Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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Are you faking or forcing agile?

I’m currently working with an IT team in Australia to help them evolve their culture so that they have greater flexibility in the way they think and act. Kicking off the 2-day culture definition session, the CIO said: ‘Other organisations like to fake or force agile, we’re going to do neither of those things. We’re empowering you to create something that you can bring your best self to and then find smarter ways to deliver value more quickly to our customers.’

It was a refreshing thing to hear, but it immediately (well, once I’d finished the two days of delivery!) got me thinking about what that means in practice and how I could help others understand what doing agile well looks like.

So I thought I’d have a crack at that this week.

I talk about agile a lot at conferences because a) that’s what people want and b) that’s what people think they want. They want to deliver value quickly to the customer, they want to do more with less, they want high engagement scores and they want to be an employer of choice.

The fact is, while they may want these things and the benefits that come with them, simply stating that they’re going agile or copying someone else’s approach isn’t going to work.

Faking agile involves saying things that make staff, customers and shareholders think that the organisation is taking a new approach, without addressing the fundamental issues that held them back in the first place. These include:

  • Lots of people are saying 'we're going agile'

  • Members of the executive photographed in front of a Kanban board

  • New values (see forcing agile below) in large letters on the walls

  • Implementing an open plan office layout

  • One (or all) of ping pong table, bean bags, quirky meeting room names

  • Talking about customer value, yet persisting with endless bureaucracy

  • Talking about 'scaling' agile despite it not working anyway.

Forcing agile involves doing things that they think will demonstrate that the organisation is more agile. At least there’s action here, it’s just not always helpful. These include:

  • Rolling out Scrum training... in a waterfall way

  • Implementing new ways of working

  • Restructuring to ‘encourage collaboration’

  • Changing the names of teams

  • Consultant-led culture 'change' initiatives (that include telling staff what the vision and values are)

  • Forcing staff to sign new 'agile' contracts

  • Using agile coaches to train people on Slack/Jira/MS Teams etc.

McKinsey frequently cites copy-pasting agile as a major cultural flaw, saying in one report, ‘Emulating someone else's model without a clear vision and deep understanding of agile can cause significant harm.’ 

Funnily enough, the organisations that many seek to emulate (Spotify, Netflix, Atlassian etc.) would never say that they’re agile or try to fake or force it. Instead they take the time to define – with their staff – the culture required to be successful and to continually evolve to stay relevant and deliver value and a great experience to customers and stakeholders.

The staff (not the managers) then create the structures and teams necessary to deliver on the promises that they’ve made and build a reputation for getting things done.

McKinsey also points out: ‘Agile succeeds when people – including leaders – possess the right set of skills and mindsets.’ And changing someone’s mindset cannot be done overnight. 

However, by involving people in the definition of the new culture, getting them to agree targets with their teams, showing them how to communicate and collaborate in different ways and having senior leaders who can role model what agility looks like on a daily basis, it can happen. Then, and only then, will organisations be on their way to creating something that’s more agile. Unfortunately, however, most have already given up before they get to that stage.

So where does your organisation sit when it comes to agile, are they faking it or forcing it? Why not share this blog and see what others think?!

My next ‘agile’ talk can be heard at the Getting Sh!t Done events…