For over a decade I have been introduced to very large companies who are wanting some kind of agile/lean program to make them more competitive in the marketplace. Unfortunately, I hear the same thing over and over again… “Now is not the right time for Agile because we are too busy. There is already too much change going on. There is too much work in flight…”
At first, I thought this was just a factor of Larman’s Laws and an excuse to maintain the status quo. However, I have come to believe this is actually part of the reinforcing loop, based on our underlying beliefs about ourselves and the work we undertake.
Most managers view their company in mechanistic terms. This is a kind of systems thinking, but it is based on cybernetics built by engineers working on computers. Most managers believe their system has inputs that are processed in a linear form. And that outputs are produced as deliverables. The process in between is largely static but has built-in many options for edge cases and variations.
This mechanistic thinking works as long as the variation of the inputs remains within a manageable threshold and the speed of change in deliverables (after they are started) changes slowly.
As a side note, agility is really about reducing the cost of change, but you can’t do change cheaply with large amounts of work in progress.
For example, a system where there are yearly budgets can only cope with a yearly change of inputs within a narrow threshold. So a mechanistic manager will build in a change request model, or a buffer to allow for mid-year personnel hires for small variations of headcount changes.
This approach works, as long the opportunities or demands on the system will not require more budget and people than the buffer allows. If it does, the organisation will not be able to respond to that opportunity in a timely manner because the budget change process simply does not allow for it.
Another example, is when there are splits between a customer-focused business and component focused technology. This results in a large amount of work in progress and high levels of waste. Trying to change direction as fast as your customers need is impossible because technology led organisations are not able to change cheaply enough.
When is the right time for change?
Before the system becomes overloaded, there is no burning need for change. So the overheads of Agile ways of working seem unnecessary. Once the system has been overloaded, people become too stressed to even consider a change (see comments above).
Until leadership are able to see that agility removes the need for static regulating processes to deal with variability and frequent changes in stakeholder needs, then the solution will never occur and the organisation is doomed to repeat the same behaviours over and over again.
What change is needed?
The change is for leaders and managers to stop seeing their organisations in terms of mechanistic systems where they work on the system as separate agents. And instead start seeing the system as a dynamic adaptable system that changes because of clever structure and low WIP, and an empowered workforce that can make decisions on how they work in real time.
This is covered in much more detail through my culture change model for Enterprise Agility. The diagram below has now been incorporated into the Enterprise Change Pattern (ECP). You can find out more about the ECP here and on our Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp.
The first lever to create an adaptable organisation is through leadership training and coaching. Then through structure and process change. The time to start doing this is right now. Either before you hit a crisis, or to incrementally relieve the overload burden of poor structures and challenging cultures.
Learn more about how we use this model for Enterprise Agility with our clients, attend the Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp in Europe and the US.