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InfoQ Homepage Articles Using Patterns to Drive a Transformation towards Agility - Practical Insights from Large Companies

Using Patterns to Drive a Transformation towards Agility - Practical Insights from Large Companies

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Key Takeaways

  •  What many companies call an “Agile Transformation” is in fact a transformational journey to increase an organisation's ability to adapt fast to changes. 
  • There is no blueprint for the journey to becoming an adaptive organisation. Instead of a blueprint, there are success patterns that can guide you, such as “start with the why”, use “inspect & adapt” to find emerging solutions, and understand your value creation processes. 
  • A key aspect to making an organisation more adaptive is the flow of information, insights and decisions and therefore the interaction between people. A key question to look at is “Who needs to talk to whom about what at which point(s) in time?” 
  • An environment of psychological safety is key: seemingly unorthodox views and disagreements are not hidden, but are rather brought to the surface and constructively responded to.
  • The psychological phenomenon of “illusion of control” is the one thing that stands out in most failures to becoming an adaptive organisation. It leads to an organisation’s inability to productively embrace uncertainty and unplannability.

In the DACH (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) region, a community of transformation leaders from about 30 companies started to meet frequently in 2018. In their “DACH30” sessions they share experiences and insights from their efforts to help their companies become more agile. 

In 2020, based on the insight that there is not “the one journey”, but many different paths to becoming an adaptive organisation, a subteam of this group started to create a web space, where they began to collect stories and patterns for successful transformational journeys [GRADOWEB].

The web space has the format of a travel guide: there is a map containing several “points of interest” when going for the journey towards adaptability.

These are, for example, “Strategy definition”, “Organisational capabilities”, or “Structures, processes and workflows”. When and in which order to “visit” these points of interest is dependent on your individual situation and the business challenges you are facing. 

The group collected travel journeys and visualised the travel in the map to illustrate possible successful transformation paths and inspire others. This article highlights some of the key findings from this workgroup such as successful patterns to foster change, how to apply  flow-oriented design to optimise your delivery capabilities, and the danger of the illusion of control.

Adaptive organisations

Adaptive organisations have the ability to respond swiftly to new information and insights. These can come both from the outside, like changes in the business or society and from the inside, like new innovative ideas, or simply learnings coming from building a product. Let’s say, for example, you are enhancing your existing product with another feature. You have done user research, discussed with your customers and made a commitment to deliver the new functionality at a certain point in time. But as the implementation progresses, new insights arise.

Maybe your customer has been thinking about the functionality again and would like some changes. Or your development team found out that the originally anticipated technical solution wouldn’t be good enough to deliver the customer experience. So now you are in the situation that the scope of your project is changing, and things take longer than anticipated. Adaptive organisations are good at preparing for and handling these kinds of changes.

To stay with the example: an adaptive organisation would, for example, partner and collaborate with the customer. There would be a co-ownership of the unpredictabilities of the feature development. Frequently, members of the team would meet with the customer to show results, discuss learnings and together they would agree on how to go on.

What makes these organisations adaptive is that while they deeply accept unpredictability, they make the best out of that: overcoming the illusion of control and replacing it with a focus on fast and effective feedback loops and information availability that empowers every single person in the organisation to act in a value-adding way, not only the leaders at the top. 

When you haven’t experienced it, it sounds like science-fiction. Hendrik Esser remembers his own journey: initially he thought “Agile and Scrum sound great, but it can never work in a large organisation like ours (which was 2000 people at that time)”. But then we went on to the journey: although some of us in the leadership team were sceptical about it, we “allowed” teams to try out Scrum. And to our surprise, we saw that Scrum was empowering teams and that we as leaders needed to create an ecosystem where Scrum and agile could happen for real.

But what does that ecosystem look like? To find out, we created cross-organisational and cross-functional workgroups to try to find a way. We really wanted to have as many perspectives on this complex question as possible. And we found a way: cross-functional teams using Scrum, empowered by management that helped sort out impediments, and connecting the teams closer to product management to get a more direct line of sight to the customer into the teams. We managed dependencies between teams by creating a small team of experts, who helped identify them together with the teams and then connecting the teams that had dependencies, so they could sort it out between them. It is a very decentralised approach. 

So this is much more than scaling agile ways of working. It is all about developing true business agility to achieve adaptability on an organisational level. 

There is much more to it of course, and you can read it up on our GRADO page, where we have collected several of these journeys from different companies. [TRAVELREPORTS]

A hard truth - there is no blueprint

Looking at stories like the one outlined before, a pattern becomes visible: adaptability is mainly about organisational capabilities like situational awareness, clear alignment and focus on goals, and the ability to react fast to changes and to learn and improve and to deliver customer value constantly. Practically, there are many ways this can be accomplished. There is not “the one” blueprint that fits all organisations because much depends on the business, the environment, the evolution, and last but not least, the culture. 

This key insight triggered the idea to work on the travel guide for growing an adaptive organisation to give guidance, inspiration, orientation and ideas for experimenting in your concrete context so that you can find out what works for you - every transformation journey is different in the end. The idea of the travel guide is, that while we cannot give people a recipe for doing an agile transformation, we can share the transformation journeys we have lived through and show emerging success patterns that can guide others in their journey. We use the metaphor of travelling because we see an agile transformation like an exploration of a new landscape. In that landscape there are some “points of interest”: aspects that different transformations have been coming across, like people & culture, strategy, ways of working, etc. Simply implementing (agile) methods and frameworks is not a guarantee for success. 

Andrea Maier remembers feedback from leaders and colleagues who successfully embraced this idea. “In the beginning, the sheer complexity of our transformation endeavour was overwhelming. The theoretical concepts of these Agile Scaling Frameworks left us with big question marks on how to actually fit those into our concrete context”, said a former product owner of a large transformation program. And he continues, “There was no concrete plan of how to put it into practice. And I think if we had tried to implement this complex theory with an old-school ‘roll out plan’, I am not sure if we would have been as successful as we are now with using baby steps and iterations”. Another team member added “We tried to come up with a vision where we wanted to go. Ok, the vision will change over time, but that was good so. We had a real plan how to get there, it was just an evolutionary approach. That helped us to become better and also offered the possibility to check if we are still on track. And if we weren’t on the right track then that wasn’t wrong either. Or in other words, it was appreciated to learn and adapt our way.”

Flow oriented organisation design 

A key aspect of an adaptive organisation is flow. A flow-oriented organisation design is based on understanding your actual value streams and how the work is done. How is value delivered to the customer? What dependencies do you have, and how do you manage them? How do you utilise your strategy and prioritise the actual work in your delivery system? These are all interesting questions to work with in order to optimise the value creation in your organisation. And answering these questions might also lead to ideas to optimise the organisational structure so it supports the purpose of value creation in a better way. 

But you do not “need” to restructure to increase your delivery capabilities. This is important to understand as the most typical pattern to “quickly fix” organisations is to re-organize them. Instead, focusing on improving your “ways of working” is a much better starting point. The Flight Level Model of Klaus Leopold [FLIGHTLEVELS], [PRACTICALKANBAN], for instance, provides a lot of good ideas on systems thinking, value stream optimization and levers for optimization without subscribing to a certain framework of working method. The Flight Level Model helps you to visualise your work and to differentiate between getting work done in teams (Flight Level 1), managing dependencies between the teams along the value stream (Flight Level 2) and improve your strategy work and applying good priorities for execution(Flight Level 3) while establishing agile interactions and feedback loops for continuous improvement.  

Maier has been working with the Flight Level thinking model in various projects and is convinced that this approach helps to better understand the end-2-end value chain, responsibilities and dependencies. It also provides the “big picture” and a feeling of ownership for all involved, no matter where they are located in their organisational structure. Or in other words: processual structures before organisational structures. Maier’s most important recommendation for this: don’t use theoretical process diagrams as your “source for truth”. Use the people, their knowledge and experience to bring the actual truth to life. “We did this in a couple of workshops together with leaders and employees. Facilitating the conversations while visualising the value stream already generated a lot of surprising truths, learnings and first improvements”, she says.

While value streams are one perspective of a flow-oriented organisation, we need to look at this more broadly: not only the product flow, but also the flow of knowledge and information. These are the fuel for insights and innovation. There is research about “Transactive Memory” [TRANSACTIVEMEMORY] that can help to approach it from a systemic perspective (for a practical application example, see [NASA]). It is dealing with how information and knowledge is passed through and used by an organisation. 

Let’s say, I know a couple of things, but of course not everything. Laura from the neighbouring department knows some other things. Now the question is: how are Laura and I connected, or transacting, so we benefit from our shared knowledge? Is the organisational environment supporting it effectively? Only when Laura and I communicate, can we benefit from our shared knowledge. 

This is what Transactive Memory is about: we need to have the right knowledge, insight and information at the right time in the right place. And for that people need to interact to create the “transactive memory”. Designing the organisation to optimally generate that flow of knowledge and insights is critical for good and decentralised decision-making. The key question to look at is “Who needs to talk to whom about what at which point(s) in time?” Here are two practical things you can do: 

  1. Draw people, not boxes Instead of drawing boxes and discussing abstractly that “Department X needs to collaborate with Department Y”, try to make it concrete by rather discussing “Peter from department X needs to talk and collaborate with Anna from department Y around topics A, B and C”. And as their knowledge changes very frequently, should they meet weekly? What knowledge do they bring in? What artefacts do they maintain? 

  2. Set up effective meeting structures When organising (e.g. governance or team) meetings, think about what knowledge updates are critical to take decisions to adapt to an evolved situation? Which people in the organisation have the relevant knowledge updates? Who are the receivers of a knowledge update? How do we bring these people together? And on what frequency? What (minimal) visualisations or documentation is needed? 

Growing inter-personal skills in companies

With an adaptive organisation’s need for communication and knowledge distribution, the need for good interpersonal skills becomes critically important. What you want to emerge is a climate where people can communicate freely and confront each other constructively. On a conceptual level enablers are psychological safety and an awareness of human psychology. But these are quite abstract and often hard to address. Just talking about it will likely not help making the change happen. Instead, organisations need to create an employee experience, that is nurturing the desired social skills. It requires coaching and the establishment of helpful practices. 

For example: establishing the practice of retrospectives facilitated by a coach, that helps a team become aware of their beliefs, biases and heuristics and who helps them with the needed confrontations. The latter aspect is critically important: people come in with their own skills and perspectives. There will be different views and disagreements. And these are not only helpful, but an important factor for the success of an adaptive organisation, as different perspectives help throw light into the dark corners of individual knowledge gaps - and with that help a team to better navigate the complexity of a situation and find a good way forward.  Therefore, it is important that these disagreements are not hidden, but rather brought to the surface and constructively resolved. There are company and national cultures that have a tendency to avoid these confrontations. So a good coach is needed to help the team experience psychological safety to speak up and experience that a confrontation with a different view does not need to lead to a conflict.

Overcoming the illusion of control

Organisations and business environments are complex in nature: things are entangled to a degree, that any action and decision will not only have anticipated and desired effects, but also unexpected side-effects.(See also [CYNEFIN].) The correlation between cause and effect can not be seen. In a complex context, therefore, making a plan is futile. But not all contexts and situations are complex. Adaptive organisations are able to differentiate between complex and complicated situations and contexts. They are able to use the appropriate toolset in each context.

Essentially it is about how much unpredictability you are facing. High levels of unpredictability, where you are wondering where to go or trying to find a way towards your wanted position, require a more agile approach. So you might want to use the toolboxes provided by Design Thinking or Agile. When you have less unpredictability you can start optimising or even maximising, and then you can use the tool boxes provided by lean or six sigma. [FITFORPURPOSE]

One thing that stands out in most failures to becoming an adaptive organisation is an organisation’s inability to embrace unplannability. This is a psychological phenomenon: the illusion of control is very deceiving. Having the feeling of control is very comforting. And having a plan to cling on feels good, even if the plan is not worth the paper it is written on. So it is not the plan, but the act of planning that is valuable. It is a continuous thing as new knowledge emerges and needs to be integrated into the course of action. 

Warning signs of illusion of control can be the use of certain words. Esser remembers that in the beginning of his journey he got important feedback from a coach: being educated in project management, he was using sentences like “We need to ensure that XYZ happens”. One day his coach asked him: “Hendrik, what do you really ensure? What do you personally deliver to the customer?” And thinking about that an insight came: as a manager, he was delivering slides, documents and spreadsheets mostly, and none of these directly to a customer. When interacting with teams, he saw that whatever he tells them, it is them who deliver value. So all he could do is help to create an ecosystem for the teams, which makes it easier for them to create and deliver customer value. 

Maier shares similar experiences. “Imagine, every Tuesday afternoon during the leadership meeting, new proposals for new demands are presented, discussed and decided on. And new work is pushed into the system top-down, preferably with a fixed delivery date when it should be ready. And this happens without actually understanding the consequences for the people doing the work and the work already being processed. Because this information is not available, how should you as a leader know better?”  If this sounds familiar you might be interested in learning more about why a Lean-/Agile portfolio management with feedback loops is very important to manage the delivery system in a holistic way. Really understanding what impact your decisions will have on the whole system will provide you with a totally different quality in your decision-making process for new demands. Or in other words: you can get a real grip on managing your system when embracing complexity and adopt your ways of working accordingly.

To bring these kinds of psychological phenomena to awareness and grow beyond, developing new attitudes, mindsets and behaviours, leaders need to find or grow an “agility master”, i.e. someone who really understands agility on an organisational level and who has the skills to drive change from a systemic perspective. In the organisation, it is to not try a short-cut by copying a framework, but rather - with the help of a coach - explore and discover true business agility and how it can manifest in your organisation. You need to find the answers yourself by living the questions that emerge. 

Patterns

As indicated earlier, every transformation is different. There is no masterplan or a silver bullet. But listening to many different companies and their journeys, we can see that there are good learnings and emerging patterns that are helpful to apply when starting a complex transformation journey. Here are some of them:  

  • Ensure a top down and bottom-up approach and learning loops. In successful transformational journeys towards adaptability and agility, we can see that neither a pure bottom-up nor a pure top-down approach help. It is always both at the same time. Involve top-management not as “sponsors” for the transformation, but as “owners and drivers” of the transformation.  

  • Do transformations agile - experiment, inspect and adapt to find feasible solutions for your context. Transformational journeys are complex endeavours: because we are dealing with people and group dynamics, there are so many emerging phenomena that can’t be foreseen that planning it through upfront is not possible. Neither is it possible to say when a milestone on the journey can be reached. It is all formulated ambitions based on current best thinking. And then taking steps towards these ambitions, checking all the time whether we are on track or whether we just learnt something, that teaches us to do things differently. It is a disciplined trial-and-error like approach.  

  • Understand the value creation from strategy and portfolio to execution in the teams. Don’t optimise locally within the teams or just try to scale agile ways or working. Try for a holistic view and a global optimization along the value creation. Visualising the actual value stream, for instance with Value Stream Mapping as a tool from the lean world, helps you to better understand your dependencies, bottlenecks and room for improvement. In our experience there are often the same two key levers for holistic improvements. One is the optimisation of your strategy and prioritisation work which should result in adding the right kind of work at the right time into the system. The other is to better manage the dependencies between the teams, thereby actively handling impediments and improving the flow of the work.  

For example, in the large scale transformation Esser was part of in 2009/2010, the journey was triggered by the leadership team, but then - based on the insight, that leaders are “too far away from the action”, workgroups with people across all levels of the hierarchy were created to bring all perspectives into the discussion on how we could do things better. The workgroups met weekly to discuss and propose trials. In addition, we had monthly integration meetings to share learnings, insights and discuss the next meaningful steps. These monthly integration meetings were the places where the “top-down” and the “bottom-up” people met, discussed and agreed on next steps. The workgroups formulated improvements based on their experiences, but also defined and proposed trials to get an experience on aspects where no previous experience exists. An example was the use of Scrum as an agile practice framework. There was a dispute about whether agile practices would get us to our wanted position. So instead of staying in the dispute, maybe even going into “analysis paralysis”, i.e. doing study after study to prove something, we just tried it out. These trials and the retrospectives on them informed us on how to proceed.

Conclusions

Every company needs to find its own path towards adaptability and agility. A key aspect to master is to differentiate between complexity and complicatedness. Trying to simplify in a complex context, e.g. by implementing a framework, will not solve your problems. It is rather about embracing uncertainty and unplannability and reducing complexity. Embracing uncertainty means discovering and learning an effective toolset, e.g. continuous planning, retrospectives, feedback loops, working in iterations, etc. Reducing complexity means finding possibilities to decrease entanglement, e.g. by discovering, understanding and reducing inter-dependencies. Following this approach will help you to find your ways of working which will improve your ability to deliver value and adapt to changes dynamically.

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