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Self-management without worry: how to make Agile a success

 

We live in breathless times. Technological progress and the digital revolution require organisations to continuously develop themselves and adapt to rapid changes. In this context, it's become clear for more and more organisations - including our own clients - that a traditional organisational structure is increasingly problematic in an age where markets are as volatile, and technological developments are as dynamic, as they are today. The classic hierarchical model that resulted in stable and successful organisations throughout the last century, appears to be insufficiently flexible and adaptive in the context of today's turbulent changes and digital transformations. A yearly update of the business plan is far from sufficient when disruptive innovation by unpredictable tech giants could create new threats and opportunities at any turn.

In order to stay resilient and seize opportunities as soon as they arise, organisations must become more responsive to change. That is why an increasing number of organisations are opting for more decentralised corporate structures: this allows them to adapt in real time whenever the situation asks for it. Inspired by methodologies like Agile and Lean, these organisations are developing more horizontal and flexible governance models and integrating previously separate departments in multidisciplinary teams focused on a single project, sprint, or epic. These kinds of developments are illustrated in detail by prominent contemporary management literature: take a look, for example, at the concepts of Holacracy or the popular books of Frédéric Laloux. There is a whole world of management gurus claiming miraculous self-management successes. Unfortunately, failure is equally, if not more, common.

There is a whole world of management gurus claiming miraculous self-management successes. Unfortunately, failure is equally, if not more, common.

Investment required

An abrupt change into full-scale self-management almost never yields the desired results. Organisations that have attempted such radical transitions often encounter the same, often highly destabilizing, problems. For example, some employees with a broad role in an organisation, like IT architects, might suddenly be invited to five or ten daily stand-up meetings. Or they might see an aimless proliferation of bottom-up Agile sprints, which fail to progress to any coherent goal or vision. The informal teams might not communicate well, leading to inefficient work, or the development of incompatible solutions. Sometimes, the result completely fails to align with the strategy selected by the Board, as Agile sprints start to take on a life and importance of their own, unrelated to the greater picture.

Self-management, in short, is a precarious balance. Organisations want enough of it to be agile when the times require it; but at the same time, they want the Board to receive enough information and retain sufficient control to change direction when circumstances demand it. International speaker and Agile expert John Ferguson Smart explains that successful self-managing organisations must invest additional resources in their teams. Self-management is a recipe that takes three ingredients: competence, trust, and strategic coherence.

Self-management is a recipe that takes three ingredients: competence, trust, and strategic coherence.

1. Competence

Most people would understandably dislike it when their competence is called into question. But when John Ferguson Smart suggests that Agile teams must invest in enhancing the competence of their teams, he doesn't mean that the people are not good enough or don't work hard enough. Rather, he explains, it's important to realise that newly self-managing teams will not instantly obtain the abilities and qualities required to solve complex problems together without instructions from leaders. That is why successful self-managing organisations continuously invest in the personal and professional development and individual leadership qualities of their teams. In doing so, self-managing teams will have the support they need to bear a greater responsibility.

2. Trust

Trust is the second essential ingredient. Agile, of course, first arose in the context of small-scale software development teams, where it became clear how a bottom-up, experimental approach led to excellent results. While all organisations can learn something from this, truly successful applications of Agile hinge on a culture that stimulates experiment (and 'constructive failure'). It's very important that self-managing teams don't feel like they might be reprimanded by management for asserting their independence. Managers must be able to trust that self-managing teams will develop the best solutions on their own accord, even when they exercise far less control than in the past. Investing in a healthy organisational culture and in the communication skills of employees is therefore an important foundation of succesful self-management.

 Investing in a healthy organisational culture and in the communication skills of employees is the important foundation of succesful self-management.

3. Strategic coherence

And then the third factor: strategic coherence. One of the looming dangers associated with self-management is a lack of coherence between the work of the various teams. Should they fail to communicate well enough, this easily results in redundant work or the development of incompatible solutions. And that can be not only a waste of time, but also a huge danger to the strategic execution of the organisation. Coherence between goals, strategies, and the epics will not arise naturally. It can only be facilitated by enhancing transparency, clarifying the strategic goals of the organisation as a whole, and offering a platform where teams can align their work.

Coherence between goals, strategies, and  sprints will not appear effortlessly and naturally.

Developing strategic coherence

Since the very beginning of our company, Bizaline has worked with clients to improve that strategic coherence. And often, that isn't nearly as simple as it sounds. The idea that goals and strategies can simply be formulated and imposed from above without further communication or consensus-building is still dominant in many organisations, even some that nominally aim for self-management. In practice, however, it is essential that there is total clarity all throughout the organisation about vision, goals, strategies, and progress.

A clear strategic framework

For that reason, Agile or self-managing organisations must have a clear strategic framework within which decisions are made. You could use a static model like OGSM for this (perhaps cascaded down to lower-level OGSMs for individual departments or teams), but it is much better to have a dynamic online strategic framework that can be viewed by anyone in the organisation. By using a cloud-based database like Bizaline, you can ensure that the strategic framework is constantly updated with new information and feedback from the Agile or self-managing teams. You will also be able to track exactly how each epic contributes to the strategic goals, enabling the Board to adapt goals and strategies on the go, based on the most recent insights.

Ensure that the strategic framework is constantly updated with new information and feedback from the Agile or self-managing teams.

Conclusion: self-management without worry

In short: by investing in competence (learning and leadership), trust (a safe organisational culture that promotes innovation) and strategic coherence (transparency and working based on real-time feedback), organisations can benefit from self-management and Agile methods. These three ingredients allow organisations to combine the benefits of bottom-up innovation and top-down steering where required. That is how Agile will become a success.

Bizaline supports businesses and governments with the development and execution of ambitious change programmes. Questions, comments or suggestions? We'd love to hear from you. E-mail us at info@bizaline.com!

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Antoinette Wieman

Managing Partner

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