August 11, 2019

What is organizational agility really? What should it be?

Emily Coleman
Caring about society

Background

I wrote a definition of agility 6 months ago. It was like a change story. 

I didn't want a pithy definition of agility that would :

  • let executive leaders think they were off the hook, change is for the teams and I don't need to change 
  • let specialists think they were off the hook, change is for the teams and I don't need to change
  • let teams think they were off the hook, change is for the executives & other leaders and we can't change

My philosophy is I am the change, everyone needs to change. There are plenty of techniques for aligning on what the change really is. 

Before I get to the main point of this article, let me offer some definitions.

Value

“The value of something such as a quality, attitude, or method is its importance or usefulness. If you place a particular value on something, that is the importance or usefulness you think it has.” (Collinsdictionary.com, 2019)

In Scrum, we consider customer value (providing something useful) and knowledge value (learning), which has the benefit of reducing risk. One might also consider how to make the world a better place, known as societal value.

Customer and End-user Value

Customers and end-users attempt to forecast and later confirm a positive impact on their worlds as value. At a minimum, outcomes should arise, positive or negative. Activities and outputs are insufficient. Frequency of impact is what teams should aim for.

Societal Value

Value can also be societal value, leaving the world in a better place socio-economically, environmentally, and from a people-safety perspective. Generation of societal value requires will, purposeful passion, focus, mental energy, and a fresh approach to communications.

Knowledge Value

Value may consider the management of risk, such as the cost of doing nothing, opportunity cost, cost of delay (Reinertsen, 2009), cost of discovery, cost of delivery, erosion of failure demand (Seddon, 2019), or the erosion of technical debt (Alliance, Letouzey and Whelan, 2019). 

Learning/acquiring knowledge about a risk can lower it, or at the least, make it visible. A proof of concept for a solution may not actually work. Let’s assume a Product Backlog Item is completed according to our Definition of Done, and it is released. Discovering whether the Product Backlog Item we released works or not is knowledge value because we’ve learned something. 

More often than not, knowledge value/learning can be seen as the opposite of risk. How one includes the management of risk does not matter, as long as it is sufficiently addressed in a timely and proactive manner. Organizational agility is not simply about adaptiveness for delivering customer and end-user value, it’s also about avoiding waste.

An Example of Value

Let’s imagine we are a milk bottling company. Our customer is a food retail chain as they pay us for our product. Our end-user is a paying customer for our bottle of milk at the food retail chain and is not a customer of ours. We’re getting bad press about the volume of plastic in our milk bottle production, we need to cut costs, and we feel guilty about our impact on the planet. 

We don’t want to go back to the bad old days of breakages. We might need to run an experiment to investigate the viability of toughened low-cost, recyclable glass bottles with no foreseen public health side effects. We might have an idea to test based on new glass production technology. But we don’t want to go too far down the road with a solution without proving the concept, potentially wasting lots of money and time. So we try to prove the production technology concept and see what customers and end-users think about it. We think it is better to find out sooner if we need to persevere, pivot, or stop. 

If the proof of concept does not work, the learning is knowledge value. If the proof of concept does work, the learning is knowledge value. We might need to run more experiments, eventually experimenting with our potential new glass milk bottle product with the certifying authorities with larger batches, and so on. After proving concepts, the team can turn its focus on sorting out the problem with the implementation of that solution.

If it makes the desired impact on the customer’s desire to improve its environmental record, that would be customer value. If there is the desired impact for milk bottle purchasers, that would be end-user value. The customer value would entail patent application, approval by certifying authorities for public safety and the environment, plus sustainable costs without unintended consequences. If the environment also improved as a result of a trend towards these new glass bottles, that would also deliver societal value. If these new bottles really catch on and we have patent protection then we might pivot to glass bottle production, which would generate huge customer value from customers we don’t know about yet, and it would generate huge societal value as a consequence. 

Sometimes, we have lots of ideas, and we need to experiment with some of them in parallel to let the data do the talking. Whatever the outcome as long as we release to learn, there is knowledge value from running experiments. 

Getting back to the point, leaving the world a better place

Many countries have societies with higher priorities than the environment. Even where the environment is a top priority, the damage is not being reversed; it is just being slowed down.

When customers and end-users demand a change in that department things will hopefully improve. I'm seeing signs of improvement in Ireland, the UK, and parts of continental Europe, mostly driven by sentiment on the ground. Which brings me back to my 6-month-old definition of organizational agility. It's missing something important. Many think that societal value is reserved for charities and NGOs. It is my belief that agility has to also be about leaving the planet in a better place. The plastic issue is my biggest concern. I am writing this post in a country where plastic is given to me whether I want it or not. I am no angel either though. In 2018, I visited 15 countries and 100 cities according to my Google end of year travel report. It took a special conversation between myself and my 15-year-old daughter on holiday over one month ago before I understood how much my work was helping to damage the planet faster. I've got to go on a sustainable diet from planet damaging behavior. And I need to figure out a way to help planet damaging organizations see a better way with whatever limited influence I have.

So what

Here is my September 2019 definition of organizational agility:

The ability to drive disruption in society, the industry & the marketplace, an adaptive way of being/learning/sensemaking, through ↑effectiveness, ↑frequency-of-impact, ↑quality, ↑learning, ↓impediments, ↑flow, ↑efficiency, and ↑sustainability.

It looks like small cognitively-diverse (Syed, 2019) cross-skilled cross-functional teams or teams-of-teams using Agile, Lean, Lean/Agile methods, or the Agile Manifesto principles.

It feels like ↑sincerity, ↑empiricism, ↑caring-about-planet-earth, ↑shared-purpose-that-is-not-all-about-customers-and-money, ↑psychological-safety, ↑engagement (society, employees, customers, partners, and other stakeholders), ↑respect, ↑leaders-embracing-uncertainty, ↑leaders-serving-teams, ↑leaders-as-coaches, ↑excellence, ↑transparency, ↑inspection, ↑adaptation, ↑team-based-commitment, ↑openness, ↑inclusion, ↑courage, ↑passion, ↑focus, ↑energy, and ↑fun.

It is underpinned by the Agile Manifesto at www.agilemanifesto.org.

It’s a helpful way of being in this Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous and threatened world. It is a required skill set for the 21st century, regardless of specialty or function.

My intent is not to guilt-trip people in organizations that damage society. Follow the kaizen spirit, what is the smallest thing you can change with your product? 

Now what

Even before we introduce consideration for societal value in ordering Product Backlog Items, let's talk about sincerity. A leader’s words should match her actions. I believe when that happens we witness sincerity.

Leaders at all levels should have a “good moral compass”. For example, she:

  • gets more technically minded, so she understands the issues fully
  • genuinely tries to help resolve issues, and doesn’t push issues back down to teams to solve
  • uses her influence for constructive interventions
  • doesn’t punish people for making one-off mistakes while preaching about people needing to have an open mindset 

Without ethics, agility becomes just another fad with no genuine intent to improve or change, just an intent to say the right thing at the right time in the right place and carry on the merry-go-round. 

It doesn’t end there. From a societal point of view, a leader should:

  • Avoid monopolization of the value agenda to customer value, end-user value, and knowledge value 
  • Make a stand, make a difference
  • Promote an organizational sense of purpose that is less about quarterly results and money, and is more about inspiring people

It is a journey. Be humble. Seek help. Arrange a video call with a friendly PST near you.

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References 


Alliance, A., Letouzey, J. and Whelan, D. (2019). Introduction to the Technical Debt Concept | Agile Alliance. [online] Agile Alliance. Available at: https://www.agilealliance.org/introduction-to-the-technical-debt-concept/ [Accessed 9 Sep. 2019].

The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development. - Reinertsen, D. (2009)

Seddon, J. (2019). Failure demand | Vanguard. [online] Vanguard-method.net. Available at: https://vanguard-method.net/library/systems-principles/failure-demand/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2019].

Syed, M. (2019). Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. 1st ed. John Murray (10 Sept. 2019).