Executive Agility

Many people are starting to recognise that agile has a lot to offer outside software development, but where do you start?

Leadership support is critical to the success of agile initiatives, without their support, agile will likely fail [1]. However, many executives have not been schooled in agile frameworks — their education often comes from 20th management techniques that reinforced the future could be predicted with sufficient planning [2].

In a 21st century business environment the future changes so frequently that by the time traditional upfront planning is completed, technology has moved on, customers needs have evolved, new markets have emerged, and politicians have made a dozen tweets changing the policies of whole countries.

As leaders, executives in agile environments have the biggest challenge. They not only need to support  and encourage their organisations to be responsive to rapid change, but change they also have to adopt a 21st century strategic planning and leadership stance. The path to success, though, isn’t a difficult one. It just takes time.

1. Culture

Problems with culture make up 63% of failed agile initiatives. Consider culture first, understand the existing behaviours, signs and symbols that highlight what the existing culture looks like. Start change management by establishing psychological safety and acting to reduce any potential fear about the change to agile.

2.  Leadership

Leading by example, modelling the behaviour you want to see in others, is a key motivator in the move to business agility across teams. Jeff Sutherland, co-author of Scrum, proposes forming an Executive Agile Team (EAT), and use Scrum to implement agile across the organisation.

“Leadership teams need to instill agile values throughout the entire enterprise.”
– Jeff Sutherland

3. Systems Thinking

Executives operate across numerous levels of the organisation. It’s imperative that they also think about executive action and its impacts as part of a larger ecosystem. Systems Thinking can assist leaders to think holistically about people, tools and processes, and should be a go-to when optimising for the whole.

4. Simplify

It’s easy to look across a whole section or even the whole organisation and think you need a scaled agile framework. Scale means big, right? And if you’ve got lots of agile teams, big = scaled agile?

It’s easy to make things more complicated. In the short term, you might need the equivalent of agile scaffolding to harmonise the work of many teams, and their governance layers, and guide them toward a common goal. The hard things is once the system is sustainable to then dismantle the elements that are overheads, that add very little value, and work toward a minimal viable bureaucracy [3].

5. Value Drives Decisions

When starting out building business agility, plans drive work across an entire organisation. It begins with the annual 12 month strategic plan and then flows down from there. In an agile organisation, understanding value helps to drive smarter, economic decision-making: cost of delay, value to business and/or users, time criticality, risk reduction and opportunity enablement. Products, and iterations of products, that are small in size can be delivered more quickly than large products, so smaller ones of high value are worked on over others. Feedback loops and value metrics are key inputs. At this stage of an executive’s agile journey, simplity in metrics and bureaucracy supports rapid decision-making to support teams to pivot quickly and deliver value responsively rather than being reactive.

Conclusions

Agile frameworks and practices can enable whole organisations to improve quality and do “twice as much in half the time” [4]. Executives, though, have to evolve beyond their 20th century management techniques and lead by example if the rest of the organisation is going succeed with becoming truly agile.

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1. VersionOne (2017) 11th Annual State of Agile Report.

2. Di Fiore, A (2018) Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile. Harvard Business Review. Online at: https://hbr.org/2018/09/planning-doesnt-have-to-be-the-enemy-of-agile

3. Sutherland, J and Scrum.Inc (2018) The Scrum At Scale® Guide. Online at: https://www.scrumatscale.com/scrum-at-scale-guide-read-online/

4. Sutherland, J. (2014) Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.

 

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