Beware of “Hybrid Agility”. It’s a Gift from Hell.

By | November 1, 2017

How about destroying the transformation effort before it even started? You wonder how? There are many ways, but today we are going to talk about one that is a classic example of the old mindset mercilessly taking over and driving you back into the Stone Age.

I’ve been observing a picture like this quite a few times: an organizational leader (let’s call him Josh) offers suggestions to his subordinate change agents and managers with respect to the Agile transformation:

“We are starting on a new journey called ‘Agile’. This is an exciting opportunity to improve our development speed, quality and much more. We aught to be aware, however, that the change has to be taken in baby steps so as to not disrupt our business. With that in mind, our current direction will be towards Hybrid Agility…”

…Silence in the room. Josh continues:

“What this means is that we will continue to define the requirements the way we used to do it before, but now we will have all the power of Agile at our command to improve the implementation of those requirements by teams.”

Still deafening silence in the room… but now with some disturbed expressions. Josh proudly drives his speech to conclusion:

“Our common goal will be to help the teams adopt the new ways of working as quickly and as smoothly as we can…”

Now, let me translate what Josh just said. He said: good bye, Agile! It was nice knowing ya, even though, not for too long!

But words are just words. Let’s patiently break down what really happened here and see what leads to such thinking.

Looking at Agile from a traditional management point of view

At any given moment, we are a hostage of our current mindset, be it Agile, Waterfall or even something completely different. Having said that, every time we encounter a new idea, concept or phenomenon, we are going to reason about it, evaluate it and operate with it, using the thinking tools that we currently have at our disposal. Now, if you carefully think about it, this is exactly what happens with any organizational leader who was primarily exposed to the traditional development model, before they first encountered Agile. Their thought process is a selective mechanism that picks what makes sense from their perspective and ignores everything that doesn’t. But even those things that appear to “make sense”, get interpreted in the manner that comfortably fits their current perspective. So, let’s see, what usually happens when someone like Josh makes their first encounter with Agile; how exactly those focus areas interpret in their established system of coordinates:

  1. Customer collaboration. Well, that sounds good, but it’s absolutely unclear how that would work. Simple ideas of proxy roles (like Product Owner) seem to be quite satisfying, even though more often than not, do not facilitate any communication with the customer. But even worse: Josh doesn’t really understand what’s such a big deal; you just carefully define the requirements and that’s all you need.
  2. Business and Development constantly work together? Why? That sounds an excessive waste of time to Josh.
  3. Iterative and incremental development. Bingo! This makes total sense. We will figure out some adjustments as we go… in fact, this is a perfect way to speed up the development of the projects we planned to execute this year.

You got the logic? Good… So, now you understand why Josh, even though is going to undermine the organization’s ability to benefit from Agile, cannot be actually blamed for it. Let me explain why…

Agile is a radical shift of mindset that cannot be achieved incrementally

Okay, not incrementally, but how then?

Here’s the important thing to remember: different people have different ability to part from their old thinking and embrace a whole new paradigm. Moreover, they need different type of a driving force to do so.

There are people, whose cognitive abilities allow them to shift their thinking simply as a result of one single thought experiment, triggered, for example, by reading an article or even a short tweet. But such individuals constitute a rather small fraction of the whole. Others pivot in their thinking as a result of an extensive training or workshop. And yet others need a bulk of empirical evidence, opinions of multiple other people within the organization,  exposure to other enterprises that have succeeded with the transformation and more.

All three categories are different and yet they all have one thing in common: they need their “a-ha” moment to embrace a new concept.

The only difference is in how they arrive at that “a-ha” moment. For you as a change agent, this means that you will have to apply a combination of different methods to achieve the required shift in thinking. Should you arrange a training for the leaders? Yes, absolutely. But don’t stop there, even if it seems that “they get it now”. You will be quickly disillusioned when the time comes for them to “apply” the knowledge to their actual activities. Assume by default that coaching will be required, sometimes a lot of coaching. You will need to seek additional exposure to facts that eluded their attention so far. That’s a lot of work, but that’s what it takes to do one of the hardest things out there: helping a person grow a new mindset. As a change agent, that’s what you’re after.

Still, what to do with the “Hybrid”?

Under no circumstances should you settle! The problem with a hybrid is that it’s actually an easy way to cement the old thinking under the layers of new Lean and Agile terminology. And when that happens, you have even less chance to get everyone on the right track. To you the fact that Josh tends to still think this way, means that the currently applied methods did not yet lead him to the a-ha moment and that you need to double-down on that. More coaching, more exposure to Gemba and other things that will eventually help. We will go over these techniques in much more detail at some point in the future. For now, however, it’s important to remember: don’t settle with “Hybrids”. It can be a necessity sometimes, to let Josh finish his talk uninterrupted. You, as a change agent, may elect a tactical retreat as a means to regroup and attack the issue when you’re better tooled up for it. But you cannot fundamentally accept it. If you do, you are going to be part of the problem!