Podcast: Organizational Factors that Influence Lean-Agile Transformation – with Andrew Long

Had a pleasure to talk to Andrew Long this time. Andrew is a managing agile consultant with LitheSpeed (www.lithespeed.com). I was waiting long for this conversation to happen (yes, pun intended!). We talked about key factors that influence organizational agility and flow, the disconnects between the actual state of those factors (that include important structural and behavioral aspects of enterprise life) and declared intentions as part of the transformation. We talked about how to best facilitate emergence of new organizational capabilities, such as responsiveness to change, ability to innovate and so forth. Dealing with constraints and systemic impediments the organization has, which of them to address and when, change by declaration vs. real change and much, much more… I hope you enjoy it. To find more podcasts, articles and blogposts, go to http://orgmindset.com.

New Podcast: Managing Assumptions and Risks in Complex Organizations – Michael Kuesters and Alex Yakyma

Michael Kuesters was on my podcast recently, folks. This was Michael’s second appearance (you can find the first podcast recording here). It was great to virtually host him (he feels a lot like a family now…) and discuss an interesting topic that every enterprise that depends on software or systems development for their success, has to deal with one way or the other. We talked about many things: the danger of reaching a comfort zone in managing assumptions and risks, cognitive biases that can stand in the way, raising hidden assumptions to the explicit level, how assumptions come into existence, “strong” and “weak” assumptions, applying Occam’s razor to assumptions and risks, obsessing with predictability, the trick with building confidence based on prior project successes, using pre-mortems and much more.

And yes, we talked about winning jackpot three times in a row… Because it’s surprisingly connected to some enterprise practices.

Here’s the podcast recording:

To find Michael’s books, use the following links:

Extreme Agility: https://leanpub.com/extremeagility

Spirit of Scrum: https://leanpub.com/spiritofscrum

Bundle: https://leanpub.com/b/non-conformistagile



A New Course for Organizational Leaders Will Soon Be Released

Folks, I am super-excited to announce that on March 15, 2018, we will be releasing a brand new course:

Lean-Agile Mindset and Culture: A Course for Organizational Leaders.

Many of us have faced an increasingly common problem: the transformation is going full steam, but the leadership mindset is lagging behind, inadvertently creating a principal impediment to transformation success. The Lean-Agile Mindset and Culture course is designed to solve precisely this problem and set the enterprise on the right path in developing new and sustainable organizational habits.

This is a two-day course, during which organizational leaders go over immersive exercises and critical concepts that help them understand what exactly is required to grow a fast, responsive and value-centric enterprise. The primary focus of the course is on the key aspects of the leadership mindset and organizational culture that naturally enable a fast flow of value, responsiveness to change, organizational learning and relentless focus on business outcomes. You can read more about the contents of the class in the course description.

Every certified Org Mindset Enterprise Coach (OMEC) will be entitled to license and teach the course and will be provided access to instructor enablement materials.

So, folks, we will make a final announcement around the release date, which is not too far away. Additionally, all existing OMECs will have an ability to attend a separate webinar where we will go over the detail regarding the class, supporting materials and other useful resources.

Stay tuned!


Fixed or Variable? It’s Actually Both!

Should my team structure be fixed or variable? Should my funding be fixed or variable? Should the plan reflect fixed expectations or variable possibilities?

The reality is, it’s neither one of those isolated notions, but rather both of them enabling organization’s performance in concert with each other.

On the one hand, enterprise reality contains inherent uncertainty and variability. External conditions change, internal factors evolve and, even more importantly, we are able to refine our understanding of those only over time. It is fundamentally irrational to attempt building organizational plans and structures that contain “all the answers” inside.

On the other hand, everything cannot be a moving part. In a sense, an organization cannot just sit and wait for the facts to unfold, it has to actively work to facilitate the desirable future outcomes. It cannot “design” the future in a conventional sense of the word – that’s not how complex adaptive systems operate – but it indeed can and should create the environment and enablement for moving in a desirable direction.

The importance of both of these factors has a direct impact on underlying processes and structures within the enterprise. So, for example, it is often impossible to meet the variable business demand with a fixed team structure, due to skillset/knowledge constraints, as well as other reasons. Instead, it is entirely logical to keep the boundaries of some teams soft, allowing for people to regroup as necessary to best respond to a significant shift in demand. Interestingly enough, the fixed part is important too, because whenever possible, we want to benefit from long-term interactions, as they are known to improve the overall team performance. Similarly, our funding cannot be all carved in stone for a long time horizon, as it would make it impossible to respond to the changing environment. At the same time, without any specific upfront allocation of funds, it would be hard to commit the necessary capabilities required for successful execution. As for planning, it gets even more interesting. Even though many organizations are nowadays trying (at least formally) to be iterative and incremental, it doesn’t imply that they are actually able to respond to change. The real question is instead: are they properly handling uncertainty in their plans. If your plan, even for a shorter time horizon (1-3 months), contains only predefined outcomes, then most likely, your organization is just blind to the unknowns. And it doesn’t actually matter that you iterate every month or two: myopia to uncertainty renders iterative and incremental paradigm useless in such environment. Every plan, no matter how long or short, has to explicitly contain assumptions, preventing the Certainty Bias from settling in and pushing the organization to a whole new level of self-deception. But then again, if the plan does not contain any specific outcomes, nobody really knows where the organization is headed.

So here are the questions for you, as a matter of quick self-assessment:

  1. How exactly are uncertainty and variability incorporated into your process? (consider organizational design, planning, funding, for example). For each one of your examples, try to go over the actual logic, explicit rules, proven scenarios in your environment, rather than potentialities.
  2. How are variable and fixed factors aligned in those examples?
  3. Is it really working?
  4. How do you know that it does or doesn’t?

Lastly, while both fixed and variable nature of organizational activities and structures is essential, there’s a little catch, and we briefly touched on it already: we are all biased towards certainty and predictability and, on the opposite, try to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. So, when your organizational leaders are telling you something like “but we need some degree of certainty and predictability,” you need to know how to translate this Klingon speech into English. It usually means: “we are looking to define a big-upfront detailed plan, lock down the exact scope and funding, and define specific team structure that will best execute it all.” For most organizations, moderating their obsession with predictability is an insurmountable problem, so the conversation better revolves around embracing uncertainty and variability rather than the “balance”. Otherwise, you are probably just wasting an opportunity to change something to better.


By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

High Reliability Organizations (HROs) – Podcast with Brian “Ponch” Rivera

In this podcast we are discussing how High Reliability Organizations (HROs) manage information flows, risks, team dynamics and more. Here’s the podcast recording:

To reach out to Brian:

LI: https://www.linkedin.com/in/briandrivera/

References to books mentioned in the podcast:

Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty
By Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe
Link: http://a.co/c7XEmp2

Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes–But Some Do
by Matthew Syed
Link: http://a.co/hpvGTi4

Beyond the Checklist: What Else Health Care Can Learn from Aviation Teamwork and Safety (The Culture and Politics of Health Care Work)
by Suzanne Gordon et al.
Link: http://a.co/0K75uNE

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Link: http://a.co/78d9wmA

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Link: http://a.co/9irTGE6

Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters
by Chesley B. Sullenberger et al.
Link: http://a.co/cnuLjA7

Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non-Technical Skills
by Rhona Flin et al.
Link: http://a.co/40chYlZ


By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

Org Mindset is a Platinum Sponsor of Mile High Agile 2018!

Hello folks! Some exciting news… We are sponsoring Mile High Agile this year that will take place in Denver, Colorado, May 21 & 22.

We will be happy to see you there. We’re gonna have a premium booth with plenty of interesting things, useful give-aways and, most importantly, we will be glad to chat with you, address your questions, participate in discussions on various topics.

We are really excited about this!


By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

Feedback Loop Markers. A Panel Discussion During Our Class.

Last week we had a wonderful OMEC (Org Mindset Enterprise Coach) class. During the lunch break on day two of this three-day training we made a brief panel discussion with our attendees on one important topic: Feedback Loop Markers. It’s one of the many topics in the course. Hope you enjoy the video:

Our next class will be also in Boulder in April. You can find more information on the class schedule and the course description.

Addressing the “Certainty Bias”: Core Principles to the Rescue


Certainty bias?

Indeed. Certainty bias is the term we use in reference to organizations’ tendency to demonstrate overconfidence in desirable outcomes while in fact operating in an environment of uncertainty. A lot of organizations are exposed to this phenomenon. Yours too, most certainty… no pun intended. The problem has some typical symptoms:

  • Assumptions are perceived as facts
  • Organizational behavior is predefined and over-constrained
  • The gap between reality and plan is never properly understood

As a result, we get a whole bunch of “funny” things happening in the enterprise; and those are not exactly “ha-ha”-funny. We see product management that obsesses with scope while there’s no evidence of its value whatsoever. We see long-term, fairly detailed organizational plans that span unimaginable amount of time and cannot be delivered in principle the way it was intended. We see budgets that are tied to detailed scope and we see capacity expectations which never work out. But despite all that, what’s much worse is that the organization continues to live under the impression that it’s actually all working out just fine. The organization de facto loses its ability to learn. The gravity of a fine-elaborated plan with scope and budgets attached to it takes huge toll: people at different levels tend to acquire political skills much rather than the ability to problem-solve and as a result, often chose not to raise systemic issues even if they happen to stumble upon them. Everyone becomes a hostage of the system, which is a result of the flawed thought process.

Okay, but what’s the right thought process then?

I will try to briefly summarize it as a set of principles, a vector in the direction that provides a better toolset for dealing with systems of uncertainty. Here they are:

  1. Aim at business outcomes
  2. Minimize unmanaged assumptions
  3. Align individual motivation with value delivery
  4. Provide room for emergent behavior
  5. Exploit cross-level learning


1. Aim at business outcomes. Hmm… Of course everyone aims at business outcomes, what else should they aim at?

Well, while it really sounds simple and obvious, it doesn’t mean that it actually takes place. What do you think a product manager is aiming at when they demand “all these features” from the team, having no idea whether any of it will produce business value? Or a team that is obsessed with cycle time. Deliver more! Deliver faster! …Does it produce more loyal customers or more revenue or significant long-term competitive advantage? Are those questions even being asked when making scope, quality, schedule or cost decisions?

2. Minimize unmanaged assumptions. Assumptions inevitably arise when we are operating in the environment of uncertainty: we don’t posses full knowledge over organizational behaviors and outcomes. Therefore we assume. The problem comes when we assume this and assume that every step of the way, while pretending that those are not assumptions but rather firm facts. Why do we think this scope will have the anticipated business impact? Will the other team provide the functionality that our team needs? Will this data connector work? Will this funding be sufficient for the initiative? Assumptions are everywhere: in business and technology strategy, in requirements, in implementation approach, in team and skill-set structure, in funding, in interpretation of the company’s bottom-line and more.

On the one hand, the problem is in that we don’t acknowledge assumptions and don’t manage them as such. On the other hand, due to ineffective process and structure, we tend to spawn assumptions in large quantities where they could be avoided in the first place. So, for instance, a rigid structure of teams that have significant dependencies on each other creates unnecessary assumptions that could have been avoided should the teams be more flexible and organized to better contain the dependencies rather than have them scattered across the organization. Similarly, rather than having requirements trickle down the long organizational hierarchy, which ironically enough, bypasses customer every time and generates more and more bold assumptions (of both what to build and how to interpret the requests from above), it would be a lot more productive to provide each team or a small group of teams with a stakeholder with the sufficient requirements decision-making authority who directly interacts with the customer and a few key internal stakeholders.

3. Align individual motivation with value delivery. The type of motivation that dominates across the industry, is usually only loosely connected with value delivery. Organizational leaders should be the ones to take care of this problem, but they are themselves subjected to the same blind spots as everybody else and, as interesting as it sounds, can hardly be blamed for anything. To best illustrate the detail behind this principle, we need to ask ourselves, what organizational behaviors and qualities are we after when we talk about value delivery. Well, we are looking for collaboration along the pathways of critical dependencies, we’re looking for flexibility to be able to respond to new facts, we are looking for openness and transparency for communicating and eliminating impediments. But is that what we usually see? Managers that are overly possessive of “their” people, even though another team or program badly needs help with high-priority work, are hardly a good example of a collaborative spirit. Similarly, who would be motivated to respond to change when the top leadership creates an immense pressure to deliver according to a master plan and measures everyone’s “productivity” based upon that? Finally, what manager would like to be known as the barer of the bad news, given that mostly the “yes-men” and the “happy land” folks get promoted in their organization; no wonder that systemic impediments remain forever unaddressed. The right motivation model has to found human motivation upon adequate thinking and seek to enable the organizational qualities, some of which we mentioned above.

4. Provide room for emergent behavior. One of the deadly sins that stem from the certainty bias is the idea of preprogramming the enterprise. We aim at preprogramming the organization because we lack the right model for thinking about organizational behavior; something that would show us how flawed is that idea in the first place. We tend to believe we can preprogram market conditions, customer needs, scope, team behavior in implementing it, etc. It’s the “clock mechanism” model. Instead, it’s better to think of your organization’s ecosystem as of a city or a garden. You can never direct a specific way in which a city or a garden evolve. You can influence them, of course, by affecting various enablers but never to expect the exactly predefined behavior. A city may decide to sell some land to a hotel chain to attract more small business to the area, but which business will end up there and what other enablement will they require – there’s no way to know upfront. You may decide where to locate different plants in your garden but you can’t expect them to grow precisely like you want. You will know more as you go, but to respond to new facts, you need to preserve flexibility for behaviors you don’t yet know. So, how exactly is an enterprise supposed to provide flexibility for emergent behavior? Well, how about creating plans that explicitly contain the unknowns, multiple possible solution options and experimentation required? How about the funding being detached from exact scope expectations? How about team and department boundaries being a bit more flexible for people to be able to swarm around the problem, when needed?

5. Exploit cross-level learning. It is impossible to establish any of the above, if this aspect of the organization’s life is not in place. See, it’s very easy to believe in long-term fixed scope commitment or in scope-based funding or in the detailed upfront architecture or in the flawlessness of your team structure, when there’s no information flows in place that would demonstrate the gap between those beliefs and reality. Every organizational layer lives with their own sweet, comfortable version of the truth. The idea behind the principle is very simple, there needs to be a mechanism that, in a sense, “collapses the pyramid”. This does not necessarily imply that organizational levels should be abolished, but they have to start to operate differently, overlapping a lot more across multiple levels at a time and immersing themselves into the rich context of experimentation, execution and validation, rather than staring in their dashboards filled with vanity metrics.

This may be enough for the initial discussion on the topic, enough for you to start thinking about it in the context of your organization. Start by asking yourself how your current organizational reality support the principles above.


By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.