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Don't Let Agility Become a Dead-End Resolution

The new year is well upon us, which makes this a great time to think about improvements to make in both our personal and professional lives. A commitment to lose weight and get fit comes to mind. 

Achieving Agility and Exercise Goals in the New Year

When the new year begins, and people start to focus on positive changes they want to make, I think about the clients we work with at MATRIX and their hopes for producing the benefits that come with agility. They know they want to react to change more quickly, to invest their money wisely, and to satisfy their customers with useful, high-quality products and services. But it all begins with change – learning, practicing, and internalizing new behaviors to gain the desired benefits. And change is hard. In our work at MATRIX, we see groups approach agile transformation from their own perspectives. 

Here are three dangerous camps I see people falling into, with tips on how each one can work through change:

  1. Those who want someone else to implement the change for them. MATRIX Agile Coaches lend their experience in helping organizations make mind shifts and deal with the rigors of organizational change along with consulting on tactical methods used to drive the transformation. However, we encounter the occasional organization that places accountability for change outside of themselves. The thinking is that the transformation is the responsibility of those hired outside of the organization. 

    It’s understandable that the “do it for me” organization exists. These cultures are usually driven by fear. Even controlled risks are avoided for fear of being labeled a failure. Having someone else to blame if the transformation doesn’t yield the desired results is comforting. 

    We wish it were as easy as appointing a consultant to force change. Let’s go back to the New Year resolution to lose weight and work out. When is the last time you were able to get someone to lose weight for you or gotten stronger by someone going to the gym for you? Just like eating healthier and building strength, change starts with doing the work. Coaches provide the blueprint for agility; for example, we break down silos, focus on fostering collaboration and communication, and prioritize work based on desired outcomes. We guide and serve as a sounding board for accountability. However, in the end, the people in the organization must implement the principles for them to have any true and lasting effect. 

    The advice for this camp is to get buy-in at every level of the organization for controlled experimentation. This type of change typically starts at the highest levels with leaders who will model that it is okay to learn. Notice if Agile Coaches are sending out invitations and hosting most events. If they are, appoint sponsors in your organization who will drive the transformation. One day you will be on your own and will have to make decisions for yourself, just like you do when you are sticking to a diet. There won’t be anyone standing over your shoulder to make you put that doughnut down; the choice will be yours.
     
  2. Those who procrastinate their change efforts. Imagine that you put the diet off. You say, “I’ll make better choices later.” Now the class reunion is two weeks away and you want to drop 50 pounds. You reach for the crash diet. You search for a foolproof, step-by-step plan – a 100 percent guarantee because you don’t have time to waste. This mirrors organizations who believe that achieving agility is simply a process that can be implemented. There is a right way out there, and the quicker we get the right way in place, the more quickly we can follow it and see results.

    For this organization, it’s important to understand the roots of procrastination, which typically include a fear of failure, a fear of success, or a belief in perfectionism such that everything must be fully in place and figured out before even starting.

    Navigating Distributed Teams and Open Workspaces

    The advice for this group is to accept that cultural shifts will be necessary for improvement, as achieving agility involves embracing certain values and principles that might differ from current norms. Know that this is a journey that takes time. Think about your diet – you didn’t gain the weight overnight so what makes you think you are going to lose it overnight? Seldom does a transformation take a neat, linear progression with every answer known up front. Get to a point where you can gauge that you’ve done just enough planning before starting and the rest will have to be practiced. There is no number of posters and marketing collateral about how great Agile is that will take the place of learning by doing. And most importantly, don’t give up when the going gets rough. Improvement attempts shine a spotlight on any impediment to progress. Understanding and addressing barriers to progress will allow for the next level of growth.
     
  3. Those who want to change but don’t know where to start. Maybe you want to lose weight and get fit, but you are doing nothing about it. You have a good idea of what you shouldn’t eat, and you know that sitting on the couch for hours isn’t all that great for you, but the thought of changing your eating habits and exercising is overwhelming. Many organizations think of their transformation in the same way: there is so much that needs to change; how am I going to implement such a big effort? How do I tackle such a massive undertaking?

    The answer is to use the lean-agile principle of building incrementally and iteratively. Find an area of your organization with a problem to solve. Break your effort down into smaller pieces and milestones. Determine what to measure to gauge success. Build in regular checkpoints for introspection and learning.

Do you see your organization in any of the groups above? If so, hopefully understanding the root causes of what might be impeding an evolution toward agility proves helpful. Change is difficult but with some commitment and intentionality, it can be done. Happy New Year!

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