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Living Agility: A journey to an agile organization

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Published:
August 14, 2020
Reading Time:
10 minutes
Lynn Hunt
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

Agile organizations are being touted as the answer to VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions. VUCA certainly seems an apt description for much of what happens in business today. Responding to it with traditional strategies, structures, processes, skills and technologies is no longer effective. This is mainly because older business models, while they provide stability and a level of certainty, tend to be bureaucratic and simply do not have the speed and adaptability required in a world that is digitized and technology driven.

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that interest in agile is taking over the world. What started as a set of values and principles for a group of developers in 2001 is now applied or is at least being considered across multiple organizations.

However, surveys are showing that despite agile transformation being on the list of top priorities for executives, and despite general consensus that employees should be working in agile ways, as few as 10% of companies have applied it on an organization-wide base. At best, it is limited to a few teams or functions.

Why is this, and is there perhaps a place for freelance management consultants to assist?

The trend towards agile organizations

The original impetus for the agile movement was that IT projects were obsolete before their completion. Either the client’s business requirements had changed or, worse, the project had gaps or misconceptions that were not picked up until the final product was delivered.

This experience is being repeated in multiple industries. One organization described the need to change its products every two years. But with development taking 18 months, the newest product was obsolete almost from the day it was delivered.

Project management - traditional vs agile

The traditional waterfall project management approach decides on the end product right at the start, then executes it step by step in a linear fashion, until release to the customer. It has little space for changes, iterations, learning as you go and pivoting as new needs emerge.

Agile, on the other hand, involves continuous iteration and testing. Large projects are broken into smaller pieces, handled by small teams, and working modules are delivered along the way. The original concept may change significantly during the development process. Apparent failures become immediate learnings, which accelerate and reduce the cost of the final product. The premise is that quality is better if defects are resolved early on. It is most valuable where there are real and complex problems, where the solutions are not clear at the start and where innovation is required.

Agile organizations are faster than their competition, and measure in weeks and months rather than years.

Agile philosophies and principles

At its most simple, the agile approach is reflected in

  • Obsession with innovating and delivering customer value
  • Work being delivered by small, self-organizing teams
  • Collaboration in an interactive network

The top strategic priority in an agile organization is innovation and thinking that delivers customer value. Any activity that does not add customer value is questioned. The focus is on outcomes (like profitability or customer loyalty), not outputs (like lines of code or the number of new products).

The team is the primary unit of the organization and decision-making and accountability are largely devolved to this level. There is free flow of ideas and feedback internally, collaboration with other networked teams and close contact with customers, without the traditional barriers of hierarchies and silos.

Cycle times or sprints are short, there are regular super-short scrum meetings or events and progress is tracked on Kanban or status boards, so teams can quickly fix errors or change direction. Team members evaluate each other during retro meetings or use apps to do this. They are expected to be entrepreneurial in approach, to learn quickly and to have role flexibility.

Managers manage team dynamics and productivity, not tasks or individuals. Their role is to give ongoing, granular feedback and coaching for development. They are there to trust and empower people, not command and control them.

Having direction and strategy from the top of the organization is crucial. A clear vision and shared purpose create stability. The executive role also is to give attention to flexible allocation of resources, identification of new opportunities and building organizational capability.

New technologies are not seen as disruptive. They are used as enablers and facilitate collaboration, transparency and quick and continuous decision-making.

There's a big BUTto all of this: It is clearly a tall order to expect teams to manage themselves and managers to give up control, while seamlessly introducing new processes and technologies.

Bringing in an outside expert may help to make it happen.

“People are what make companies agile, not approaches, methodologies or tools.”

The journey to an agile organization

Unless you are a Netflix or Spotify that were born as agile organizations, agile transformation is a journey that will require patience, risk tolerance and commitment.

The trick is to apply agile principles to achieve agility. This means having a clear vision of the end goal, breaking down the overall plan into smaller manageable parts, experimenting and adjusting, aligning processes and monitoring outcomes. Early teams must be tested just as for any prototype, to show the way for the ones that follow.

Some routine functions such as accounting and plant maintenance may not need the whole approach, but they too must develop agile mindsets and give high priority to the requests of agile teams.

All of this will not be plain sailing. There is a need for experienced and talented agile practitioners who will guide new teams and set up contingency plans for unexpected breakdowns. This may be the place for experienced freelance consultants to train, coach and embed new ways of working.

Can freelance management consultants help you with agility?

Companies are having to deal with VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions) whether they decide to use agile processes or not. Companies that don't keep pace will simply not survive.

The lifespan of S&P 500 companies is a good example. In 1965, the average time for a company to remain in the top 500 was 33 years. Today, it is about 14 years. Only 10% of these companies survived from 1983 to 2013 and half of the current top companies will be replaced within the next 10 years.

agile organizations, Living Agility: A journey to an agile organization

It's not that they haven't tried to adapt their strategy and organizational structure. One study found that 82% had attempted a redesign, but only 23% were successful.

Changing a traditionally structured and managed organization is not an easy task. This is largely because creating an agile organization requires an enormous culture change. It is probably true to say that, "People are what make companies agile, not approaches, methodologies or tools."

Culture change is the domain of management consultants, so it is no wonder that they will be needed now.

While large consulting firms can obviously be effective, freelancers are themselves flexible and agile. They can quickly move in and out of organizations as they are needed. And they are readily available on online freelance platforms.

Some will assist with the techniques associated with agile organizations, but most will be addressing the fundamental changes in approach that are required.

The online consulting marketplace for agile coaches

The problem with agile, as with any relatively new approach, is that everyone is suddenly an expert! Anyone who has read a few books or applied a few techniques in scrums, sprints or stand-up meetings is now in the online consulting marketplace, offering agile coaching services.

This is definitely a time when you should be checking credentials and getting references from previous clients.

One of the benefits of using a freelance platform like Consultport is that this step has been done for you. Consultants are pre-screened to establish who they are and what they really can do. Clients are also pre-screened, so consultants have some protection too. Then the two are matched. Clients can choose the consultant that best suits them, and consultants can choose the work that they can best deliver.

As a bonus, a freelance platform like Consultport also undertakes quality assurance, project management and administration tasks, thus freeing up the client and the consultant to get on with the task at hand.

Is agile transformation worth the effort required to achieve it? Agility sounds like an obvious goal. It isn’t easy to achieve, but there is an online consultant marketplace with people who can help.

The question is whether it is worth the effort?

Well, if research findings are correct, agile organizations achieve accelerated time to market, with better quality and lower risk. They have faster responses to changing conditions and customer demands as well as higher team productivity and morale. And they score highly for achieving strategic goals - this is a predictor of long-term performance.