A Dual Approach: Emergent and Intentional Agility-EN

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Gabriel Casarini

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The Challenge of Streamlining Organizations 

In this digital era, agility and the ability to adapt have become essential tools for companies to continue to deliver products and services of value to their customers. Those that chose to ignore this and don’t embrace agility will likely face decline and potential elimination. The challenge is clear, or in many cases the leaders of organizations have identified priorities and changes which should operate. However, many of these organizations fail in the process of transformation and reinventing themselves. 

In his book, “Project to Product“, Mik Kersten points out that the primary reason for failure of a transformation in many organizations can be attributed to the application of outdated processes and frameworks. How has management of the organization evolved to respond to the changes? What levers need to be adjusted to remain effective and profitable?  

A Dual Approach 

A good starting point is to look at the mechanisms that promote agility in small teams. Their size and flexible structure allow agile teams to align with customer needs, transform their internal processes, and quickly create and deliver value. In many cases, these teams manage to push their boundaries and infect the rest of the organization with their transformation.

But in general, for change to spread and expand at other levels—and last over time—a certain push, a strategy, and the (good) will of leaders is needed. We are talking about an emerging and intentional acceleration. Emerging because the best practices of small teams can be replicated and scaled to the rest of the organization; intentional because the process must be guided and led to be truly effective. 

Keys to a Dual Approach 

Establish and Communicate the Plan

The first key is to design a clear and concrete roadmap of the change to be implemented and communicate it to all stakeholders. Leaders must identify the steps of transformation and align the entire organization to begin the walk down the path. Author John Kotter identified eight steps to “Leading Change” (which is, in fact, the title of his book):

  1. Create Urgency
  2. Form a Powerful Coalition
  3. Create a Vision for Change
  4. Communicate the Vision
  5. Remove Obstacles
  6. Create Short-Term Wins
  7. Build on the Change
  8. Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture

He also points out that the transition is not easy, and that it is important to manage the expectations of the teams, stakeholders, and managers. 

A major change entails using a more decentralized decision-making model. Agile frameworks move power and decision-making away from the upper levels of hierarchy and put them in the hands of the teams closest to the action. This approach is especially useful for decisions that require context and information that only the teams involved know, decisions that need to be made frequently, and especially for decisions that have a time limit. Agility is about reducing bureaucracy, minimizing delays, innovating, and increasing effectiveness. When decisions are made from a high-level, the teams are left to figure out how to make it work – causing delays, less time to innovate, and reduced effectiveness.

Value Streams > Projects

Another key is to stop thinking about projects and start identifying value streams—to build fluid end-to-end structures around products and services. Unlike projects, which are assembled and disarmed, teams that are organized into value flows persist and have much longer life cycles. For example, in the case of software, it is common for the team that does the development to also take on the implementation and maintenance of the product. Continuity and stability. 

It is usually necessary to integrate several technical solutions that are developed by autonomous teams working in parallel into each value flow. Coordinating and synchronizing the work of these teams poses significant challenges. One option to address them is adopting a scaling framework such as SAFe®, which fuses the best of Agile, Lean, and DevOps into a single model. 

Condition Sine Qua Non: Technical Excellence 

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design improves agility. It is impossible to consolidate a value flow-oriented approach without a technological base that is sustainable and agile in equal parts. In the case of software, evolutionary architectures try to precisely mitigate this problem with a series of practices and principles for designing and building adaptive and easy-to-maintain systems. 

Unfortunately, in most companies, applications that interact with customers, and also those that form the core of the business, were developed before modern architectures were invented. Because of this, they suffer from rigidity and offer little flexibility to innovate and integrate new functionalities. 

Adapting and renewing the technological foundation we already have (what we call legacy) so that it doesn’t interfere with team agility is a major challenge. At a minimum, the cost-benefit analysis should include the following factors: the volume and frequency of demand for new functionalities, the cost of maintaining the current solution, the degree of data fragmentation, and the risk of disruption of services to the business. 

SAFe’s Lean Portfolio Management Course 

Since value streams are fundamental pieces of delivery that function as chains around which teams should be organized, it is essential that the entire collaborative network is perfectly aligned with the overall strategy of the business and that it is also flexibly financed. SAFe’s Lean Portfolio Management competency proposes mechanisms and best practices to ensure alignment and agile management of the service and product portfolios. 

To thrive (and even survive) in this climate of dizzying change, it is necessary for organizations to adopt a culture of continuous improvement and learning at all levels. This is a fundamental pillar of agility. It does not only mean continually reflecting and acting to improve what already exists, but also to ensure the creation, acquisition, and transfer of knowledge adjusts practices that allow the integration of new ideas. In short, it is about fostering a culture based on experimentation, curiosity, entrepreneurship, and the constant challenge to established rules.

In this article we have addressed a complex and monumental problem. Many organizations understand that they must reinvent themselves and be more agile to continue to thrive, but few clearly see how to address transformation. An emerging, yet intentional approach can serve to initiate an internal exercise of reflection. And that’s already a good starting point. 

— Gabriel

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Picture of Gabriel Casarini

Gabriel Casarini

Gabriel Casarini
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