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Growing Agility

| by Ben Linders Follow 8 Followers on Apr 07, 2016. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes |

Andrea Tomasini will give a keynote talk titled "Stop Scaling, Start Growing an Agile Organization" at the Agile Eastern Europe 2016 Conference, which will be held in Kiev on April 8 and 9. InfoQ interviewed him about growing agility.

InfoQ: Can you share your view on what scaling agile is, and what it is not?

Tomasini: I dislike the term *scaling* applied to agile, or better agility. The reason is because it evokes metaphors which are bound to manufacturing such as: "scaling a plant", "scaling production" and all the rest that can evoke assembling and building things. I like to think about agility as something which goes far beyond building and assembling. Software Development has nothing to do with any "Production" related metaphors. Software development is a creative and problem solving activity.

Our industry is plagued by multiple attempts of "scaling" agile, with a very strong - almost unique - focus on delivering software. Ask a wide number of people familiar with agility, and we will get a wide spectrum of answers. I am confident though, that the majority of them would agree that what makes an agile team successful is not the "process" nor the "tools" but rather the way people developed an effective level of interaction with each other. Inspecting and adapting both the work done and the way it is done, seems to be the core of continuous improvement. So if we were to focus only on "scaling" the practices, processes and tools and not on the mindset and culture, I am pretty sure we would not achieve long term success, sustainable pace and most of all, people satisfaction and engagement!

I like to use the term growing agility, rather than "scaling" because it connects better with the fact that developing agility within an organization has more to do with an organic system, rather than with a mechanical one. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, then we have to recognize that the way towards agility requires addressing culture and mindset as first class citizens. Growing agile, means both focusing on culture, and on co-evolution of practices and tools

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of how you can organize to be focused on value?

Tomasini: I believe that "organization" is the set of structures and processes which govern the way people can collaborate - or not - with one another. Organizations can and should be changed to support people to work towards fulfilling specific objectives.

If we consider the typical organizational structure, for example a hierarchical structure, or even a matrix, the main purpose of the organization is often to optimize for efficiency. This means that what these types of organization are striving to achieve, if not enforcing, is the maximum utilization of resources. This approach, while probably valid in many market branches in 1911 when Frederik Winslow Taylor published the "Scientific Management Treaty" is out of scope in 2016. In particular thanks to globalization and the internet infrastructure, many new business models emerged in the past 10 years, and many new companies entered markets which were before inaccessible to them. This change in dynamics, forced many firms to reconsider their setup, sometimes in a fight for survival situation.

I believe the market today demands organization which are able to focus and deliver timely what customers want, with high level of quality and satisfaction. In these market conditions, things such as the cost of delay are playing a much more significant role than the cost of development or production, thus organization need to change.

An organization which supports value delivery, and time to market, needs to reduce to the minimum the amount of handovers as well as the waste in coordination and alignment. For this reason, most agile teams organize themselves as cross-functional and end-to-end teams, the same should happen at an organizational level. This has huge implications on existing structures and power plays, as everything which is coordination, synchronization and communication changes radically in favor of a more focused and value driven approach.

When I work with organizations’ leadership teams it is often the case that the answer to the question "what is valuable and what is not?" is quite fuzzy. This is a symptom of a much deeper problem that is anchored to the fact that the culture of the organization has been pushed extremely towards executions and predictability, and processes and tools have taken the precedence over people and interactions. The assumption that the value proposition towards a market doesn’t have to change over time, is a major cause of companies’ crisis.

InfoQ: Your preference is to decentralize control. How can this help to increase agility?

Tomasini: Decentralizing control allows for better agility because distributed part of an organization can react quickly and independently to changes. One of the goals that should be supported by the decision of becoming an agile organization should be achieving higher level of resilience or even anti-fragility.

Delegating power by designing enabling constraints encourages teams to focus and self-organize. Delegating is a difficult process, requires building trust and requires transferring competences and knowledge.

InfoQ: Do you have suggestions how organizations can grow their own agility?

Tomasini: Think of agility as a means towards a goal and not the goal itself. I have seen self-fulfilling prophecies or crusades happening when becoming agile becomes the goal. Keep in mind that changing an organization is definitely a challenge which belongs to the complex domain, and this requires it to be approached in an empirical way. Companies should refrain the temptation of defining, and implementing, as it very rarely works. Besides if we want to have engaged people at work, we need to have them own the system of work, and imposing changes top down is going to cause resistance, and dissatisfaction.

Maybe one last piece of advice, don’t fall in love with pilot projects! Almost all pilot projects succeed! Companies which didn’t evolve their culture yet, are often making the mistake of copying and pasting processes and tools which made a specific team successful to the rest of the organization. This obviously doesn’t work very well, as the focus is again on the wrong side.

InfoQ: Is there a way to visualize or measure agility? How can we actually know that an organization is becoming more agile?

Tomasini: This is a very interesting question. There has been may attempt to measure agility, but most of them fall short of capturing the real intent of it. There are even online assessment which rate the level of compliance to agile practices and disciplines, under the assumptions that if people use the right practices they will eventually become agile. There are also a variety of team performance models aiming at helping teams identify their level of trust, collaboration, and focus on results.

Ultimately I don’t think you can measure agility, and I would argue that it doesn’t make sense at all. On the other side, we can measure change and the fact that some of those changes actually produced better results than in the past.

If I may finish with a hearted suggestion, that would be to not focus at all on comparing the performance of an agile organization against another, nor comparing the performance of an agile organization against its own past. This mostly ends in kinds of witch hunting and silly vanity metrics, which inevitably waste time and distract from the focus of the change. People engagement and their feedback are valuable indicators to determine the improvement as well as clients and stakeholders’ feedback. If people are happy at work, and are motivated, they are more productive, creative and focused, and very likely will achieve greater results. There is a way to visualize agility, is called walk around the offices and count smiling faces and engaged conversations every day, if the trend is upwards you are getting there!

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