How To Use Agile Principles To Build An Agile Culture
Agile – the very word has a lilt to it, doesn’t it? It makes you think of something that’s light, nimble and unfettered. Like the little flower in the grass, the dandelion’s fluffy white sphere, which takes off with the lightest breeze to proliferate everywhere, agile methodologies have become ubiquitous in the world of business. What started as a radically different approach to software development has now made inroads into a wide range of industries like manufacturing, entertainment, logistics and energy to name a few. For, today’s businesses operate in hyper-dynamic environments that need to be innovative not just about what they sell, but also about how they function in tandem with the latest technology.
In fact, agile has become synonymous with greatly improved success rates, higher quality, faster production and increased productivity. But, is it too good to be true? There’s no denying that it’s proved its mettle over the past three decades – however, not all companies that use agile methodologies have fully embraced its spirit. Many leaders think of Agile as merely a product development process.
Let’s, for a moment, cut back to the origins of agile – the original authors of the Agile Manifesto envisaged it as an entirely different organizational operating system. But, over the years, it’s been narrowed down into merely prescriptive methodologies for software development like Scrum, Kanban or DevOps. Without a holistic understanding of agile, managers often act in conventional ways that are in contrast with the principles of agile and unwittingly undermine their agile teams. In fact, one of the key tenets of Agile is to put people over process – but ironically, Agile itself has been interpreted as a process and is being imposed on people. In short, one set of development processes have merely been replaced by another.
So, how can organizations restore the balance and move away from command-and-control ways of working? How can they build a culture where agile teams can set their own pace, and manage themselves? And, finally how can they use the very principles in the Agile Manifesto to guide their transition into a truly agile culture?
For example, when an opening in the team needs to be filled, the team can be involved in the process, right from the beginning. They can assess what skills need to be enhanced in the team and accordingly decide who the right fit for the opening would be. Another area where teams’ inputs can be solicited is in assessing the manager’s performance. These are just a few examples of how the engagement and levels of ownership within teams can be significantly enhanced.
Companies could also think about drafting their HR policies to encourage teamwork and reward team contributions over individual contributions. Teams must be free to set their goals by themselves, collaborating with management as and when necessary. The team could also be involved in decisions relating to team performance, ratings, and rewards. At the end of the day, if the team is involved in goal setting, performance evaluation and rewarding, the levels of ownership, motivation and productivity will increase considerably.
This shift towards a more participatory decision-making requires a redesign of the organizational operating system. Sure, there are some decisions that need to be made swiftly and unilaterally by the management. But, the rationale behind those decisions need to be clear and transparent. There should also be clarity on who can decide what and which decisions call for a dialog.
On the other end of the spectrum, the team needs to grow and mature in order to take up greater ownership over goals and results. They can do this by reflecting on:
- how they can assess themselves as a unit and set goals accordingly
- what they need from the management in order to reach their goals
- what they can do for themselves by stretching their roles and responsibilities and
- how they can self-manage, resolve internal conflicts and create a conducive work environment by adopting appropriate behaviours.
Initially, it may be a good idea to engage an agile or team coach who can help the team mature into their new roles and responsibilities. With increasing maturity, the team can be more involved in setting its own pace and deciding its priorities. But it can’t happen unless the management steps back and resolves to not swoop-in and fix things at the first hint of trouble.
If they do that, it will erase the team’s confidence in managing themselves, or worse, instill the expectation that the management will anyway fix their mistakes and thereby reduce ownership. Managerial interference may also prevent the team from voicing any concerns they have about achieving their goals, leading to a lack of transparency and trust.