Optimization Cycle We So Badly Need

I can’t think of any large organization that wouldn’t aim at optimizing business outcomes; all of them have such intent. But boy, those improvement initiatives fail almost every time. I was always very curious as to why that happens. And then, upon examining a number of optimization initiatives I had access to, I found one common underlying cause: wrong mental model of reality. Moreover, it is highly divergent across the board: engineers think the problem is in one place, middle management sees the root cause elsewhere, their bosses, in turn, see it in a whole different way… No wonder positive change does not happen because it’s a divergence fest.

Therefore, our general concept of continuously optimizing the outcomes (namely, the simple “Optimize – Repeat” process) needs to change. The fundamental process extends to the following three steps: 1) Refine shared mental model, 2) Optimize, 3) Repeat.

Step 1 is tough, however, and it doesn’t happen on its own in organizations that lack effective information flows across different layers (which should read as: most organizations). But as soon as some facilitation is being done around step 1, bit by bit the organization acquires a better picture of reality and step 2 stops being a constant miss.

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

Climbing the BS Mountain: Agile for the Sake of Agile

 

“Why did you start your Agile transformation?”… That’s a darn good question that many change agents and organizational leaders should ask themselves every now and then. That’s the question you should ask yourself and if you feel like you don’t have a good answer or if your answer is just fuzzy, sweet corporate talk, your organization is in trouble. Here’s why…

Most organizations adopt Agile because a company across the street does

That’s a very poor motive…

Every real change is hard. You can say that you transformation is on the right route if it ends up being the transformation of the people’s minds. Anyone can declare a new process; that’s the easy part. What is hard is shifting from the old thinking to the new one and without such a shift all process changes will have marginal impact, if any. As a part of transformation, the enterprise will have to go through a lot of real struggle as many “established” ideas and ways are simply incompatible with Agile. Some examples of that may be current org structure, funding model, HR practices, customer engagement, user interaction, leadership behavior and so forth.

It is very easy to put a bunch of stickies on the wall and start doing stand-ups, retros and things like that. But unless the thinking begins to change – especially on the management side – nothing good is going to happen. And guess what, it takes courage to abandon old fundamental concepts; it requires a real sense of urgency behind the transformation in order to do so. And adopting Agile for the sake of Agile gives your organization zero sense of urgency. It’s a one-way trip to the BS Mountain, which once climbed to, holds you a hostage of false sense of Agility from there on out.

Every transformation needs a set of clear business goals

On the one hand, this is the path to raising the sense of urgency around the transformation itself. This will fuel the journey, especially will help you getting through the hardships of the mindset change, which is the toughest and the trickiest part of the ride.

On the other hand, Agile is too broad a notion that provides certain optimization tools for your enterprise, but you have to decide what and where do you want to optimize. And for that you need a clear problem statement. This is not as simple as it seems, because you may easily get it wrong. Remember: when formulating the underlying problems, the organization will be fully exposed to all possible misconceptions and cognitive bias. Here’s a simple example of how this clouds the judgement and makes the enterprise myopic… Many organizations come to the conclusion that their software delivery function is slow and that’s the big problem they need to solve. What a great example of honest, self-crtitical reflection, isn’t it? Surprisingly no, it isn’t, in most of the cases. What organizations usually fail to see is that they deliver software that isn’t fit for purpose (AKA “crap”). Building it two times faster? What noble goal! The only outcomes of that will be a) more customer frustration and b) even further bloated codebase. I sense you started wondering: why don’t they see that the problem is not in the speed of development and delivery but rather in what is being delivered? Well, to arrive at that conclusion would require acknowledging that basically “we don’t know what we are doing”. That usually is a politically dangerous topic, unless again, the sense of urgency is high enough to overcome it. It’s a whole science (and art) of how to arrive at the right understanding of the problem and probably is a topic for a future post. But for now, let us assume that somehow magically we have arrived at the problem statement that will guide us through this journey.

As soon as we have the problem statement, it instantaneously creates the right focus for the entire organization. It actually makes Agile transformation a meaningful process. Now, instead of fuzzy “let’s be Agile”, we are aiming at very specific things, which in our case could be “effective cross-cutting feedback loops” that would allow the organization to effectively validate product assumptions with the customer and therefore prevent from building volumes of expensive poo-poo. Interestingly enough, such focus and specificity eventually leads to truly “being Agile”.

So, is Agile a mindset or just a set of tools?

I’m glad you asked…

It certainly is a mindset. But the trick is that you cannot directly “wholesale purchase” a mindset. You have to grow it through solving specific problems and for that, concrete tools are necessary. In fact, abstract talks about Agile never result in anything useful to the organization. All it does is only hiding the real problems deeper under the thick layer of false expectations.

So how would you know if you are on the right course? The answer is pretty simple and I will describe it as two mutually exclusive scenarios:

  • If all you do is working with the teams while assuring the management that the transformation goes well, and in doing so the management is being constantly delighted by your effort, you are on the wrong path! The organization is not pivoting to a new thought process; otherwise the management wouldn’t be all that delighted every step of the way. If this is the case, you should stop and rethink your transformation strategy immediately. My assumption is that you take the job of the change agent seriously, therefore will take action without hesitation or remorse…
  • If, on the opposite, you are actively working with the management and together you are going after specific problems; if those conversations are not always smooth and pretty, but the management begins to understand that the enablement they create is the ultimate success predictor in the transformation, then you are on the right path. You will definitely notice that you are moving in the right direction because the right path is pretty bumpy.

Ok, so, solving specific problems means we should aim at specific benchmarks, correct?

No, absolutely not! What are we… trying to “waterfall” the adoption of Agile? As hilarious as it sounds, it’s actually not as useful. We certainly have to focus on specific problems, but that doesn’t mean that we know how exactly we will solve them or in which exact state will our system (the organization) end up being upon solving them. The complexity of the environment in which we operate, does not allow us expect deterministic outcomes, in principle. We can only know the general direction, the vector. But any effort in saying, for example, that three quarters from now we will get customer satisfaction up 60%, is total BS and for that matter, it is precisely what you do if you are a citizen of the BS Mountain. It is critical that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot with speculative goals.

Remember: your transformation will constantly require a certain degree of intentionality. But since mindset and new habits are emergent in nature, you have to let them find their optimal growth pattern. Just like you do with your garden…

Good luck with your transformation!

 

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

Org Mindset Podcast. Metrics: Leading and Lagging Indicators.

I had a wonderful conversation with Sunil Mundra, Agile Evangelist, Principal Consultant at ThoughtWorks, on metrics… More specifically: Leading and Lagging Indicators. Metrics are always the representation of current organizational thinking and therefore become a very important aspect of the Lean-Agile transformation, often representing a lot of challenge to the change agents. This conversation is a 30-minute dive into the realm of indicators that track the organization’s success.

You can listen to the podcast here: Metrics: Leading and Lagging Indicators.

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

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

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!

 

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

No Single Answer: How Organizational Context Impacts Lean-Agile Transformation

Every transformation effort that does not take into account the unique organizational context is destined to stagnation. Join Alex Yakyma and Audrey Boydston to learn more about how to use organizational context to your advantage as a change agent and coach. As part of their webinar they will discuss the following topics:

• What makes organizational context a critical factor in the transformation?

• Importance of context in building sustainable practices

• Problem-oriented approach to context exploration

• Avoiding blind spots when operating with unique context

• Building shared mental model across the organization

• Exploiting context to optimize organizational outcomes

 

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.