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agile, organization, transformation |

5 Min Read

Unlearning our Way into Agility

Usha Gubbala

Photo by Sam Erwin on Unsplash

The word innovation has become common. Calls to “fail fast and break things” have permeated corporate culture. The desire and push toward innovation is great. But there’s one crucial barrier that’s often overlooked: the structure and design of the organization itself.

How teams communicate across the organization, gain authority to make decisions, and drive ideas forward – essential aspects of an innovative culture – are enabled or inhibited by organizational structure. It’s only when teams across the organization feel the permission from other parts of the organization to move fast break things, and have the scaffolding to manage and navigate the implications skillfully that the true dream of an agile transformation can manifest.

Changing Landscapes

We see this often in how organizations navigate and cohere between the central/functional division and the regional or market divisions. Regional markets, because they are close to the customer, are often early to recognize opportunities or threats that require a response from the organization. Yet often when markets mobilize around a course of action, the decisions have to find their way through the central/functional divisions. It is here that many great ideas find a slow death. Sometimes decisions get locked because it’s unclear who actually has the authority to make the decision. Sometimes they get lost traversing through layers and layers of validation. Often, while waiting for the validation to come through, markets lose out on opportunities.

Traditional organizational structure was designed to slow decisions down in order to assure that the right decisions are made and executed. This works well in an environment that has a reliable degree of certainty. When this is the case, what’s required is precision not haste. Unfortunately, the environment we’re operating in now is quite the opposite – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The structure needs to be updated to allow for a new way of operating across the layers and ranks of the organization.

What’s needed in this context, is indeed the penchant towards trying things, failing fast, learning fast, and iterating constantly. This is the heart of agility. And often agility is equated with speed. We seek agility in order to move fast. But the primary goal is actually to get closer and closer to the right outcome by feeling our way forward, by trying something, getting data based on our attempt, and iterating. It’s not just about moving fast, it’s about moving quickly towards the right outcome.

Unlearning

The dilemma of working in an agile way is that failing doesn’t always feel fast or accurate. Often it feels messy, and hard. To then do it in an organizational context, where our failures and successes are public and interconnected with other people and parts of the business can be that much more challenging.

Agile transformation is not harder than we think it is. It’s deeper than we think it is. At the heart of it is a profound unlearning. It requires both individuals and the collective to unlearn optimizing for certainty. We can no longer spend time planning and perfecting. It requires us to embrace being messy and wrong, both as individuals and as teams. It requires a tremendous degree of vulnerability and humility. It requires that our commitment to what we’re trying to achieve supersedes our desire to be right, and our fear of seeming incompetent.

Google’s research on high performing teams distinguishes psychological safety as a crucial indicator of a team’s success. Creating an environment where team members can take risks and test each other’s ideas is no longer optional. This isn’t just about building a better workplace experience for employees. This is about navigating together effectively, across the organization, in the face of perplexing uncertainty and complexity.

More Structure, Not Less

A common misconception is that being agile or moving fast requires less structure. But in order to move effectively and cohere the influence of different teams across an organization, some fundamental liberating structures are essential.

Liberating structures create essential clarity. They resemble user manuals, outlining clear guidelines for engagement.

  • Mission: The first important thing to clarify is the mission of each team. What is each team in the organization, whether it’s a new project team or a standing team, sprinting toward? What are they trying to achieve in the near term? Making the mission explicit and sharing it within the organization creates opportunities for organic cross-pollination and iteration. Through this collective vision, every department and division begins to form a network of influencers contributing to the broader purpose of the organization.
  • Roles: After we reach clarity about the WHAT, it’s important to take a moment to clarify HOW we organize around the work. By taking time to understand the accountabilities of each person’s role, the broader tapestry comes together to actually support and cohere toward the broader mission of the team. Moreover, iterating the roles as the mission evolves allows each member of the team to show up and contribute their best.
  • Decision Rights: The most important enabler of agility is how decisions get made. In order to be truly responsive to change, our starting assumption has to be that the people closest to the work have the latest and most accurate information. We distribute authority from the center out onto the edges more, giving them the necessary space to move quickly and respond. In order to do this, clarity around decision making is crucial. It’s not wise to keep all decisions at the center, and it’s not wise to keep all the decisions at the edges. Like most things, there’s a lot of nuance and complexity that determines who makes what decisions. To navigate this complexity effectively, we make explicit what decisions live where, and continually iterate based on feedback.
  • Iteration: Finally, we give every level of the organization clarity on how to iterate this structure continually. Things are going to change, building and breaking is an essential cycle to acknowledge and plan for. When iterating across the organization becomes accessible, structures become liberating rather than restricting.

The other key part of the puzzle is finding ways to bring the people along as things shift and change with purpose. On paper, the speed that’s unlocked through agility sounds inspiring and amazing. In practice, it can be both inspiring and also hard on people. In our own experience, having to metabolize so many changes, so consistently can sometimes feel overwhelming. Support the organization to effectively instigate and metabolize change by:

  • Vulnerability: Role modeling the vulnerability of change. Make it genuinely okay for folks to be wrong, to fail fast, to break things.
  • Reward Systems: Take some time with the tough questions. Organizations are not designed to move this quickly. All of our traditional organizational systems, like performance evaluation, career development, rewards, etc., are designed for relatively static, siloed organizations. As the organization begins to move in a new way, it’s important to take time to consider how people are noticed, rewarded, and developed.
  • Unconscious Bias: As the organization becomes more of a network, organic connections across the organization inspire new opportunities and changes naturally. The shadow side of this organic movement, is the organization’s tendencies around unconscious bias. Equity and inclusion are not inevitable or natural. Because of the broader context of the world we live in, unconscious bias is prevalent even when we have the best of intentions. Creating equitable and inclusive ways to organize and cross-pollinate takes intentional effort. Take time to consider how you build awareness in the organization.
  • Expectations: Finally, and most importantly, make really clear to your entire organization the shift in expectations around behavior. Let them know it’s okay to share imperfect work, to dissent, to ask tough questions. Make it genuinely okay to be honest, to share authentic feedback that supports growth, even and especially when it’s hard to hear.

Trying to achieve agility merely through process and strategy is ultimately futile. The important work takes time. Addressing process without addressing mindsets, behaviors, and structures will always remain only partially effective. This work isn’t horrible or hard, but it is deep and it does require concerted and consistent effort. Unlearning is often a lot messier and more challenging than we prefer. All that being said, the deep change this effort yields is the true manifestation of what it means to be an agile organization.

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