By Kathryn Maloney, MA/ABS
I’ve recently had conversations about the inherent values and differences between our approach at The Ready and an Agile approach to transforming the way a system and teams operate. I am admittedly impatient around comparisons like these for a few reasons. The first one is that what pretty much always sits behind them is the reptilian brain wanting to negotiate risk, fear, and impotence veiled as an intellectual exercise around practice and methodology. I get it and am empathetic to it, and I also have to name it. A second reason is that I am a fan of good and ethical practice, however it is packaged or named. We aren’t the end all, be all nor is the other. But, our methodology and practice are very, very good. And, the other may be as well?
And lastly, I’m a person and practitioner who has a far deeper commitment to leading the experience of change over debating and cognating about change. The reason for this is that if you are wondering about changing, most likely you are in need of changing. To get you changing, we have to begin activating it — which doesn’t happen by talking about it.
Too much time and money is spent considering change versus just doing it — and I am far happier to move you.
So, here are some thoughts in response to the question of our OS canvas versus Agile, but more importantly to the questions behind the question.
We know that every organization has an operating system. It’s made up of the countless assumptions, principles, practices, and behaviors that manifest into culture. Adaptive and resilient organizations understand that being deliberate about their way of working is an essential and continuous process of leveraging tools, practices, and rhythms to root (1) thinking strategically, (2) working dynamically and iteratively, and (3) learning constantly. We developed the Operating System (OS) Canvas as an underlying framework to provoke systemic thinking, conversations, and reflections about all elements of an organizational system. The canvas provides scaffolds to consider and act on cultural, behavioral, and structural shifts — and illustrates how they knit together to create a living, breathing, constantly evolving whole.
Some parallels within our OS canvas to Agile practices are obvious — and integrated. Agile methods (along with other methods like Lean, Kanban, Open Space, and the canvas) can all be considered parts of a broader ways of working container of org design practices. When we teach teams new meeting and teaming structures for instance, people familiar with Agile will certainly feel the commonalities because we draw from many methods in our designs, including Agile practices. And, I’m guessing any Agile transformation effort is likewise pulling from the deep well of systems change resources. Where we are cautious (and even skeptical) — with our own canvas methodology and any other method or tool such as Agile — is to keep people from falling into the ideology trap. Commoditizing any method or practice as a whole system change ideology (versus a method of intervention) will quickly create limitations on their application in complex, perpetually changing ecosystems. All are ways in to enliven a system to be and do differently. None should be sold, promised, or practiced as end states.
Designing a new OS means using the underlying framework to guide new understanding, thinking, learning, and implementation while making it distinctly your own and deliberately getting better as people, a team, and an entire organization every day.
It isn’t a fixed system to learn and apply, because it is not an ideology. Rather, our OS canvas is a method to think holistically about a system’s principles and practices in its current state combined with a navigational map to adopt new tools and practices considering the interface of work that needs to get done and how to get it done in the most thoughtful, relevant, fast, and coordinated way. In designing a new OS, you must experience and learn new tools and techniques and then learn to apply them bravely (because it takes bravery to be/do differently), dynamically (because we live in a world of work and leading that demands of-the-moment choreography), and consistently (because designing a new OS is foundational and perpetual to compete and thrive in today’s fast-changing, globally connected world.) To do this, we prefer to get into the work quickly — rather than talking conceptually — to create context and be in the experience of learning by doing. It may be disorienting initially, yet scales change much quicker.
Org design, agile, lean, holacracy — or any so-called transformation work are all mindset shifts at the end of the day. They are not destinations and frankly, rarely is there an arrival. Readying to scrutinize your personal, team, and organizational mindsets is an enormous part of the work and deeply important to adoption of a new context from which you work, learn, create, and thrive.
We can teach people new meeting structures, decision tools, communication technology, teaming structures, etc. all day long, but if you aren’t prepared to give up what you know to make room for what you don’t yet know — and feel slightly off balance in the process — much less new and different will occur.
The reason being that it’s simply impossible to change without changing. Talking about changing is merely delaying effort. We can and will provide the tilled soil, but you have to sow the seeds. And that understanding and motivation has to start right from the beginning of considering a change effort.
Here are a few goalposts for embarking on the mindset shifts an OS design and new ways of working journey will ask of you.
Experiencing is believing
Talking about change is like writing about beautiful fashion without the visual or describing an amazing meal or beautiful wine without tasting it. Seeing and feeling are far more powerful and emotional — and doing / scaling change lives in the actual experience. Show rather than tell. Put down the megaphone, stop wordsmithing, debating or opining, and just do. People will feel the commitment and glow, and it will naturally spread.
Don’t wait for permission
While org change and transformation rhetoric became steeped in top-down sponsorship and while having strong leadership ringfence change efforts is certainly super helpful, it’s not an imperative. Small groups of thoughtful citizens can change the world. They’ve been doing it forever. Declare your independence, step into your personal authority, and show people the way. Make people curious and take notice rather than wait for permission. This is leading.
Prepare to lose in order to gain
Making space to learn new ideas and develop new muscles is an imperative. Otherwise, it’s like dieting while eating all the same bad things or moving without dropping stuff off at Goodwill. Shedding is a natural part of evolution. Gripping and attachment exist to create friction around growth and change. Resistance is what causes adaptation energy. Lean in and let go.
Mind your ego
The monkey mind will trick you at every turn into believing that it is unsafe to try new things; stupid to not drive, drive, drive rather than create space for bigger thinking, deeper connecting, and reflective learning; dangerous to not know all the possible pitfalls before trying; and downright ignorant to show vulnerability, fault or (god-willing) take a risk. Leading means learning to not be dragged down the street in the shackles of your ego and instead settle into the very humanity that is you. Take off the veil, quiet the noise, and let you radiate.
Stop planning and start doing
Project plans have been an outdated methodology for at least a decade, if not longer. We live in a time where anticipating, adapting, and pivoting are three of the most critical leadership skills needed in any role, in any organization, in any industry. Test and learn your way into next steps rather than falsely believing you can predict and plan your way to innovation. Set a direction, but steer continuously. Everything around you will change far faster than your project plan allows for so use tools that enable and support responsiveness. Think wayfinding over navigating.
Be grateful and present
Learning from others and about ourselves, being on a team with good humans, and having the opportunity to contribute to something bigger are nothing short of gifts. Don’t artificially or passively be grateful. Look for moments that kick your ass or even peel back the slightest layer of new awareness or thinking — and feel the gratitude for being alive and present to the experience. Say thank you. Tell people you love them. Live the moments consciously. It’s contagious.
None of the above is easy, fast, or linear which maps perfectly to understanding the complexity of systems. Whether it is work framed by the OS Canvas or Agile — or anything else — nothing is a panacea. You will need to step in and do work. The choice has to be about braving learning, experiencing yourself differently, and being in the truth of how systems, change, and work actually work — and using whichever tools, practices and methods that enable that. Sometimes, you may use more than one method over time or even two methods at the same time. Fantastic. If it serves to create and leverage change as energy and toward a better understanding of how to lead, operate, and organize from a perpetual state of change you are doing work that matters. Just start by starting making sure you are doing real work. You’ll know because it feels challenging, personal, enlivening — and yet not ideological. Then, just keep evolving from there.
Kathryn is a Leader Advisor, Organization Design Consultant, and Systems Coach. She strategizes with organizations large and small to build capacity in designing organizations of the future, evolutionary leadership, prosperous teams, and coherent systems.