Lean Thinking

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We have been looking at organisational alignment patterns over the last few posts. We have covered the two common ones - bottom up and top down. Today I'll look at a far less common one - Middle Out. As the name implies, this pattern occurs when change is being pushed by the middle of the organisation - middle management.

Actually uncommon is an understatement, middle out is so rare that I have never seen it in the wild. It's still worth looking at though, as winning over middle management is key to the success of the top down and bottom up patterns we looked at previously. By looking at why middle out is so uncommon, it can help us to understand what prevents change from occurring at this level in large organisations, and to see what we can do to change that. What we are talking about here is the phenomenon of the frozen middle.

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Last time we looked at the bottom up pattern. Today we'll look at its inverse - the top down pattern. In this case, the top levels of the organisation want agile but the levels below them are resisting (again, if they aren't... great, but that's a different pattern). This can be a tricky pattern as senior execs may want agile but often don't know much about what it is and what it means for their organisation. With most agile adoptions, you need to spend a lot of time educating your detractors, with this pattern you may need to spend as much time educating your supporters as well.

They probably see agile as a delivery methodology and expect it to be implemented that way. They don't see it as a major cultural change at all levels (including theirs). Tread carefully. Don't lose them. It's very easy to go in too hard, making it seem like too big a change too quickly. Senior managers got where they are by successfully managing risk. They tend to be quite risk averse. They will want to see a strategy that manages organisational risk during the transition.

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Today I'll start looking at organisational alignment patterns. The first thing I should do is explain what the heck I mean by that. In this context, organisational alignment is which parts of the organisation are supporting an agile adoption. This is a really key thing to know because where the support for agile is coming from will seriously affect how agile can be introduced, how far it can go before it meets resistance, the type of resistance it can meet and so on. Having worked as a coach in a number of companies, I have found that organisations tend to align around agile in a number of fairly standard ways. I call these standard ways alignment patterns. There are two dimensions to an alignment pattern - vertical (which layers of the business are aligned) and horizontal (which parts of the business are aligned).

If you can pick which alignment pattern you are dealing with, that gives you some insight into the sorts of issues you will experience when managing an agile transition. Knowing your alignment pattern lets you pick the right adoption pattern to get the best success. Essentially, different alignment patterns work well with certain adoption patterns while blocking others. Pick the adoption pattern that matches your alignment pattern and things will go smoother than picking one that is incompatible. Or if you want to use a particular adoption pattern but it's incompatible with the current alignment pattern, then you may need to change the organisational alignment before proceeding. Anyway. I'll talk more about this mixing of patterns later. First I'll start by describing the basic alignment patterns, starting with the most common - the bottom up pattern.

16 September 2014

Agile Patterns

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Last post I briefly mentioned a patterns based approach to agile adoption within enterprises. I should probably spend a little time explaining what I mean by that. The first question, of course, is what do I mean by a pattern?

Back a few years, when things were still made by hand, a craftsman who wanted to make a set of things that were the same each time would make one reference piece, measured and constructed very accurately, and use it to create more pieces that looked the same. That reference piece would be carefully labelled with instructions on which way to align wood grains (or whatever was appropriate) and which techniques to use to construct it. This reference piece was called a pattern. There was even a specialised skill within workshops called patternmaker, with its own set of specialised (and very accurate) tools. So a pattern is a template or a guide to doing something. It's a way to reliably and consistently make copies of something.

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