I don’t know if it is only me, but I am tired of posts I read on Twitter from people bouncing off the walls about this agile transformation thing. Managers, CEOs, and consultants alike seem to have joined the bandwagon, being utterly excited, all the time. Everyone is busy getting sh*t done, having a blast or being mind-blown. It all happens preferably at innovation hubs in Berlin.
The agile hype we see in almost every industry has an apparent reason: in today’s lightning-fast technology world, corporations feel a pressing need to become flexible to keep up with market demands. So agile work models are at the core of digital transformation. If you are not doing Agile by now, you have missed the boat and are doomed. I understand why everyone wants to become Agile fast. What I struggle with is the impression that working in an agile organization feels like a never-ending Southside festival. Agile has become a thing. What does Agile mean anyway? Mostly, if people use the word agile as a term of its own they are referring to one of these three experiences:
Agile is a way we collaborate today.
The term agile (as a way to do work) originates in software engineering where increasing complexity became tangible in the 90s. Scrum and Extreme Programming, and other agile processes use an iterative inspect-and-adapt approach to reduce risk under the precondition of high uncertainty. Two decades later, these concepts have now spread to business operations in a more general way. A whole consulting industry is selling agile frameworks and issuing certificates to Scrum Masters and Product Owners. Agile is becoming the predominant project management toolkit.
Agile caters to the need to learn from the market.
Not only on the operational level Agile is seen as the newfound remedy. Modern management is agile management. The lean startup methods have promoted quick market feedback. Everyone is mapping customer journeys, hosting design thinking workshops, and screwing data-dashboards to the wall. Transparency, empathy, and data is what drives decision making. Servant leaders are on the rise, which mostly means managers focus on freeing the team of impediments that delay time to market. If you are nailing it, you are making sure your team ships fast with a focus on the prioritized backlog.
Agile is the New Age movement of company culture.
Only recently though has Agile rippled out of the wider range of product development altogether. There is a third dimension of Agile that is surfacing: Agile as an organizational concept. As markets become complex, companies are making drastic changes to their organizational design to become a complex organism themselves. The span of control and chain of command structures are morphing into self-organized teams performing against their Objectives and Key Results. Here the campaigns are buzzing, promoting Agile as a blurry synonym for a company culture altogether. It mostly suggests a mindset of being more flexible, more hands-on and more can-do.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer in learning from the market, empowering self-organized teams and growing a vibrant company culture. Over my four years as a product manager, I have worked with 22 agile product teams. I have witnessed the liberating effects of this collaboration culture on team performance and individual fulfillment.
But I had to learn that the journey goes far beyond introducing a bunch of new frameworks and banging the drum.
In my work as an executive and leadership coach, I find that there is a space very little supported today: the profound changes we face as individuals during agile transformation.
I wanted to know what happens along the way after the initial excitement has gone. What do the people — making it work — think, feel, and do?
So I set out and spoke to professionals working in such environments. With every conversation, I grew more passionate about learning from daily-life stories. Every story is different. There is no such thing as the single Agile story. In over 100 interviews with product managers, software developers, agile coaches, leaders, and CEOs I discovered the agile community is varied and wily, and so is the company context they work in.
I found though, that people committed to being an agile citizen are people committed to learning. And they all share these essential qualities:
1. They speak from a great ambition to create something of value. This desire drives how they interact with their co-workers and how they work on their products and business. They want to be of service and contribute to something significant.
2. They continuously hone their ways of collaborating to better serve their goal as a team. In regular retrospectives, they ground their assessments in daily-life experience. Then they agree on little tangible things to improve.
3. In all those interviews I have never met anyone (including managers) to campaign agile with flat statements. There was no hype, no bashing. Everyone I spoke to engaged in an open conversation from a mood of genuine curiosity. They scorn over buzzwords and advocate honesty.
4. Leaders and staff alike allow themselves and their co-workers to live their emotions at work. It is an inbuilt attitude rather than the result of a formal code of conduct. They believe that people who behave like humans do a better job than people who leave themselves at home.
5. When I ask them what they do when they face challenges I hear over and over again: I approach a colleague and ask for help. They naturally seek deep conversations with their co-workers. It is in this dance that they find new insights and rejuvenate their emotional resources.
Time for a different approach
Transforming a company into a fundamentally new working culture is a profound change. It changes how we — as individuals — define how we collaborate, learn and lead. And, like everything of significance, it takes a long time. Now, excitement can be a great thing. It can release enormous positive energy. To venture, we need excitement. It is an emotion that gets us moving. But excitement never lasts. No one can live with excitement constantly. It would be utterly exhausting.
In real-life (not on Twitter) people go to work every day and figure out how to contribute. They show up and voice opinions. They take personal risks. These small but heroic acts are usually not part of the big change campaign, but in my opinion, it’s where transformation happens.
When was the last time you engaged in a meaningful conversation with a colleague beyond coordinating action? Why not start one today!
If you are interested in the daily-lives of like-minded pros in the agile community, I invite you to follow this publication. This is the place where I’ll share my insights from 100 interviews with professionals from 20 innovating companies ranging from startups and established SMEs to global corporations in various industries such as Manufacturing, Mobility, Internet, Technology, Publishing, and Aviation.
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For now: THANK YOU to all the genuine people who participated in the project INSIDE AGILE. I am grateful for our open conversations.