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Big Agile Requires Strong Leadership—Just Not the Kind We’re Used To

By Jeff Dalton, President & CEO of Broadsword

Everywhere we look, including every CMMI and Agile appraisal I’ve done in the last decade, technology leaders in large companies are asking about “scaling agility.” 

But it’s the wrong question. They should be asking how to scale self-organization.

For centuries, businesses have deployed a proven, hierarchical, low-trust, command-and-control model with its roots traced back to the successful Roman military machine; it is still taught today in MBA programs from Cambridge to Ann Arbor. It’s a model that is in professional DNA, while self-organization, a foundational characteristic of agility, is absent.

In recent years, many businesses have been attempting to transition from traditional hierarchies to self-organizing models based on the “rules of nature,” a system that more closely resembles the controlled chaos of the natural world. They start with the premise that humans naturally demonstrate certain behavior patterns, and it makes sense to leverage these, rather than re-program them to fit into more traditional hierarchical models. Agile frameworks like Scrum, as well as self-organizing performance models like the Agile Performance Holarchy, are good examples of this.

These models invert the hierarchy, transforming leaders into stewards of a self-organizing behavioral architecture, with team roles and accountabilities dispersed throughout the organization in a way that allows people go about the messy process of self-organization and improved performance. In an agile world, team members are empowered to make important decisions within the context of the behavioral architecture without having to ask permission from a supervisor or manager.

Creating Culture Change for Agile
But don’t expect all mangers, or the eager graduates from MBA schools, to come along willingly. To ask them to change is to ask them to transform themselves after a lifetime of learning how to succeed in a hierarchical world.

Tomorrow’s leaders, and the schools and corporate mentoring programs that train them, will need to transition their mission from that of command-and-control task manager to one of an architect and operator of a self-organizing infrastructure. This includes changes in culture, training, and performance monitoring with a bias towards high-trust, peer accountability and self-governance. Two models that can help new leaders prepare for the future are the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI)® V2.0 and the Agile Performance Holarchy (APH).
  • CMMI V2.0 provides guidance for leaders to consider while implementing improvements to organizational process systems, and currently contains twenty Practice Areas, with three that specifically apply to solving this problem: Governance (GOV), Process Management (PCM), and Implementation Infrastructure (II).  These three Practices Areas each contain practices that can help leaders formulate a plan, as well as develop and deploy a system, for a new, self-organizing operating model. 
  • The Agile Performance Holarchy is a leadership model that provides a definition of a self-organizing agile architecture, with objectives, desired outcomes, and set of behavioral guiderails for agile leaders and teams seeking to master self-organization and large-scale agility.  The APH currently contains six Performance Circles that address Leadership, Craftsmanship, Providing Infrastructure, Affirming Quality, Teaming, and Envisioning Solutions. 

Why Agile Matters

According to the CMMI Institute, over seventy percent of organizations who have achieved a CMMI rating in the last three years describe at least some of their projects as “agile.” This is a dramatic increase over previous years that has deep-rooted cultural and operational implications. There are good reasons for leaders to transition to self-organizing models, but significant cultural change, especially among leaders, will need to take place to ensure success.
  • Agile frameworks reduce the cost of failure. It is conventional wisdom in the technology industry that failure is inevitable, with many companies seeing failure rates as high as 70 percent.  Research conducted by organizations such as the Project Management Institute and the Software Engineering Institute has consistently confirmed high failure rates, so it makes sense to seek solutions that assume failure, not success, and to simply reduce its cost.   All agile frameworks, with their incremental and iterative development model, support the idea of “fail-fast.”
  • Failure is not just an option; it’s a requirement. A foundational premise of agile is to acknowledge that failure is normal, and we should plan to fail fast and learn as much as we can.  This reduces a project’s cost while allowing teams to redirect efforts toward a more successful approach through the use of experimentation, retrospectives, and short, timeboxed iterations. Quality professionals will recognize this as an application of W. Edwards Deming’s “plan-do-check-act” framework of continuous improvement applied in short iterations.
  • Agile methods deliver business value to end-users more quickly. Value is delivered more quickly with an iterative and incremental delivery approach due to low-value features being de-prioritized or discarded, freeing up valuable resources to focus on the high-priority needs of the customer.
  • Self-organization pushes decision-making downward, freeing leaders to focus on strategy. For decades, the technology industry has explored ways to push decisions downward. Agile frameworks finally provide a model that can make that a reality, if only leaders are willing to accept their role as enablers rather than task managers. A successful agile team requires minimal over-sight, makes day-to-day operational decisions, collaborates with business customers, and delivers business value without the need for continuous management intervention.
  • Agile complements and often NEEDs important IT industry models in order to scale organizationally. If CMMI®, ISO 9001, and the PMBOK® Guide are models we use, agile is something we are. For example, CMMI has a perspective of defining what needs to occur for a product or service to be successfully and consistently delivered, and to improve the process at an organizational level, while agile values describe why we take those actions. If adopted in this way, rather as only a marketing tool to receive a rating, CMMI makes agile stronger and more effective.
Big Agile is Coming

Since 2016, General Motors, the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Fiat Chrysler, and other large companies have begun to adopt agile within their software organizations. Along with their combined $100 billion IT budgets, they are bringing their biases, bureaucracies, documentation, and leadership infrastructure with them. What will be the effect on the agile community?

“Big Agile” requires leadership at all levels, just not the kind we are used to. Simply working with an agile coach to implement well-known ceremonies is not enough. Metaphorically, the leadership “operating system” needs an upgrade.

In today’s corporate hierarchies where command-and-control structures, low trust, long-term planning, and risk management reign supreme, the skills required to thrive and survive are anything but agile. This leaves agile teams to push the culture uphill, leading to unpredictable results once business operations expand beyond the boundaries of the core agile team. This creates a “cultural type-mismatch” due to information technology, operations, marketing, infrastructure, business development, sales, and end-users not being on the same cultural page.

Performing agile ceremonies and techniques without self-organization isn’t agile at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with adopting ceremonies and techniques identified as being agile, and many companies have found some success with that, but the power of agile values and their associated frameworks grows exponentially once self-organization is perfected.

An “Agile Transformation” where the scope is hiring an agile coach, and the adoption of basic ceremonies or techniques, is doomed to failure. Agile isn’t a process or a framework like scrum, XP, or SAFe. It’s a collaborative, transparent, and self-organizing culture where the operational model is high-trust, empirical, and calibrated for relentless improvement in the pursuit of high quality and increased speed to value. Jim Bouchard, author of The Sensei Leader, sums it up for leaders: “Don’t even attempt to transform your organization until you can transform yourself.”

Jeff Dalton is CEO of Broadsword Solutions Corporation. He is a Certified SCAMPI Lead Appraiser, CMMI Instructor, Certified Agile Assessor, author, and keynote speaker. His new book, Great Big Agile: an OS for Agile Leaders (© 2018), is now available on Amazon.
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