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  • Dr Kiran Chitta

People make companies agile, not methodologies





‘Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.’ Karl Popper


It can be risky to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to the development of agility, even if it is marketed as 'agile'. In this post I will share some reflections on rigid or dogmatic approaches to organizational change and agility.


I prefer to avoid being dogmatic about any methodology that relates to organizations, whether it is about being ‘agile’ or anything else. A radical methodology for running a business along principles that are close to agile, and is regularly associated with agility, is ‘holacracy’. Holacracy is a method that requires complete decentralization of leadership and governance - built on principles of 'self-organization'.


In a holacracy, decision-making authority is distributed throughout a network of self-organizing teams which may also use a form of agile-working practices. This version of holacracy seems to be an extreme form of ‘adhocracy’, a term which has been in use for years to describe informal and loosely structured organizational cultures.


Zappos, an Internet retail business that implemented a structure in which there were no longer any managers, was reported by some sources to create a lengthy period of stress and confusion for employees. According to some sources, this adversely affected the engagement and retention of key staff. Zappos has published its own insights into its learnings from implementing holacracy. The business is quite honest about the fact that over several years there has been a great deal of adaptation of the approach, so that it can work in their context (https://www.zapposinsights.com/about/holacracy).


This is a warning to businesses who are attempting to implement radically new ways of working during the pandemic. The Zappos example suggests that businesses need to avoid being so rule-bound in their adoption of exciting-sounding methodologies, that they do not consider adequately the operational realities of the business and needs of employees. Beware the management consultancies and gurus who are puritanical about the methodology they happen to be selling.


Agility requires judgement on the specific ways in which each organization should realign itself to the demands of a fast-paced and hyper-competitive digital economy. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it seems sensible to move towards looser, more agile structures in stages. Agile methods in product development or project delivery also need to be reinforced by an agile organization design, and agile leadership.


In a recent project that I worked on, a redesign required a group of people to move towards agile project working, which necessitated regular changes to each person’s project responsibilities. This was a group of people who had hitherto been working in a very traditional line-managed structure, with fixed roles and responsibilities, for many years.


People in this group initially felt very uncomfortable about letting go of hierarchy. Agile working meant relinquishing their own dedicated desks. It meant having a permanent job but no permanent role, having no 'line manager' and having accountabilities that were defined primarily in relation to each project’s deliverables. People felt they were moving from a relatively predictable (albeit predictably high) workload to a fluctuating workload with extreme peaks and unproductive troughs. All this needed a period of testing, piloting, and learning what worked, so that the people impacted by the agile structure, and agile way of working, could make it sustainable. A loosening up of traditional line-management structures, rather than being an overnight success applauded by team-members, can be challenging to implement well.


It is possible that many organizations have been pushed towards more agile ways of working recently, partly due to continuing lockdowns. It might be tempting during extended periods of remote working to implement process changes, or new ways of working, without the right degree of participation from those who are affected. The promise of exciting new methodologies powered by AI and automation tools could dramatically accelerate innovation, product development and agility. These tools and methods still need to be introduced with sensitivity to the realities of the people doing the work.


It makes sense always to be a little patient and flexible in how new workplace practices and methodologies are implemented. Yes, there is a need for agility, speed, efficiency, and to maximize performance. Some changes are well-intended but can end up increasing peoples' job-complexity and workloads.


Right now, there is a significant need also to support people, giving them a little room to manage their own energy at a very surreal time, rather than to keep ratcheting up the pressure, to go from one project sprint to the next without adequate pause. If mental health data, and burnout symptoms that clients and colleagues report to me on a daily basis are anything to go by, the psychological realities of the pandemic requires leaders to prioritise better, and all of us to be gentle both with ourselves, and each other. That is important for those on several 'frontlines' and for those who lead and enable them.


What recent examples have you seen of the implementation of structures, and ways of working that are deemed to enable speed and agility? What worked well and what did not work so well – and why?


See also -


Bernstein, E., Bunch, J., Canner, N., & Lee, M. (2016). Beyond the holacracy hype. Harvard Business Review, July-August 2016. Available at https://hbr.org/2016/07/beyond-the-holacracy-hype. Viewed August 15th, 2017.


Cameron, K.S. & Quinn, R.E. (1999). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture. Revised Edition (2006). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. pp. 43–45.


Robertson, B.J. (2007). Organization at the leading edge: Introducing holacracy. Integral Leadership Review, 7(3). Available at http://integralleadershipreview.com/5328-feature-article-organization-at-the-leading-edge-introducing-holacracy-evolving-organization/


My books are available on Amazon:


Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Strive-Unlocking-Agility-Unleashing-Digital/dp/1789014794


Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Change-Agility-Leadership-Transformation-Pursuit/dp/149750547X


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