Productivity & Effectiveness

Releasing agility in teams

By 06/11/2019 No Comments

It didn’t go down well.

Well, it wouldn’t have gone down well with you either if you’d spent over £20 million pounds to “Go Agile” and somebody (me) had just told you you’d wasted much of it.

To be fair, she knew she’d wasted it. It’s why I was asked to come and do a talk.

After three years and little change in behaviours, it didn’t need a guest speaker from the North of England to point out the obvious. But point it out I did. With confidence.

I can’t help it. It’s in my nature.

She was angry. I could see it in her face.

Article continues below a short video about Releasing Agility

But for the first time in the last three years someone had pointed out a potential new road to travel, rather than merely throwing more external consultants at the problem or pointing out problems with no solutions.

It wasn’t that the existing agile consultants weren’t very good – some of them were excellent, but they were working in a system, culture and leadership vortex that meant they would never succeed. Instead of tough conversations by management, the company’s management team were throwing coaches at the problem instead. After all, it’s often easier to blame coaching than it is to hold your management hand up and own the problem.

And so this little story brings me nicely to the core premise of Releasing Agility – the main set of steps we use with clients who want to embrace agility, and a model that you may or may not resonate with.

I do hope it’s helpful for you as you embrace agility, take what is useful, discard that which is not. After all – the other ways of working also work.

Am I really working in agile?

I’ve worked in the “agile” world for too many years (I know I don’t look that old but I am – it’s the immature haircut that does it) and have always been perpetually amused and despondent by the belief by so many people, that agile is somehow a silver bullet solution.

It’s driven by a belief that many people hold – that there is some magical moment when you become “agile”, and suddenly all your business, communication and team problems go away.

I’ve stayed clear of all of that and instead have always focused on the idea of constantly, relentlessly and never-endingly Releasing Agility by improving communication, over-coming tough problems and fixing management behaviours.

I’ve learned that the more agility you release (as in getting smoother and quicker at delivering business results), the more problems you uncover. The more you solve these new problems, the more agility you release. And it’s never ending. Companies always have more problems than they can solve. They also have more agility they can release.

Release – set free from confinement (it’s already there in your business)

Agility – moving quickly and smoothly towards your goals

I stumbled on why I’d made agile work a few years back – and none of it seemed to resonate with much I’d heard in the community or industry chatter. In fact, the more I dug deep on what I’d seen work time and again, the more I even wondered if I was even in the agile industry at all.

To be fair though I put myself through pain to get to this point.

It took me about 6 months of constant thinking; the kind of thinking that ages you, stresses you, tires you and makes you anti-social. The kind of thinking that leads you down many paths, some of which lead nowhere, some of which provide golden insights, some of which bring pain and all of which teach you something.

The kind of thinking that makes you realise you know less than you thought, but ultimately, the kind of thinking that rips away the superficial layers of buzzwords, and gets to the root of why something works. The kind of thinking that lands on something far simpler than you originally may have expected.

You see, I’d moved from an agile tech team (described as Frighteningly Agile) to Human Resources (described as Evil) and was determined to Release Agility within the team, only I was failing. Failing for a number of reasons, not surprisingly, none of them were tech related.

In the world of tech it’s easy to hide behind agile tech speech and processes like Continuous Delivery, DevOps, user stories mapping etc. It’s also easy to blame those things too. But when you try to do the same approach in a team like HR you need to peel back the layers to uncover the essence of why agile works – what sits below these techniques, processes and methodologies.

And after 6 months of brain melting thinking I’d deconstructed everything we’d ever done in the tech world at a level below technology. I’d drawn out a process, made it simple, re-written it 100000 times and ultimately condensed it down to something simple to digest. Despite its simplicity to understand though, it masks hard work, difficult work and complex work.

I showed it to friends, peers and colleagues and they all agreed, despite my awful drawing, it was a thing of beauty. And for those that know me, yes, it did have a picture of a dog on a skateboard on it.

So, I started to implement the ideas within in the HR team, with interesting results. We started to release agility. We started to move really quickly towards our business results. We shipped initiative after initiatives and made great progress on many big gnarly HR problems.

There were still problems, but we were overcoming them.

We were Releasing Agility.

“Release – set free from confinement”. Let’s be honest, most organisations have high levels of agility at some point (most start out with extreme levels of agility), they just add layers of confusion, complexity, red tape and drama on top of what should be simple stuff.

“Agility – moving quickly and smoothly towards your goals”. Let’s be honest here, it’s rare to find people in the business world who truly know what their business results and goals are – at a level that can be turned in to action.

And so I started to test and try the approach and it worked. It also worked in other industries and teams I tried it in. It worked in my own Consulting Business – and it worked for clients too.

By making it clear where we were going (with measures), identifying key obstacles (all businesses have more problems than can be solved), aligning the right people with the right skills, focusing on behaviours and habits, and then learning what works or didn’t – we started to Release Agility in HR – and all without a single mention of an agile framework. (The irony of frameworks debunking frameworks).

Cultivated Change - 5 Stages Poster

Shooting the breeze

After spending £20 million on agile coaches and consulting, the CIO I was shooting the breeze with, saw that her organisation was no closer to agility. Things weren’t changing. They were not getting to their business results smoothly or quickly. So I sat down with her and explained where I think her problems may have been.

Using the 5 steps process of releasing agility we started to chat about Step 1. It seemed like a logical place to start.

Step 1 requires that the business knows what it is trying to achieve.

Step1 requires leadership and management to have done research and analysis and know what value the company is offering, typically from the customer’s perspective.

There are measures around this purpose and a compelling vision or painted picture of what the future looks like.

A True North, a guiding light, a painted picture, a vision – call it what you want – but it’s a clear, simple and easy to understand description of where people are going.

It is supported by data, evidence and measures.

The CIO had this vision. In fact, it was so compelling I almost asked her if I could join the team. It was a blisteringly compelling future. I could see why people were flocking to join the organisation.

So I proposed the problems wasn’t here for the CIO. She had something else at play.

So we moved to Step 2. Seemed again, like a logical next step.

Step 2 is all about defining a strategy

Step 2 is all about looking at the bright future and then asking :

“If this bright future is so compelling, why are we not there yet? What’s stopping us?”

When you identify the future state, and the current state, and then the obstacles that stand in your way – you can then add an action plan. This action plan is a strategy.

The strategy explains clearly and with evidence, what the obstacles and problems are that stand between where the company is now and this bright future.

It is an outline of the current problems and obstacles combined with a clear plan of action (prioritised) about how to move forward. It may be through, around, over, under the obstacles, whatever. But a strategy without a realistic look at the current world is just a wish.

Usually, I see lots of goals and mission statements, usually misaligned to the real problems in the organisation. These goals are usually too fluffy, unachievable, too demanding or unrealistic. Leaders talk of being aggressive, never quitting and destroying the competition. This is not strategy, this is personality type infecting the business. After all, you’re in business to offer the customer something they currently do not get, not to beat the competition.

And so a strategy outlines the future, the current reality and the plan to move ahead. And this should be easy to understand, it should be prioritised, evidence based and well communicated to all. Everyone in the business should know what role they play in the journey. Alas, it’s usually missing.

And for the CIO, well, she had nuggets of this, but not the whole. Most of the strategy was fluffy wishes based on opinion rather than evidence. But the skeleton was there – it just needed some flesh (come on, I wrote his on Halloween).

She had some work to do here.

But she made a salient point and it helped to re-enforce why Step 1 and Step 2 are the building blocks. She mentioned that people were solving lots of problems and she was rewarding people for this. I asked her “Does your organisation have more problems than you can realistically ever tackle?” And of course her answer was “Yes”.

And so I explained that almost every business has more problems than the people or time to solve them.

So you must know where you are going and which problems are stopping you from achieving this future – and then you must overcome only those problems – and ignore those that are not preventing you moving on the journey.

It is a way of focusing attention and energy on the right problems, not just the easy ones – as human nature tends to draw us to problems that can be easily solved. Easy solutions often cause the problems of tomorrow – and often don’t address the root cause of today’s problems. But that’s some heavy thinking for another day.

And so we mused about some ways to build the strategy before we moved on the Step 3.

Now here’s where it gets interesting for most leaders and managers. And remember, at this point we’ve not covered a single agile framework, approach, methodology yet. No need to – because let’s be honest, almost any of them will work if you get steps 1, 2 and 3 working. And very few of them work if you have the wrong people, solving the wrong problems all potentially heading in the wrong (or different) direction.

And so we move to the most important engine of success in any company.

Step 3 is all about having the right people to do the job.

If you could achieve your goals and dreams and business success without other people then you would. But bringing in people helps to amplify the abilities, productivity and achievements of all within the business. It allows a magnitude more work to be done.

Yet, so few managers and leaders know how to work with people – this is hyper-worrying. It’s why I went off on my own to help companies with management in the first place.

And so I asked the CIO outright “Looking around your senior leadership and management team, could you honestly put your hand on your heart and say “This is the team to get it done?””

She paused for a few minutes. Her eyes darted around the open plan office, and she started to fidget. I’d struck a chord, like I always do when I ask this question.

“It’s complicated” she said.

“Why?” I responded.

“Politics” she said.

“I understand, but is it the team to get it done?” I asked.

“Absolutely not” she said.

And there we had it. Sure, there were some gaps in strategy, but high performing people can overcome gaps in strategy and help to fill them in. But when you have a leadership and management team that is not the team to get it done, you have some work to do.

After speaking with the CIO I was encouraged to speak to other managers and ask them if they had the teams to get it done. And the response was varied, but mostly centred around the words “No” and “Hell No”.

Yet not one single manager was doing anything about it. Why? They didn’t know how to, held on to a belief that you can’t get rid of anyone and had no time to work with people – they were all too busy doing tasks.

You should be able to look around at your immediate team and say “this is the team to get it done”. If you can’t – you have some work to do.

That could be performance plans, feedback, removal or, as is usually the case, a simple and clear explanation of what is expected of people. I often find most people have never received any feedback about low performance – they’ve never been told – and once they are communicated to – they immediately make changes for the better.

What People Need Poster

A managers job is to set the behaviour bar high, exhibit these behaviours themselves and hold people accountable to high standards. And it all starts with leaders and managers.

This CIO had a real problem at almost every level within her team.

She told me the Agile Consultants had told her to do away with hierarchy. But in some organisations the maturity levels of behaviours can be so bad that the hierarchy is needed. I like hierarchy.

There is nothing wrong with it. It’s the people in the hierarchy that are the problem.

I chin-wagged with some of the agile coaches and some of them had been spending 3 months trying to convince a team to move to an agile set of behaviours, but the team had all refused to do it. The refused to do it! Yep, you read that right. Refused to do it. They refused to do what they had been asked to do. A reasonable request for a new way of working had been refused. It had been pushed away, ignored. They had chosen to do what they wanted to do, not what the business had asked them to do. And the business had responded by bringing in some agile coaches to try and “Coach” them to do what was asked of them.

This is a management problem.

The more we chatted around this the more it was clear where the money had been spent – on highly skilled agile specialists trying to fix management problems. And these coaches were good – but even the best coaches in the business can’t overcome management incompetence.

And so we moved to Step 4. Again, a logical move.

Step 4 is all about the habits and behaviours of agile.

It’s where the majority of consultants spend their time. It can be a complete waste of everyone’s time trying to nudge behaviours and bring in agile approaches if you don’t have the right people, solving the right problems and heading in the right direction. And yet, most companies are spending millions here.

When you have steps 1,2 and 3 coaches are wonderful and accelerate learning. Without the first three in alignment, or being worked on, coaching can be frustrating, demoralising and wasteful.

The Agile Mindset is something the CIO kept talking about. It’s what everyone kept talking about.

But when I asked what this meant and how she knew whether people had the mindset or not, she always came back to behaviours.

“Well they do X”.  Or “they say Y”.

Behaviours. Not mindset.

The only way I’ve ever seen agility being released is by people exhibiting a series of professional behaviours that allow honest problems to be overcome with appropriate solutions, with respect, with professionalism and with integrity.

It’s why I always focus on behaviours.

They can be observed, studied, communicated, nudged, discussed and given feedback about. I have no idea what someone is thinking, but I do know how they behave. And their behaviours are usually a result of the system they are working in – exactly why we focus on Steps 1, 2 and 3 first.

In step 4 it’s plainly obvious to start with Leadership and Management behaviours – they set the tone for the rest of the organisation. However, that’s too simplistic – most Leaders and Managers think they are already awesome. It takes a self-reflecting leader/manager to appreciate that the chaos, confusion and behaviours in their teams are a result of their own behaviours, actions and communication.

And so we start with anyone who wants to get better. It’s easier and quicker to start at the top, but it’s still effective to work anywhere. You don’t have to fix your managers behaviours to work on your own. It’s childish to pass your own personal responsibility for behaving well on to others. Own it.

The culture of the organisation is nothing more than group habit, it’s what people do every day. So when working with behaviours it’s always important to take in to account the culture of the organisation and not go against the kind of culture the leaders want to build. Whether I agree with various ways of working or not, I am always aware that some people like to work in some environments over others.

The CIO was in agreement – the behaviours were toxic, aggressive and confusing in her organisation. She needed to lead from the front and set high standards for others. Plenty of work to do.

And so we moved to Step 5 to close out our little ramble.

Step 5 is simply about learning and getting better.

It’s about testing ideas, failing, learning from mistakes, deep diving on problems, using data to inform decisions and ensuring everyone in the work place is getting better. How you do this is varied, culturally specific and must be geared around overcoming the problems your organisation have. After all, there is little point in training everyone in a technology your company don’t use – trust me I see this time and time again.

And how do you measure that things are getting better? Your business results will improve along with your team’s behaviours and ability to deliver them. Behaviours will change. Capability will increase and improve and be appropriate for the changing nature of challenges, obstacles and problems you now face.

As we chewed the fat on this, the CIO was excited about what the future held. She had ideas and insights and plans.

That’s not agile

If you embrace the Releasing Agility approach of:

  1. Being very clear about where you are going
  2. Honestly identifying your real problems
  3. Building the right team to get it done
  4. Focusing on behaviours first over frameworks
  5. Learning how to make the business better

then some people will say you’re not doing agile – because it doesn’t look like this diagram, or book, or framework.

That’s nice for them – don’t worry about this. You’re too busy releasing more agility by overcoming real business problems.

Ignore the haters and naysayers. Focusing on solving business problems and achieving business results keep a business alive. And if a framework or methodology helps you with that – use it! If it doesn’t – don’t do it. That’s real agility.

Nothing ruins the ability to release agility more than being compared to a different company who have different goals, problems, people, culture and learnings.

If you roll out a standard methodology designed to solve a problem somebody had in some company somewhere else, then you’d better hope you have the same problems that they had. If you did – it should work well – keep rolling it out. But if you don’t have the same problems – how can you expect it to solve your problems?

Agility is about helping you get business results. And it is a journey that never really ends. And it will look like what you need it to. Don’t let the compare and despair mentality affect what you’re doing.

Use what is useful. Discard what isn’t.

To sum it up

It’s really important to know which direction you are heading in. Talented leaders and managers are clear about the purpose, measures and business results. It makes it much easier for others to align around it.

It’s then important to identify the very obstacles and problems standing between where you are and this bright future. Once you identify these you can put in place a plan to overcome them – this is a strategy – a set of guiding principles to reach the destination.

It’s important to have the right people in the right place, at the right time to deliver on this. Is this the team to get it done?

You can then start to develop the behaviours that help you achieve this vision whilst remembering your principles and values. After all, it’s entirely possible to get business results through threats.

And then you can learn. Ask questions, make safe mistakes, learn how to be better. Follow process to understand what works and what does not.

And all of this helps you release agility in your organisation. And if you have the same problems as an off-the-shelf framework can solve – then use one of those. If not, then use what is useful from each one and apply it to solving your real problems. And I’ll give you a clue – the real problems are likely to be behaviour based – and the best way to address these, is by modelling the right behaviours at all levels in your organisation – especially so at the top.

And when you break this model down it’s a framework for management. Managers hold the keys to releasing agility.

So focus on them. But then I am biased right? 🙂