Focus on Humans During an Agile Transformation

Agile Innovation + Transformation Leadership

There’s a cultural and organizational shift afoot in the workplace. If you’re a leader of people or projects, you may have felt the tremors. As the information age rapidly displaced the industrial era, however, many assumptions went unquestioned. Following the industrial revolution, if a part on an assembly line broke, you could simply replace it. Similarly, people were seen as parts in the machine. In fact, the word resource in the term “human resources department” reflects a largely mechanistic world view in which people are replaceable. The challenge with this world view is that creativity and innovation aren’t produced by cogs; they are the outcome of unique individuals navigating divergent and convergent thinking together.

As modern organizations seek to manage change effectively, and as enterprise agile transformation becomes a hot topic, it is vital that we rethink our narrative. Instead of viewing organizations as machines, we should imagine them as living organisms. In this refreshed analogy, people reemerge as unique individuals as opposed to disposable parts. Ultimately, this shift in mindset is one of the most hidden aspects of successful enterprise organizational transformation.

Benefits of Thinking of Organizations as Living Organisms

Agile organizations value wholeness

When an organization views itself as a living organism, it values every employee’s perspective because diversity contributes to the creative capital. Diverse teams tend to be more creative than heterogeneous ones, but only if each individual is given equal air time to share their perspectives—a term called “turn taking” in psychological safety research. When people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the workplace, the result is not only more diversity in gender and race but also in life experience, ways of thinking, and personal strengths. Agile organizations—organizations that truly encourage and reward creative problem solving at all levels of the organization—fundamentally value wholeness.

Wholeness also impacts how organizations and consultants manage change and apply change management practices to enterprise agile transformation. Most organizations still believe that if you communicate clearly and educate employees by giving them enough information, they will change and adopt new behaviors. This is equivalent to upgrading a cog in a machine. However, people are not cogs, and behavior change is fundamentally more complex. It’s no wonder that most enterprise transformations fail or are only partially adopted despite huge investments in time and money. Mindset, values, rewards, goals, and how we are perceived by coworkers all need to be added to the list of considerations in an agile transformation. In fact, I would argue that change can’t be managed; it must be inspired through modeling and by encouraging the whole human being. In this regard, agile coaches can play a vital role.

Agile organizations are responsive

Imagine an organization that responds to change as efficiently as your body responds to a cut or ingesting a meal. The response is localized, the right resources are appropriated, and the body adapts. In a rapidly changing world, the people at the front lines are the “sensors” who receive the most information each day about trends and customer needs. An organization’s ability to empower these individuals to act on their insights is key to agility and staying ahead of the competition. Empowerment can look different depending on the industry, department, and situation. At Zappos, for instance, customer support reps are given greater decision-making rights and small budgets to resolve customer challenges and increase customer satisfaction. When responsiveness is embraced, employees transform into empowered sensors and advocates for customer-centricity. This alone can be a powerful strategy for providing a competitive edge.

Other companies allow individuals to move between projects or teams without applying for a new position. Flexible work arrangements let people contribute to challenges and projects based on greatest need and value. Employees stick with the project for the amount of time that makes sense before moving on to another project. In most current organizations, this flexible arrangement would be a tremendous challenge due to budgetary constraints, lengthy budget planning processes, and fixed job titles. Some organizations, however, are experimenting with broader job titles and narrow roles, allowing an individual to hold multiple roles at any given time.

In this new model of wholeness, every person has strengths and weaknesses. While almost all interviews inquire about these two areas, few organizations or managers truly take the time to discover each person’s learning styles, strengths, and preferences. Imagine if you spent most of your day focusing on problems that leveraged your strengths—the result would be phenomenal engagement and improved performance. In an agile, living organization, strengths are leveraged over job descriptions, and managers have honest conversations with their teams to guide individuals toward performing in their genius zones.

Agile organizations embrace dynamism

In addition to wholeness and responsiveness, organizations in this new model see processes and products as ever-evolving. Perfectionism is replaced by experimentation. Beyond eliminating the time wasted making beautiful presentations that don’t impact business and customers, organizations can release products and services into the world earlier to be tested and prototyped by customers. While there are plenty of examples across all industries of risk taking and creative experimentation, the majority of departments in most organizations are still stuck in the “perfection” mindset. Leaders must model and reward risk taking, even when it leads to failure. When dynamism is embraced, teams and leaders reflect on team health often and bring challenging issues to the surface early.

A nuance that organizations often miss when they begin to embrace agile mindsets is how to successfully conduct prototyping and experimentation. When sales, product, and other teams approach customers from a “self-oriented” perspective (i.e., “we made a great product and want to get your feedback”), the result is biased and leads to incremental improvement with marginal returns. In contrast, teams that show up with an “other-oriented” mindset (i.e., “how well does this solve your problem?”) are more likely to discover their own blind spots and assumptions, which can lead to breakthrough innovation. It can be quite challenging to discern “self” versus “other” mindset, which show up in the subtleties of how questions are framed and the attitude with which teams approach customers. Dynamism ultimately leads to greater customer centricity and accelerated timelines from idea to execution.

As an example, a large biotech company we worked with traditionally takes three to four months to address account planning for the large healthcare institutions they serve. Future State’s team of agile coaches radically transformed their process by shifting their question from “what can we sell them?” to “what are the account’s needs?” By designing a process, facilitating, and inviting customers into the beginning of the process to reflect on their priorities, we helped them move through a major part of the process in just five hours. The outcome was a prioritized list of ideas that the team could take action on immediately, adding value to the account and potentially sparking new conversations and opening opportunities for partnership. What once took three to four months was reduced to a matter of days or weeks. The biggest challenge with working in these new ways is the skills and mindset required. This is where the role of the agile coach/facilitator becomes invaluable. A good coach can partner with the team lead, executive sponsor, or project manager to define a clear outcome and co-design a process for the team to work through to achieve their goal.

What’s Next?
Wherever you and your organization are on the agile transformation journey, here are a few things you can put into action today to explore agile ways of working and a few lessons learned.

Hold a Retro
You don’t need to be done with a project to ask your team what’s working and what isn’t. Call a “retro” on anything, from a single meeting to a process. Ask questions such as, “How did we work together as a team last week?” If you feel that you may get more honest responses anonymously, here are a few tools to help:

Empower Ideas
Ask open-ended questions, such as, “Is there an idea you’ve been dying to try?” Often, team members are sensing something about a situation that they simply haven’t told you.

Discover Hidden Strengths
As a manager, you may have individuals on your team who are not in their genius zone and are doing many tasks that are draining them of energy. Consider asking open-ended questions around strengths and weaknesses with the language of “what gives you energy?” and “what drains your energy?” Connect with them as individuals and be open to whatever shows up.