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From Agile Cargo Cult to Agile Organizations

| by Manuel Pais Follow 9 Followers on Apr 06, 2015. Estimated reading time: 2 minutes |

Avishai Ish-Shalom, CTO of Fewbytes and co-organizer of DevOps Days Tel Aviv, talked at the recent DevOps Days Ljubljana on how organizations need an agile culture, not an agile cargo cult in today's cloud-based, service-oriented world.

The move from selling software products to selling and running services in high-availability environments led to a high load of operational tasks. The majority of this work is often unplanned and unaccounted, explains Ish-Shalom, thus resulting in delays and blame wars in some organizations. The remaining minority of work is then dedicated to business and IT projects.

Agile methodologies may help cope with a faster pace of change but simply following agile ceremonies, not the principles, without adapting the organization to cope with the variability in business demands, service requirements and nature of the work leads to the same old problems: late projects, blame game and slow delivery/feedback. Organizations need to go beyond the agile cargo cult to continuously adapt and re-organize teams to deliver quality services that satisfy customers.

InfoQ asked Ish-Shalom for practical examples on re-organizing teams on a regular basis:

Various companies have tried different things, for e.g. have a look at the Spotify engineering culture videos, or how Valve equipped employee desks with wheels so they can form ad-hoc teams, distributed companies are also a great example - 37signals is an interesting case. Other companies rotate staff between teams regularly.

Few teams are truly self-organized, added Ish-Shalom. Too often teams are defined by higher management based on function or tools, and in doing so arbitrary borders emerge between siloed teams, leading to excessive handoffs and constraints that slow down the overall system.

In my opinion the first step is to acknowledge you need to be pro-active about culture and that organizational structure needs to be changed all the time. Often "agility" already exists in people minds but is blocked by management disallowing people to reorganize - denying transfer requests, enforcing job descriptions and positions, etc. It's surprising how many times the solution is just to "let go" and let employees self-organize. Too often we see managers having private discussions about reorganization that are only shared with employees after the fact, creating antagonism and dissatisfaction. Culture building must involve everyone, it cannot be enforced.

Ish-Shalom proposes concrete steps for moving to dynamic organizational structures that take full advantage of Conway's Law and provide the needed flexibility to design heterogeneous solutions for heterogeneous business problems.

To summarize, every company will probably take a different route; I think the following steps might help, at least in terms of bootstrapping the change:

  1. acknowledge that old patterns and structure are limiting you
  2. share that knowledge with everyone in the company
  3. stop enforcing the old structure (e.g. allow people to move offices, work outside of their teams, work on things not in their "job description", etc)
  4. wait for a while, then reevaluate the company structure and culture. Go back to #1

The main result of this process is that people start getting used to the idea that the organizational structure is dynamic and that they can effect it.

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