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Q&A on Conscious Agility

| Posted by Ben Linders on Mar 16, 2015. Estimated reading time: 14 minutes |

The book Conscious Agility (Conscious Capitalism + Business Agility = Antifragility) by Si Alhir, Brad Barton and Mark Ferraro describes a design-thinking approach for business that helps them to benefit from uncertainty, disorder, and the unknown. It explores the core concepts awareness, orientation, intuition, and improvisation and provides a model to apply conscious agility.

InfoQ interviewed the authors about conscious agility and antifragility, increasing business agility, dealing with uncertainty, and the three phases of a conscious agility initiative: Define, create and refine.

InfoQ: Can you describe conscious agility?

Barton: In the simplest terms, it’s a stakeholder-driven approach for bringing about fundamental change and improving effectiveness in an organization. It has evolved out of the work that the three of us have done for many years, together and separately.

Alhir: Conscious Agility is a “fundamental change” approach, powered by the “human element,” which focuses on business and other types of ecosystems. The approach is uniquely organic, simultaneously top-down and bottom-up, and holistic in addressing a business perspective, organizational perspective, and culture perspective while being business or industry domain agnostic and technology agnostic. It may also be combined with other approaches to change, and *any* element of Conscious Agility may be used independently of *every* element of Conscious Agility. Notice that the approach is not “powered” or based on a set of core mechanical practices or specific values, such as Scrum or XP or the Agile Manifesto, but relies heavily on context-specific details and nuances.

Ferraro: It is a time tested three phase approach that follows the pattern of design thinking. We work with the stakeholders to analyze their ecosystem and resynthesize it in a healthier way while ensuring that we keep the focus on the people within the ecosystem.

InfoQ: How do you define business agility?

Barton: Business agility speaks to an organization’s ability to quickly respond to changes in their environment. It is not about methods or techniques, it is not mechanical in any way, it is all about how rapidly and effectively a business can reorient and react to the volatility that most of us have grown to accept as the new normal.

Alhir: A great reference for business agility is Chet Richards’ “Certain to Win”: “the ability to rapidly change one’s orientation --- roughly, worldview --- in response to what is happening in the external world” ... “to keep one’s orientation well matched to the real world during times of ambiguity, confusion, and rapid change, when the natural tendency is to become disoriented” ... “It is the quickness of the entire cycle, and in particular, the time it takes to, in Boyd’s language, ‘transition from one orientation state to another,’ and not just or even particularly the speed of the O-to-O-to-D-to-A axis, that determines agility and competitive power.” At its core, business agility is all about re-orientation (or changing one’s worldview) within the context of observation, making decisions, and taking action!

Ferraro: Building on what Brad and Si pointed out, we must look at business agility as a continuum and always look for ways to reorient faster. Shifting the organization from a focus on explicit decision making to implicit decision making based on intuition and improvisation will move them toward increased business agility.

InfoQ: There are similarities and differences between agility and antifragility as Alhir mentioned in going beyond agility with antifragility. How can you balance agility and antifragility?

Alhir: It is not so much about “balance” per se --- antifragility goes beyond agility! Agility and antifragility are similar in that they both focus on adaptation, and different in that antifragility goes beyond agility and focuses on evolution. The crucial distinction between agility and antifragility focuses on differentiating between adaptation, which focuses more on adjusting to conditions, and evolution, which focuses more on developing from conditions. This distinction is fundamental!

Barton: If you’ve achieved a state of antifragility, agility is inherent. Agility itself is excellent, as long as responsiveness is sufficient in your context. However, it ceases to be enough when who you are today is on the fast track toward extinction. An organization has to acknowledge when it is time to undergo a rebirthing and that kind of willingness requires a great deal of courage. Unfortunately, I don’t believe there is necessarily a secret recipe or technique, but perhaps a bit of intuition and a high degree of awareness and foresight is required.

Ferraro: I agree that antifragility is the next level beyond agility. Often time I’ll share with clients that their ability to get to the next level is proportional to how much of today’s world they are willing to let go of. They need to let old ways die in order to give birth to a new way of being. Additionally we must remember that an organization can't become antifragile to everything! We will never be able to gain from all possible stressors.

Alhir: The notion of “inherent” and “next level” are what we mean by “beyond” as in “antifragility is beyond agility”!

InfoQ: Can you give examples of how antifragility was used to support enterprises in increasing their agility?

Barton: Conscious Agility aims to future proof an organization by preparing it for continuous evolution. If we accept that agility is all about adapting and antifragility is all about evolving, an organization primed for continuous evolution has achieved a state where adaptability ceases to be necessary.

Alhir: As Brad mentioned, if you’ve achieved a degree of antifragility, agility is inherent, as the objective is “continuous evolution”! We’ve worked with numerous clients to foster greater antifragility (while not even referencing the term). Here are a few case studies that people can explore: Cars.com’s Agility Transformation Journey, AutoVIN’s Agility Transformation Journey and a blog entry by Dan Horton: It's all about the people. Notice that the central theme that cross cuts these case studies is focusing on the “human element” within a transformation journey guided by discovery versus a “mechanical” approach to adopting, scaling, and sustaining “mechanical” techniques!

InfoQ: Do you have some examples that show how conscious agility can help enterprises to deal with uncertainty?

Alhir: The case studies already mentioned offer several examples of how agile teams and organizations confront the stresses of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity --- however, there is no simple answer to “how” an enterprise deals with these stresses! Furthermore, tinkering and trial & error, the barbell strategy, and optionality among other heuristics help an enterprise become more antifragile. Ultimately, we explore anything that may allow an enterprise to evolve (and achieve a state of “continuous evolution”) given the stresses it confronts.

Ferraro: An overly rigid organization tends to foster narrow identities where practitioners get too focused on narrow perspectives. Testing practitioners for example, may get too focused on tests and forget the larger issue of quality. Overly optimized is not always the best. Building redundancy helps to deal with uncertainty. Helping practitioner communities see a broader identity helps to shift to a broader perspective and allows people to deal better with uncertainty.

Barton: One thing important to note here. Conscious Agility alone isn’t the answer. There is no pixie dust and the approach itself doesn’t solve anything. It’s the people leveraging the approach, their collective wisdom and knowledge. We just help people to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Humans are naturally able to deal with uncertainty, but organizational “scar tissue” builds as we scale and become more “mechanized,” so we just help people return to a more natural state.

Alhir: The notion of “returning to a more natural state” is at the core of Conscious Agility!

InfoQ: In a conscious agility initiative three phases are recognized. Can you describe them?

Alhir: A Conscious Agility initiative (or a cycle of change) is organized into three phases. The phases are generally sequential but may overlap. The phases are composed of conversation clusters. The conversation clusters are composed of conversations. Conversations may occur in any order and as many times as needed to ensure the overall objectives of the phase are achieved. Conversations are oriented towards addressing one or more questions that activate how people relate to one another and how people behave with one another --- conversations are not mere “talk” but integrate communication, relationships, and behaviors. Generally, a Conscious Agility transformation journey follows a general pattern from awareness of one’s own identity and others’ identities, evolution through enactment of shared experiences and integration among stakeholders (leading to greater awareness, intuition, orientation, and improvisation), and closure through embracing one’s own identity and collective identity (awareness and ownership). It’s crucial that “identity” not be confused with “ego,” which is focused only on the “self”! Additionally, parts of one’s identity will “die” while other parts are “born”! Furthermore, a cycle of evolution can lead into another cycle of evolution. Fundamentally, Conscious Agility applies C. S. Hollings’ “adaptive cycle” and “panarchy” concepts, which relate to how evolution works in nature and natural systems, to organizations and individuals --- this is the essence of transformation!

Ferraro: A Conscious Agility initiative commonly begins with the Define Phase. The overall intent of this phase is to foster awareness of stakeholders, envision an improved way of working together, and establish clarity around the initiative (as a cycle through the phases).

The next phase is Create. Here the overall intent is to achieve greater awareness, intuition, orientation, and improvisation by evolving the ecosystem. We have to bounce the hypothesis of the Define Phase against reality. Evolution is achieved by enacting shared experiences, while also integrating stakeholders.

The last phase is Refine. Here the overall intent is to ensure stakeholders have sufficiently evolved the ecosystem to nurture continued success, allowing for the initiative to draw to closure (as a cycle).

Barton: While Si and Mark have provided an overview, it might be useful to distill it down a bit. First, we open up the lines of communication and get folks talking and working more closely to understand and reimagine or “Define” the big picture or ecosystem. Next, we begin to “Create” the newly reimagined ecosystem and collect feedback and continue to tune it, essentially evolving the ecosystem. Last, we ensure that the stakeholders are primed for owning things and have taken the reigns to continue what should be a perpetual journey or “Refine”-ment.

InfoQ: In the design phase both today and tomorrow are explored. Why both? Do you have examples of such explorations?

Barton: The examination of today aims to increase the awareness of the stakeholders. This increased awareness and appreciation plays a critical role as we reimagine a new way of working together to bring into balance/equilibrium the benefits realized by all involved. Not to mention, some aspects of the current way might be the best way.

Ferraro: We need to appreciate today but look for a healthier place tomorrow. We always have conversations with the design team to simply ask “what’s working?” and “what’s not working?” It’s never exactly the same, but if something is not working we ask “how could it be better?”

Alhir: In exploring today and tomorrow, we ask various questions. And really, any answers that the stakeholders may offer are “examples”! Much of Conscious Agility’s power resides in this pattern of questions & answers, which advances the “fundamental change” journey (awareness, appreciation, self-reflection, empathy, identity, evolution, ownership, and some of the other things we’ve already mentioned). As I mentioned in reference to your first question, Conscious Agility is powered by the “human element” and relies heavily on context-specific details and nuances!

Ferraro: The questions are simple but they can be tough to answer. They force the design team to confront their individual and collective identity. What do they have ownership of? How aware are they of themselves and the people they work with? Some answers are at a high level and some answers are detailed techniques. The path forward must integrate the responses in a way that brings balance. The hard part is gaining the self-awareness of the need to evolve identity in order to get to a healthier place.

InfoQ: The create phases is where you experiment with new ways of working. What can you do to ensure that you will learn from these experiments?

Barton: It is critical that we reserve time to collect feedback (examine experiences) from those involved with enacting experiences in the create phase. It is through reflection and examination of these experiences that we determine how best to evolve and tune our ecosystem. Reflection and learning are key!

Ferraro: We come out of the Define phase with only a hypothesis of what a healthier organization will look like. Bouncing the hypothesis against reality and continuously refining the hypothesis is the only true way to know if it is getting us to a healthier place. While progressing through the Create phase we must frequently engage the conversation about what’s working and what’s not working and why. This focused reflection is the only way to build and reshape the hypothesis formed in the create phase.

Alhir: As Brad and Mark mentioned, feedback from applying a hypothesis to reality and reflection are crucial! Evolution and learning are rooted in awareness. Most organizations and people fail to significantly evolve (or really “transform” versus “transition”) because they have not established a foundation of “awareness” (self-awareness and empathy) and have not authentically confronted their own individual and collective identity. This is explicitly why the first phase is so crucial! Additionally, evolution is contextual in that a person or organization evolves relative to its environment. We commonly hear the mantra of “transparency,” however, “transparency” alone does not foster awareness, and thus, it fails to deliver any sustainable change!

InfoQ: In the refine phase you ensure that a new way of working is embraced by all stakeholders. How can you validate this?

Barton: This fact is validated through the degree of ownership demonstrated by the stakeholder communities. It becomes most apparent when we, as coaches, can step back and observe as the stakeholders assume responsibility for the new way of working they’ve enacted.

Ferraro: I agree with Brad, furthermore, when we see the communities owning and evolving their way of being and working together, our confidence in sustained change increases. Additionally, it’s important as a coach to see the organization’s leadership nurturing and investing in the stakeholder communities. Empowered communities are a strategic weapon that can be applied to all sorts of traditional organizational challenges from training and knowledge transfer to innovation and product development. It’s critical for the leadership to recognize and demonstrate support for this dynamic.

Alhir: As Brad and Mark mentioned, ownership is readily observable (by us as coaches) at every level of an enterprise! As evolution is contextual in that a person or organization evolves relative to its environment, validation involves stakeholders embracing or owning the change in their own individual and collective identity. Most organizations and people fail to significantly evolve (or really “transform” versus “transition”) because they don’t ultimately take ownership of a “change” and embrace it in such a way that it changes their identity and ultimately becomes a part of them. We commonly use “fundamental change” or DNA-level change to emphasize this type of change.

About the Book Authors

Si Alhir (Sinan Si Alhir) is an Enterprise Transformation Coach, Trainer, Consultant, and Practitioner who focuses on Business Agility and Antifragility while working with Individuals, Collectives/Communities/Teams, and Enterprises/Organizations. He is a catalyst with over three decades of proven experience in appreciating and leveraging all aspects of human dynamics/nature to catalyze individuals, teams, and the whole enterprise to sustainably achieve impactful results towards meaningful intentions — bridging the chasm between strategy, leadership, & culture -and- business agility and antifragility -through- humanization/transformation/change-management. His clients have ranged from start-ups to the Fortune 500. Learn more about Si or visit his LinkedIn profile and blog.

Mark Ferraro has 15+ years of experience as a Leadership Consultant supporting individuals and teams in transforming their organizations using holistic approaches to maximize enterprise performance and individual well-being where organizations achieve results almost immediately! With his enterprise experience and awareness of the many aspects of value creation, he applies proven practices (Lean, Agile, etc.) that foster success and is committed to working with organizations to meet and exceed their own goals. He is also a co-creator of Conscious Agility and author of Adopting and Sustaining the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Learn more about Mark or visit his LinkedIn profile and blog.

Brad Barton is a seasoned leader, coach, and practitioner focused on effective product management practices and enterprise cultural transformation. Relying heavily on his experience serving as a product manager and owner across multiple industries, Brad has developed an acute awareness of business realities and an understanding of how to leverage the human aspects of product development processes to deliver results. As a co-creator of Conscious Agility, Brad helps teams and organizations foster and nurture healthy ecosystems that have a positive impact on the lives of their stakeholders. Learn more about Brad by visiting his LinkedIn profile.

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