The 12 enemies of adaptability

And weapons how to kill them…. Enemy 6: Inflexible business practices

Marty de Jonge
Sep 24 · 6 min read

In “ the 12 enemies of adaptability” series different angles that influence adaptability within organisations are discussed. All articles have this theme but can also be read on their own.

One of the main reason for organisations to start a transformation is to (re)structure the organisation in order to improve their ability to respond to a fast changing environment.

Only, to be a smooth adaptable organisation in the world around you, first you’ll have to make sure you have an internal environment that is supporting this objective. In this serie of articles I will describe 12 enemies of internal adaptability. Kill these inside enemies and you will smoothen the way to reach your objective towards the external adaptability as an organization.

Enemy 6. Inflexible business practices

Highly optimized business systems are great for efficiency but deadly for adaptability. As a result, business assets, skills and processes become more specialized and change can only take place on a small scale

In 1776 Adam Smith published his epic work The Wealth of Nations. in this book he substantiated his claim that a clever division of labor could make a commercial enterprise vastly more productive than if each worker took personal charge of constructing a finished product. In 1817 David Ricardo took the argument even further with his theory of comparative advantage. One of the economic laws he stated in this publication was; ‘because it is more efficient for Portuguese workers to make wine and English workers to make cloth, each group would be better off focusing on its area of advantage and trading with the other.’ These and other similar insights drove the Industrial Revolution which created huge commercial advantages for entrepreneurs.

Decades later they still influenced management thinkers whose names will sound some more familiar to you. Frederick Winslow Taylor and W. Edwards Deming, whose Total Quality Management system was designed to eliminate all waste in the production process and with this laying the foundations for Lean manufacturing.

So… enough history and background to start making my point.

By being historically so deeply rooted in our life and organisations, the belief in the unalloyed virtue of efficiency has never dimmed. It is embodied in multilateral organizations aimed at constantly making the work(ers) more efficient. Eliminating waste sounds like a reasonable goal. Why would we not want managers to strive for an ever-more-efficient use of resources?

Well, an excessive focus on efficiency can produce negative effects towards adaptability. When efficiency improves, it tends to create a higher degree of specialisation along the way. This hyper-specialisation creates several isolated islands in a big corporate ocean. On every island itself things are organised super efficiently, just when they’ll have collaborate and communicate the trouble begins.

Because of their long-term internal focus they’ve lost their flexibility. Over time they developed an own language that someone from another island hardly understands anymore. The island specific rituals and beliefs that they have built up over the years are not commonly understood anymore. The result? If they have to work together, an army of translators to translate all mutual communication and a pile of coaches is needed to guide mutual understanding. ( If you are currently reading this article at the office, take a good look around you …. hopefully for you it will not look too recognizable after reading the above paragraph.)

The focus on efficiency and specialisation that was so valuable and successful in the time of the industrial revolution is now becoming obsolete. Flexibility to swiftly adapt your business model was less important as long as the Portuguese focussed on their wine crafting and the English on cloth fabrication. However, times have changed. Nowadays the most successful organizations are those that have communication and collaboration in their DNA. The ones that are still focusing on increasing efficiency, specialisation, and with that inflexibility, are getting more and more trouble surviving.

The great part is, this practice to focus on this communication and collaboration is also in the heart of the Scrum framework.

The essence of Scrum is a small team of people. The individual team is highly flexible and adaptive. These strengths continue operating in single, several, many, and networks of teams that develop, release, operate and sustain the work and work products of thousands of people. — Scrum guide 2017

How to kill Inflexible business practices?

Shift from efficiency toward effectiveness:
Efficiency is about getting more things done in a certain timeframe or doing less work in getting the same thing done. Effectiveness is about getting the right things done. Peter Drucker, the well-known management consultant, once encapsulated the idea by writing,

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker

* Working ‘solutions’ is the primary measure of progress.

* Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount
of work not done — is essential.

— Principles behind the Agile Manifesto —

In other words, making progress is not just about being productive. It’s about being productive on the right things. It is here where the the focus and responsibilities of the different Scrum roles give you a helping hand.

The complete Scrum team with all their own focus points contribute together in getting the right things done and with that the shift from efficiency towards effectiveness.

I am not stating that as soon as you start implementing the Scrum events you will become effective just because of that. Like said a lot of times before, Scrum is not a silver bullet that solves all your problems. However as a lightweight framework it is a proven guidance to support you on that journey.

In this series of articles I will discuss all 12 enemies, so stay tuned and let me know if you want a notification when the next one comes online …

Did you like the article? I am very keen to learn what you think about this topic.

My twitter profile is

All discussed enemies of adaptation in this series:

1. Hierarchy

2. Fear

3. Decision Bias

4. Habit

5. Centralization

6. Inflexible business practices

7. Rigid Structures

8. Short-term thinking

9. Lack of diversity

Do you want to write for Serious Scrum or seriously discuss Scrum?

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

Thanks to Sjoerd Nijland, Willem-Jan Ageling, and Daniel Westermayr

Marty de Jonge

Written by

As an agnostic change agent I am a descriptor of what is happening on the various business monkey rocks. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade