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De-scaling Organizations using Scrum

Scrum helps us to see what is happening. We can run experiments in Scrum sprints to improve the way of working using organizational models that help us to reinvent organizations in a way that “agile” becomes natural says Olaf Lewitz.

At the OOP 2015 conference Olaf gave the talk "De-Scale Your Organization!". InfoQ did an interview with Olaf asking him about his view of agile scaling, how to de-scale organizations and increase consciousness and how to create a culture that enables and fosters honest communication.

InfoQ: You stated that organizations should stop trying to scale agile, What is wrong with scaling agile?

Olaf: We want to work on organisations, not on agile. With our current approach we’re missing out on a substantial amount of the potential benefits for large organisations.

InfoQ: How would you describe the current scaling approach?

Olaf: I currently perceive us to be creating assemblies of agile practices which fit the existing structures and mindsets of large enterprises. We limit agile to IT, we don’t question the organisational model. We settle for something that’s easy, while I’d like us to dare greatly.

InfoQ: Instead of scaling agile you suggested that organizations should de-scale? Why, what's the benefit?

Olaf: Descaling is a metaphor, a provocative title. View your organisation like a coffee machine: over time, given regular use, there is something building up inside that limits its potential.

I want to inspire people to rephrase the question. Remind ourselves that we want to change organisations, not agile.

In the context of large enterprises wanting benefits from agile, we have two approaches:

  • how do we reinvent the organisation in a way that “agile” becomes natural?
  • how do we arrange and combine successful agile practices into a coherent whole that fits the organisation’s expectations, needs and wants?

I see value in both approaches, I don’t even think they are opposing forces. They work on different levels. I’d like us to explicitly discuss both.

I’m more interested in the first question. I want to change the organisational model, as Fred Laloux describes in his book “Reinventing Organisations”: a different organisational metaphor, operate from different core beliefs about people: that everyone deserves and has power. That adults are treated as adults, expected to be responsible for their life and work. That we make decisions with others rather than for others.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of practices that organizations can use to increase consciousness and change their model?

Olaf: First, I suggest we start talking honestly about what we believe about the organisation, and about ourselves.

Stop pretending. Show up fully and share what we don’t know. Admit we’re scared because everything is changing.

We frequently work on the organisation as it pretends to be, not on the organisation we belong to and believe in. We’ve created this compelling fantasy where we can predict the future, control the market… Without looking at what’s really there, and honestly talking about it, we’ll never have effective change.

Stop trying to change people. As People, we like change, we don’t like to be changed. We prefer having a choice.

My model of change is that first we raise awareness, then we identify options, and then we make a choice. We can help with the first two steps: help raise awareness, help identify options. We should not interfere with their choices.

How we show up relates to this in two very specific ways:

First of all, it is inviting. When I show up at work as a human being, vulnerable and honest, that is contagious. Other people will feel invited to do the same—especially so if I’m in power. That’s how David Marquet transformed that ship, and how that transformed state was sustainable for many years after he left. He created a culture of invitation.

Second, showing up honestly raises awareness and identifies options. People can make new choices based on new data.

So, my “De-Scaling Cycle” has three simple (not easy) steps:

  1. Show up honestly to increase trust.
  2. Invite people to make new choices.
  3. Reduce organisational structures you don’t need any more.

InfoQ: In your talk you will show how Scrum can be used to de-scale in organizations. Can you elaborate on this?

Olaf: Scrum throws all the things into our face every two weeks which we had previously chosen to hide under our carpet.

Scrum offers us a choice to do something about them, or put them back into hiding.

As such, Scrum is perfectly fit for a “look-at-what’s-really-there” approach. Appreciate what we like, identify what we want to improve, then invite people to work on that.

Phrased differently: The new choices in my De-Scaling Cycle are experiments which we can run in sprints. Organisational structures we want to reduce can go into a backlog and be sliced into small, baby step changes.

InfoQ: You state in the description of your talk that "typical enterprises have a strong culture of lying". What do you mean with this?

Olaf: Lying is a more blunt way of labeling the pretending I mentioned earlier. Reports are often produced to meet expectations (plans), not to show reality. Decisions are made by people who know that they’re not being shown the full picture. Especially when information moves up through the hierarchy, it gets distorted. This mostly happens with good intentions, it’s a systemic issue.

InfoQ: How can you create a culture that enables and fosters honest communication?

Olaf: By being honest, gentle and kind.

Culture is “what we do around here to be successful.” In a power hierarchy, this will be what is coherent with the ideas of success of the people in power, and with their expectations and example. A power hierarchy can only be changed from the top. And when we look at examples like Semco, Favy, David Marquet’s submarine in “Turn the Ship Around”, we see that a strong leader willing to distribute the power equally in the system can do so.

Culture is a shadow, you can’t directly change it. It’s the collective identity of the people, and the set of core beliefs that determine espoused values and behaviour. Beliefs and identity are made up from stories. Influence the narratives, influence the culture.

This can be liberating. We have a choice. We can choose positive stories. Stories were we are in power, where everyone is a leader, as in a fellowship. We can make those stories be true in organisations. We deserve to love what we do, and we are invited to make that happen.

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