthy ecosystem, where individuals and entities can be at their best
  • The Compass for Agility provides a pragmatic and personalized approach by which organizations can navigate challenging times where change is the new normal
  • Each organization’s journey (toward business agility) has to be unique, based on their values and desired outcomes, hence the necessity for a compass to have a navigational approach
  • Business agility is more achievable when people explicitly opt-in
  • Integrate discovery – the specific impact you want – with Lean-Agile delivery techniques as a mechanism for organizational reinvention

The book Compass for Agility by Leila Rao describes an approach to create change in complex organizations and realize business agility. The compass consists of five phases: Ideation, identification, intake, in action, and introspection. Each phase has three associated techniques that can be used to accomplish the goals of the phase. Iterating with this five-step approach can develop internal capability for adaptability and reinvention.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of Compass for Agility.

InfoQ interviewed Leila Rao about business agility, what the compass for agility looks like, the purpose of the ideation phase, landscape diagrams, the lean kaleidoscope, the outcome of the intake phase, value stream maps, how agile methods like Scrum or Kanban fit into the in action phase, information radiators, how the introspection phase compares to retrospectives, gamification, and her advice for organizations that want to increase their agility.

InfoQ; Why did you write this book?

Leila Rao: This book is designed to answer how I’ve been able to facilitate Agile and Lean value realization in federal government, public and private sector environments in as little as 90 days. In addition, the book is also my contribution to our community knowledge base because I really value the shared learning approach intrinsic to the Lean and Agile community.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Rao: For anyone involved or interested in an alternate approach to organizational transformation. And/or anyone who wants to create healthier environments and ecosystems where people can bring and be their best self.

InfoQ: How do you define business agility?

Rao: Generally, business agility describes an organization that can perceive changes quickly and respond proportionally with the unprecedented rate of change that is today’s new normal.

The definition of business agility that I prefer is the ability of an organization to serve as a healthy ecosystem where individuals and entities can be at their best. In other words, an organization where people can use all their expertise and experience to continually learn, improve, iterate, and deliver value for themselves, each other, and the full range of entities in their network, including customers, partners, vendors, stakeholders, and the world at large.

InfoQ: What does the compass for agility look like?

Rao: The inner circle represents the five phases of this approach, each indicated by a different color: the first three phases are discovery and the last two are delivery oriented. Each phase has three associated techniques, represented by semi-circles radiating outward; the techniques are grouped by size to indicate the level of effort for each.

Each iteration of the Compass will require the five phases, but participants can choose a technique for each phase, to create a customized approach.

InfoQ: Why a compass?

Rao: Road map as a metaphor implies that there are fixed components that can be identified and are universally relevant. But in today’s business landscape, very few elements are static. The same applies to recipe as a metaphor since it requires a level of certainty about the process and the outcome that does not apply to business agility.

A Compass can seem almost anachronistic in this age of GPS-enabled precision devices, but is actually more helpful in uncharted terrain where nothing is static and where there is no entity that builds and maintains roads. And each organization’s journey has to be unique, based on their values and desired outcomes, hence the necessity for a compass to have a navigational approach.

InfoQ: What's the purpose of the ideation phase?

Rao: Ideation is more than just coming up with a vision – it’s an effort to establish not just the desired outcome, but also to understand the implications of that outcome for the organization and the people who are part of it. Ideation results in a shared, explicit understanding of the "why"  for any organizational transformation initiative. People are more likely to respond positively to requests for changes in how they think, interact and work because they understand the context and the intent. Business agility is more achievable when people explicitly opt-in.

InfoQ: How do landscape diagrams work?

Rao: Landscape diagrams are a light-touch effort to contextualize each initiative – it facilitates discussion of not just what the organization is trying to do, but also about how and why this latest initiative matters by considering previous initiatives. The process of creating a landscape diagram elicits any hesitations or concerns participants may have (which are often framed as why previous efforts have failed), and the subsequent discussion where these issues are captured explicitly reassurances participants and minimizes any resistance.

InfoQ: Why do we need to identify everything that is being done in the identification phase?

Rao: The risk of not identifying everything that is being done – at the strategic, tactical or operational level – is increased organizational waste in the form of work that has not been delivered to the customer.

This is a long-standing problem which is why both Lean and Agile approaches prioritize minimizing work in progress. WIP has mostly been applied at the team or tactical level, but we really haven’t thought of WIP as a problem at the strategic level. Kaleidoscope visualizes enterprise-level WIP so that leadership can recognize and manage this form of waste.

InfoQ: How does the lean kaleidoscope help us to explore workflows?

Rao: Kaleidoscopes are less about exploring the nuances of individual workflows and more about visualizing how the various workflows overlap and interconnect. It’s a bit analogous to seeing the road immediately ahead and being able to see traffic ebb and flow across a whole area which obviously provides leading indicators earlier about emerging pain points. To build upon this analogy, using the Kaleidoscope in an organization can help provide insight for further exploration into why a particular workflow is not moving smoothly; not because of a problem within that particular workflow, but because of any number of other workflows which could represent dependencies or other constraints.

InfoQ: What should the outcome of the intake phase be?

Rao: Outcome of the Intake phase is a shared understanding of the gap between the organization’s current state and the desired outcome as an awareness of the organization’s capability to bridge this gap so that the effort is grounded in reality, not wishfulness.

It’s somewhat analogous to knowing if you’re making a 50-mile, 500 mile or 1500-mile journey for 200 people. And once you know the length of your journey, then you can identify which travel options are open to you and with what constraints. For example, if you’re planning a 500-mile journey for 200 people and only have 10 cars, then you’d have to adjust either the trip parameters, or get access to more cars or other forms of transport, plan for a very long journey or choose another destination.

InfoQ: How can we use value stream maps to deepen our understanding of our workflows?

Rao: In today’s complex business environments, the scope and specificity of workflows are hard to visualize or even understand. Most people know their piece of the whole but have no visibility into upstream or downstream, which means that it becomes increasingly hard to plan, to adapt or respond effectively. People often feel like they don’t have control, i.e. are at the mercy of unknown factors where work is started or paused randomly, which in turn generates waste at the functional and emotional level.

The process of creating a value stream map helps people connect their piece to each other so that everyone can understand how, when and why they interact. This shared visibility can help minimize waste, increase forecasting accuracy, and demonstrate the value of collaboration, all of which can be the foundation of a more agile way of working.

InfoQ: How do agile methods like Scrum or Kanban fit into the in action phase?

Rao: The in action phase of the Compass for Agility is equivalent to a delivery-focused Agile framework such as Scrum or Kanban, or at least the essentials of these approaches such as timeboxing, deconstructing work items to the smallest possible value, focusing on customer value, etc. These Agile frameworks are designed to solve particular problems such as Scrum to reduce the cost of change in software development and have been successfully adapted to other contexts. If your goal is sustainable, adaptable organization, then Scrum or Kanban can certainly be part of the equation, but you will need more than just scaling these approaches.

InfoQ: How do information radiators provide transparency into the work that's being done?

Rao: The basic facet of human nature is the existence of cognitive biases which collectively can account for the gap between our perceptions and memories and the reality of those events. Well-designed information radiators help to narrow this gap and can mitigate the effect of common cognitive biases, such as bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, availability bias, etc.

Additionally, information radiators draw attention to bottlenecks, constraints, work in progress – the visual reminder is a compelling feedback loop for behavior change.

They also provide an effective context for examining the current state and explore alternatives from a neutral or systemic context, without personalizing the process or problem.

InfoQ: How does the introspection phase compare to retrospectives?

Rao: Most traditional Agile retrospectives focus on reviewing how the team performed in the previous timebox. This is obviously instructive and can help with continuous improvement. However, the introspection phase is broader both in intent and execution. Introspection explicitly reviews all the assumptions built-in to the current initiative via the outputs created in each of the first four phases of the compass. This broadened scope addresses some of the most strategic risks in organizational change efforts, not just the tactical risks at the process level.

In other words, we’re looking not just at how well we’re solving the problem, but at addressing broader questions such as: "Are we solving the right problem?" "Is it even a problem at all?","What other problems are we not addressing?", etc.

InfoQ: How can we use gamification to create a shared experience?

Rao: Gamification can be part of creating a shared experience because it brings people together as creators & participants where work-based roles and titles are irrelevant. People connect as well-rounded individuals instead of being constrained by their work persona. The game experience triggers ad hoc discussion as people discover new attributes and abilities about each other, and the sheer volume of these interactions cultivates a more collaborative environment with fewer organizational silos and increased receptiveness towards cross-functionality.

InfoQ: What's your advice for organizations that want to increase their agility?

Rao: Be explicit in what you mean by agility and why it matters to your organization. There is no gold star for achieving "agility" – instead, agility is a cultivated organizational capability that can deliver targeted outcomes that do matter.

Equally important, know yourself, your people and your organization. How does the pursuit – and realization – of agility change your role and responsibilities? What changes do your people need to make during the transition and after the transition? What are the costs, and are you prepared to pay the price? It’s okay if you’re not, but it may mean that your agility target should be redefined to meet your parameters.

About the Book Author

Leila Rao is a catalyst for emergent value discovery and delivery with individuals, teams, organizations and communities. She facilitates this outcome by empowering people to collectively and positively shape their own environment. Rao has been helping organizations transition to a more Lean-Agile approach for more than 15 years. Her clients include a wide range of federal government agencies such as NASA, FDA and the FAA, as well as private sector organizations such as AIG, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and IHG.

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