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People-centred Agile adoption key to better delivery

Mon 23 Nov 2015
FYI, this story is more than a year old

No-one ever achieved greatness by ‘going with the flow’ and following a set of defined societal norms. Yet today, the way in which many organisations are run still resemble principles passed on from scientific management.

The assumption that managing resources (people) by following a predictable set of management practices that lead to predictable outcomes is flawed. Business results are speaking for themselves.

Each year, it becomes more evident that organisations that fail to innovate and quickly respond to changing market demands start to become irrelevant, almost as quickly as their share prices tumble.

Predictability is no longer a competitive advantage

Organisations today that are ‘predictable’ are being out-manoeuvred by competition and left behind. If you are operating in a red ocean environment where you are constantly defending and vying for market share, chances are that your three-year project is building more and more business risk each day that it hasn’t been delivered. Alongside this, the business case that stacked up two years ago is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the market landscape continues to rapidly change each day.

Imagine a football match where one team chooses to follow their plan with complete disregard to how their opponents are playing. When they are under pressure and losing, they shout ‘run faster’, ‘pass quicker’. At the end of the match, they have lost the game.

To improve, the team decides to work harder and get better at executing the same plan the next game. The reality is that in order to get better, teams need to observe and adjust their plans based on their opponents’.

In 2002, Frank Nuovo, then VP and Chief Designer for Nokia, had led the development of a mobile device which had a touch screen, allowed its users to browse the web, find restaurants and play games. Nuovo had developed a tablet that was finished in the late 1990’s. The company already had existing plans and delayed the commercial release and further development of these products. Five years later in 2007, Apple released the iPhone and, subsequent to this, Nokia’s stock price plummeted.

Organisations have also been caught out because they had been focusing on an existing plan, only to be surprised by external disruption. They lacked the internal capabilities to respond to the disruption in a timely manner. A German military strategist understood the danger of this when he said “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.

This harsh reality has meant that organisations are disrupted into adopting a more responsive and adaptive way of operating. As a result, the focus is shifting away from an internally based predictive view of plan and deliver, to a more external focus of continuously sensing and responding in short iterations.

This has led to the adoption of Agile practices that provide organisations with the capabilities needed to compete in the unpredictable and fast-changing environments.

People over process. Really?

Unfortunately, as Agile has gone mainstream, it has begun to feel like a packaged, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution. It has increasingly become known as a process-led methodology that, if followed, will enable your organisation to respond to change and deliver faster. This is fundamentally incorrect and is what leads to failed investments in Agile change and mediocre results.

For tens of years, the default operating model has been for a leader to design an ecosystem governed by a set of rules and clearly defined structures. Within this ecosystem, the leader looks at data reported from the system and makes decisions to steer the organisation.

Regardless of the process, Agile or not, decision making is still relatively hierarchical and the result of this is often slow, centralised decision making. This has led to the rise of ‘Water-Scrum-Fall’, where Agile practices are adopted mechanically, but culture, habits and values of the organisation have not changed, resulting in a lot of frustration of doing something new, but not seeing positive results.

Instead of taking a process-led approach to adopting Agile, organisations need to focus on creating a shift in culture. Processes and teams are transient, whereas culture becomes innate and creates the default habits that persist in an organisation.

The value of Agile is not in its practices or processes, but in the mindset shift that develops individual core competencies to be adaptive, transparent, collaborative and responsive.

By focusing on people and freeing your teams from a process and structure-led response to disruption, your organisation can develop a culture that thrives in complex, unpredictable and rapidly changing environments.

Dan Teo is a Principal Consultant at Assurity Consulting, NZ’s leading Agile consultancy.

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