Lean Thinking

27 November 2018

Agility Culture

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Over the last few posts we have looked at the four key things that organisations need to do in order to become agile - Distributed Decision Making, Execution Efficiency, Measure what Matters, Inspect and Adapt. In each of those I make brief mention of an "agile culture" that enables them. It's now time to take a deeper look at that agile culture and see what it is.

What is an agile culture? To me the culture is a set of organisational behaviours that enable agility to flourish. If you think about two garden beds - one has poor soil, little sun and get no attention. The other has good soil, plenty of water and lots of sun. If you plant identical plants into each bed, which one will do better (and it's probably best not to ask my wife about flannel flowers at this point - a lovely Australian native plant that flourishes on neglect in rocks by the side of the road but curls up its toes and dies when lovingly tended in our garden)? Agile culture is the well tended garden bed that lets agility thrive. All too often we see agility struggling - thin and weedy, straggly yellow leaves. That's because the culture wasn't there to support it.

 So what makes an agile culture? I have come up with five elements - 

  • Supportive leadership
  • Focus on flow
  • Learning organisation
  • Enable people
  • Enhance safety 

Supportive leadership flips the leadership hierarchy. People do not work for their leaders, the leaders support their people. It becomes a supporting line based off a two way social contract rather than a traditional reporting line. Supportive leadership enables empowerment by providing people with the support they need to take ownership and make decisions. You can't just give empowerment, it needs to be accepted and people will not accept it if they do not feel supported.

Focus on flow switches the organisation from a focus on resource utilisation - keeping people 100% busy - to a focus on delivering value. Being busy and being productive are two very different things. We have all had very busy days where we achieved exactly nothing. When people are 100% busy, they are usually juggling multiple tasks, being blocked by other people who are juggling multiple tasks, and reporting to stakeholders on why the multiple tasks they are juggling are not done yet. It's demoralising, dehumanising and just generally sucks. A focus on flow, through things like limiting WIP and streamlining process, allows people (and organisations) to flourish.

A learning organisation is an organisation that values continuous learning. Not just training for people but embedding learning into everything they do. Is that new feature working in the market? is our strategy working? Are our current budget settings correct? Are our processes current? A learning organisation frames pretty much everything as a hypothesis, then sets out to prove or disprove that hypothesis. Most organisations shy away from real learning because it might prove that the CEO's pet project that they have been pushing for the past 5 years at great expense might not ever work. Or the product manager's sales projections are hopelessly optimistic. Or that estimate the team gave is orders of magnitude low. Most organisations avoid learning because it might show that someone was wrong. Embracing learning requires courage.

Enabling people means paying more than lip service to the "people are our greatest asset" clause that is in every organisation's value statement. Developing people should be part of the organisation's DNA. The organisation should judge its success not on minimising costs or getting more out of people by working them harder, but on how well they allow people to grow and develop. A good start is to reserve the word "resources" for printers and laptops. People are not resources. The aim of the organisation should be to help its people become the best they can be. It's not just good for the people, it's good for the organisation as well. Who will get more done? A building full of overworked wage slaves? Or a building full of empowered, enabled, motivated people who are supported to grow and learn? I know who my money is on.

Enhancing safety is the bedrock on which the other elements of agile culture sit. Without safety, the others will struggle. What do I mean by safety? Safety is the ability to speak up without fear of punishment or censure. It is the ability to challenge without fear of reprisals. It is the ability to put forward an idea without fear of ridicule. It is the ability to deliver bad news without fearing for your career. Without safety, an organisation cannot develop supportive leadership. In a fear-based culture no-one supports others. They monitor, check and manage. Without safety an organisation can't focus on flow. How can you optimise when everyone is afraid to speak? Without safety an organisation cannot learn. Who would be brave enough to put forward a testable hypothesis in a fear-based culture? What happens if it fails? Is my job on the line? Better to play it safe and just deliver stuff with some vague vanity metrics to show how great I am. Without safety we can't enable our people. In a culture of fear people retreat into shells. They don't grow.

By embracing the five aspects of agility culture, an organisation can construct that well tended garden bed that allows agility to flourish. Even better than that, these five things allow people to flourish. An organisation that has supportive leaders. That focuses on getting stuff done. That learns and improves. That really enables and grows its people. That has a culture built out of safety and trust, where people feel able to speak up, suggest, challenge and learn. That sounds like an awesome place to work. If you want to attract and retain great people, and to grow them into even greater people, this is a good place to start.

A great agility culture allows agility to flourish, people to flourish and through its people, it allows organisations to flourish. Over the next few posts I'll dig deeper into each of the five elements of agility culture to look at how we can get them started.

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