Anchors vs. Agile Actions

As part of my ongoing induction to all things Agile, this week I went to a meetup at Moo’s ridiculously fancy London office. The session, entitled Tensions of Change, was led by Simon Reindl and Bee Heller, and organised by Adventures with Agile. Bravo to them! It was a fun evening and here are some rambling, relatively uninformed thoughts on what we explored…

Circumstance vs. Character

To begin the evening, participants were split up into teams of 4 or 5 ‘devs’, and 1 ‘seller’. The devs were tasked with building origami models whilst the sellers had to bid for contracts to build the models from ‘buyers’ (Simon and Bee).

Higher value models (e.g. ‘The Flapping Bird’) were more complex and teams were given more time to build them. Lower value models (e.g. ‘The Boat’) were much simpler and teams were subsequently given less build time.

Over 20 minutes, teams were challenged to make as much ‘money’ as possible. There were about 6 bidding windows during which the sellers could decide which one model their team should take on next. This meant that there was a cap on production — so it wasn’t a case of simply churning out a load of boats until the end.

The sellers served as de facto product owners, judging (or at least attempting to) the capacity of their teams against the value of the origami contracts. At the same time, the devs were left with the unenviable task of building the models and communicating any issues with production — for instance, whether it was worth taking on more complex origami models if they proved difficult.

Given the unsurprising dearth of origami practitioners in the room and the short time frame, things didn’t exactly go smoothly. To make matters worse, as buyers, Bee and Simon became increasingly fussy over the course of bidding windows, changing acceptance criteria and specifications. Slightly-Flapping Birds that were accepted in the first round were no longer accepted in the second and so forth…

After this frantic 20 minutes, it was obvious why the session was called ‘Tensions of Change’. Despite our Agile aspirations, each team had a lot of waste as they folded in a flurry of unsustainable pace. Churning over learning, as I like to call it.

Bee made 3 points:

1. Circumstance will often trump character when determining human behaviour — after all, we all aspired to work in an agile way, but the nature of the task turned us into frantic, inefficient workers.
2. We analyse our own behaviour through the prism of circumstance, rather than character.
3. Conversely, we judge the behaviour of others as a result of character, rather than circumstance.

Upon reflection, I can see why these aspects of human nature can set us up to fail.

Point (1) means that circumstances, if maintained, lead to repeated behaviour which eventually becomes habit forming. At best, this could change the character of individuals and at worst, it risks becoming a vicious cycle of reinforcement — moulding entire organisations. For instance, as Billy Blamer rises through the ranks of an overly bureaucratic and hierarchical organisation, he may expect to treat those he goes onto manage just as he was managed — even if he had experienced the downsides of such a management style himself.

Naturally, points (2) and (3) mean that Billy may find the thrill of rising up the sign-off chain too intoxicating to realise that something isn’t quite right. Inefficiencies can be explained away by pointing the finger at other teams — or even worse, at his own. The people Billy manages after all, just aren’t as talented or effective as he was in their position.

The talent for self-justification is surely the finest flower of human evolution, the greatest achievement of the human brain. When it comes to justifying actions, every human being acquires the intelligence of an Einstein, the imagination of a Shakespeare, and the subtlety of a Jesuit.
Michael Foley, The Age Of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard To Be Happy

Anchors vs. Actions

Bee and Simon concluded that behaviour is a point of tension: between circumstance and character; between what we would like to do with our habits and the structural constraints placed upon us. Organisationally, teams may be trained and financed to the hilt, but the implementation of their knowledge may be held back by anchors within the organisation. Whilst you can seek to pull people in the right direction (with leadership, training, support…), their behaviour will resort to the norm if such systematic anchors are ignored. Simon offered the example of pressure for quick financial results over implementing longer term plans that could lead to more sustainable growth. Teams are often smothered by the demands of the present, unable to properly plan for the future.

This clearly isn’t the only potential anchor but it did get me wondering whether organisations can truly rid themselves of, if not, all anchors, then at least the vast majority of them. As a relative novice to Agile (and to life!), I have never witnessed an organisation breezily skip along, unconstrained by systemic anchors. Is this just something the purists dream of? Or is it the unending horizon constantly challenging companies to improve? I suspect that it’s a bit of both but as a point of reference, one of the fellow attendees told me of how his former team had reached this nirvana, only for the company to disband this agile insurgency and outsource the team’s functions.

The question also has to be asked: How do we define and judge an anchor? There are aspects of organisations that take with one hand whilst giving with the other. Given the competing priorities that can exist within teams and across divisions, it’s problematic to assess whether such dynamics are a net gain or a net loss. Furthermore, how do you judge whether removing these anchors is worth the cost?

A prescient example is the ongoing evolution of Brexit. Dominic Cummings, the Campaign Director of Vote Leave, recently made a splash for claiming that, in hindsight, it may have been a mistake to well… erm, vote leave. Brexit, for him, was about reforming Whitehall.

Cumming’s argument is that membership of the European Union was holding back Government from evolving. In addition to removing this anchor, positive change would only occur with a new coherent strategy in place. In his view (I think), this hasn’t happened.

Inevitably, these are contestable points but I’m only really interested in how anchors can be categorised. My wild thoughts have taken me here:

1. A clear negative with little or no positives that will/should be removed. (e.g. a malfunctioning computer system)
2. A clear negative that should’t be removed for the time being as the organisation doesn’t have the expertise or resource to do so in a constructive way. (i.e. with hindsight, this would be Dominic Cumming’s assessment of Brexit)
3. A clear negative with little or no positives that can’t be removed due to external circumstances. (e.g. the lack of cloud-based servers in an area where internet access is unreliable)

For young companies, particularly startups, I imagine it would be relatively easy to be ruthless in judging what is and isn’t an anchor. Net negatives are waste and should be shed. There are no legacy processes to unpick — an expensive investment in time and money — and so, with the freedom to start from the very beginning, it makes ‘Agile sense’ to get it right from the get go.

For other organisations without the freedom or resource to be so ruthless, distinguishing between anchors and assets, and assessing their value, seems to be much tougher. Charities, for instance, are usually behind the curve in terms of investment and adopting new technology. This not only ties their hands in dealing with anchors, but also hinders attempts to identify them in the first place. How easy would it be for people living in the Dark Ages to compare the benefits of their common practices to those in a post-Enlightenment era?

Ways of working in long-established organisations can become ingrained too, reinforcing the Billy Blamer Problem and creating anchor apathy. During the session, we touched on this when discussing the rise of apps like Monzo that are competing against much bigger but more cumbersome banks.

Campaigning organisations may also find that they are constricted by the speed of communication. Anticipating political decisions can help, but protecting prized connections to ‘elite’ audiences may entail zealous sign-off processes and cautiousness in developing new ideas. This can filtrate through to an entire organisation, necessitating a clear vision and robust strategy that sets out criteria for identifying and judging anchors.

What works for one organisation, may not work for another. Each will have different priorities. Going back to the origami exercise, churning out as much as we could over the course of 20 minutes was incredibly inefficient and yet, paradoxically, effective. Speed was our priority. But what happens if the task was extended to an hour? Given the time to breathe, we’d be a different organisation with different priorities. Would we formulate a strategy to make the most of those circumstances? Or would we let those circumstances dictate to us what our anchors were?