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Designing Organisations with Purposeful Agile

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on Oct 18, 2018. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes |

In a purpose-centric agile implementation, stakeholders make a clear shared purpose come to reality through visible outcomes. It starts with awareness of the organisation’s installed culture, finding installed habits and beliefs that pull back and block change, and deciding what you want to do about that. The second step is to create the necessary time and space for true change to happen.

Oana Juncu, agile business DJ at cOemerge, spoke about purposeful agile at Agile Business Day 2018. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

We often see in organisations that operational tasks take over the essence of the intention, even though many have stated the power of purpose such as the "Golden Circle" by Simon Sinek. Purposeful agile means "agile for a purpose", or more extensively, "agile at the service of a shared purpose", says Juncu. The meaning and impact of what teams and organisations achieve together is present in everyday routine

Juncu argues that a leadership shared attitude accelerates achieving a purpose beyond our single individuality. Purpose-driven organisations enable group dynamics that operate in autonomy, and autonomy triggers leadership among all members of that group.

In the InfoQ article adding purpose to Scrum with Holacracy, Martijn van Dijken described how the teal way of thinking can bring purpose alive in organizations:

The Teal organisation is the next step in the evolution from Green. This organisation is characterised by organising around purpose and by the lack of bosses. It is an organisational form where individuals get a purpose that contributes to the company’s purpose and get complete authority needed to fulfil that purpose. (...) There are companies doing this, such as Morning Star and Buurtzorg, but the best practices are still developing very rapidly. Holacracy and Sociocracy 3.0 are methods that fit in this space and are rapidly gaining interest.

InfoQ interviewed Juncu about purposeful agile.

InfoQ: What are the stages of agile experience awareness?

Oana Juncu: I have observed three stages of Agile experience.

The first one is the "focus on practices" stage. It’s a stage I call the "HowTo" Agile. In this stage, often Agile is an isolated approach by and for development teams; there is an important focus on velocity and/or strict deployment of Scrum Practices. Organisations struggle with the roles, mainly with the product owner’s one. Unfortunately, at this stage the same frustration between the development team and business stakeholders may be perceived… just as in the waterfall cycle.

In what I call the 2nd stage, teams agree that Agile is not just another process. There is a mindset shift from performing practices to behaving accordingly to the Agile principles. At this stage, being Agile is the purpose.

The 3rd stage is the "Purposeful Agile" stage, where teams and organisations are using Agile to make a clear shared purpose come to reality through visible outcomes.

InfoQ: What causes organisations to remain stuck at the first or second experience stage?

Juncu: I think the main reason is the lack of alignment between the intention of change and what I call the "operational reality", represented by all the set of behaviours and beliefs that unconsciously keep us in the status quo. Some of the easiest examples of "stuck in the status quo behaviours" are spending an important amount of time in sprint planning, focus on team velocity and privilege task-driven activities over value driven actions, and the myth of lack of time. In most of the cases, we lack time because we’re busy performing the activities of the status quo.

Because letting go of "doing the things as we always did" is highly uncomfortable, a second reason I believe organisations remain "stuck" is the pushy way of agile transformations. An imposed transformation plan is never sustainable, because of preservation human nature won’t let it happen. That’s why I personally don’t believe that all is needed to un-stuck an organisation is CxO level support.

The last and the biggest cause is the lack of a clear shared collectively-built purpose. If the "why" is less important than the "how", why wouldn’t we stick to the "hows" we are already used to?

InfoQ: What can be done to "unstuck" them?

Juncu: I think each organisation has its own DNA, just like individuals have. So everything that can be done should meet the group needs and aspirations.

I also believe that organisations cannot be "unstuck; they will find the way to unstuck themselves, and what can be done from an external contribution carefully stimulates the desire to change.

Some tips to stimulate change are:

  • Inquire with curiosity and an open heart about the group needs, also those of individuals in the group.
  • Coach and support the executives and sponsors of the organisation; the path of servant leadership might be difficult for them also, and passive support and/or sponsoring is almost always unfortunately not enough.
  • State the purpose together, and use it to clarify and align everyday work.
  • Create a space and give time for aspirations, and the alignment of aspirations with the greater purpose can be designed.
  • Give and take time to learn.

InfoQ: How can organizations develop a culture that supports the third stage?

Juncu: If we think of organisations as a living system, similar to an individual human being, I like to define the culture of an organisation as its "unconscious" part. The first thing needed to change any culture is to become aware of the installed one. This is a very difficult piece. People love to do things rather than observe what things they do, and how they do them. Revealing the installed culture may be one of the most difficult parts to get to the 3rd stage.

There is no change that can happen if there is no space for change. Usually the "change space" is filled with our common beliefs and mental models that make us behave the way we behave and make decisions the way we do. An example of creating space for change is working on managers’ agenda, making them available for their teams. It enables listening to the way the organisation operates and seeing what emerges. Freeing the busy agendas allows change to take place and helps us sense and grow awareness of the "installed culture".

When the awareness of the installed culture is acquired, the next step is to reflect on following questions:

  • How does the installed culture help in creating a "Purposeful Agile" organisation?
  • What elements of the installed habits and beliefs eventually pull back and are blockers for change?
  • What are we willing to do about it?

To help transformation toward a Purposeful Agile Organisation I defined a framework called Manage like A Pirate. The framework was initially used to develop a servant leadership approach for managers, then evolved to encourage a global leadership attitude in a Purpose-Product Driven ecosystem.

The "Manage like a Pirate" framework is used as a guideline to address all the steps of a transformation, one after another:

  1. Download and let go of our current beliefs - which is the culture awareness phase mentioned above
  2. Generative listening in circles of pairs, sustaining communities of change to support the difficult moments of a transformation when nothing seems to make any sense any more
  3. Holding emergent ideas labs
  4. Having a Visual Management Corner: Represent a Shared Purpose "Obeya" style space, together with a gratitude tree, kudos wall, and live moments or our day-to-day life, in an "exhibition" way help enhance team motivation
  5. The organisation of regular Open Space events for shared learning aligned with the purpose to create the new narratives of the new culture of Purposeful Agile

Another approach to bringing purpose into agile is agile fluency, described by Diana Larsen in the InfoQ article finding agile that’s fit-for-purpose.

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