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Agile and the Use of Paradoxes

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Paradoxes support agile transformations; they make you stop, think, and discuss by using a shared language. They also help to show empathy and provide a way forward. VIVAT, a Dutch insurance company, uses paradoxes in training and everyday work to drive their agile transformation.

InfoQ interviewed Patrick van Ginneken, program manager at VIVAT, about how paradoxes are used to enable breakthrough changes and to introduce agile insights to managers and help them apply those insights in their daily work.

InfoQ: At VIVAT, paradoxes are used to drive the agile transformation. Can you elaborate on this?

Patrick van Ginneken: VIVAT wants to have a leading role in the digital insurance industry and become the most innovative insurance company. To innovate and change quickly and efficiently we create an agile organization. The use of paradoxes fits perfectly with the need for breakthrough change in an agile transformation. At VIVAT we currently use three key paradoxes to communicate the change:

  • Stop starting to start finishing
  • Make it small to achieve big results
  • Long-lived teams to realize short-term outcomes

Using these paradoxes creates several effects at once that are beneficial to the transformation:

  • It makes you stop and think
  • It shows empathy towards the status quo
  • It provides a way forward
  • It creates a shared language – contradictions are easy to remember

We see this in practice as the paradoxes are adopted in day-to-day interactions.

InfoQ: Can you give an example of this?

Van Ginneken: During a portfolio planning session, product owners started challenging a colleague when he argued to start an important, new initiative with the question "That sounds like a very good idea, but what has been completed that allows you to start something new?". Based on this discussion it was determined to focus on removing one of the obstacles that was delaying an ongoing initiative rather than start something new.

InfoQ: Your use of paradoxes starts with "clarifying the norm", where you explore current behavior. Why is this and how does this work?

Van Ginneken: Understanding your current behavior and its unintended effect, provides an effective trigger to change. People generally act with the best intention. For example, it is logical to think: if I want to get something done, it is best to start as soon as possible. In recognizing this behavior, we positively recognize the other and their intentions. We don’t say, "You have always been wrong to want to start as soon as possible". Their intentions were right and jointly we are learning better ways to achieve our desired results.

Showing the unintended consequences of the best intentions, provides the basis to look at what change is possible. This allows someone to let go of their current behavior without compromising their intentions.

We also emphasize this in our reporting. For example, we have added the amount of work-in-progress and velocity to board level portfolio reports, initially as additional information to change the conversation. Providing the old and new side-by-side highlights the difference between looking through the old frame of reference and the new agile approach.

InfoQ: How do you introduce new agile insights to managers at VIVAT?

Van Ginneken: We use different instruments to introduce agile insights. The most obvious is training in which we apply the above-mentioned paradoxes. In the training, we use real-world examples from VIVAT, both negative as positive and focus on the role of each individual in driving the change.

At a portfolio level, we also hold planning sessions, stand-ups, and demo days along a synchronized cadence throughout the organization. This visualizes the work and forces discussions around priorities, value and making work small. Introducing agile insights is a journey in which we try to adapt to what we learn through regular retrospectives and making use of changing circumstances as a case for change.

For example, during our first planning sessions, we only had a rough idea of how cross-unit dependencies should be agreed to. We found out that at an operational level we needed to give more guidance (e.g. on how cross-unit work would be administered). However, without first trying we would not have been able to come up with the ultimate solution as no one had yet experienced the issues. During our review, we gathered what we learned and agreed to the adjusted way of working.

InfoQ: How do you help managers to apply these insights in their daily work?

Van Ginneken: During our training efforts, we provide practical guidance based on the paradoxes. We emphasize the manager’s role in the change. For example: "When someone wants to execute on a new idea, ask what has been finished that allows for start with the new initiative" (Stop Starting to Start Finishing), "Understand the assumptions that are being made, and use these as a basis to make the work small" (Make it Small to Achieve Big Results), and "Invest in teams and their development, structurally looking at improvement areas using retrospectives." (Long-lived teams to Realize Short-term Outcomes)

The most rewarding cases are when managers start infecting their colleagues with their enthusiasm and drive to move forward. For example, the manager of our user and workplace services department has sought out a product owner in the business and holds a demo day every month in which the latest developments are enthusiastically shown to everyone who wants to come and see. Infrastructure is not normally leading in agile transformations, but his unit has leap-frogged others in this respect and is showing what is possible.

InfoQ: What have you learned from your agile transformation until now?

Van Ginneken: Our key lessons have been:

  • Invest heavily in the quality and availability of product owners
  • Continuously reinforce agile in the strategy, behavior, structure, systems of the organization
  • Make it visible, create front-runners that show what is possible
  • Limit the impact of cross-unit dependencies by taking structured measures, such as automation and skills transfer
  • Get the business on board (at all levels)

InfoQ: What’s next?

Van Ginneken: Our current challenges are around broadening the scope of the application of agile within VIVAT and scaling at a portfolio level. We also invest in enablers like a Continuous Delivery pipeline. But ultimately it is also important to just keep doing, building and learning.

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