Agile Development: A Model for a Better Future

The leading barrier to further agile adoption – as noted in VersionOne’s 2011 State of Agile Development Survey – is the ability to change organizational culture. Unfortunately, agile development teams can’t fix this problem by themselves because changing an organization’s culture is a leadership challenge. And companies have to want it.

Some organizational cultures are more difficult to change than others. An even greater challenge is that some companies are delusional, making statements about their culture in slide decks or other pronouncements but living a very different reality. Mike Rother made the following observation in his book, Toyota Kata : Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results:

“The unspoken business philosophy at some companies is simply to produce and sell more. Or it is about exercising rank and privilege, and thus avoiding mistakes, hiding problems and getting promoted, which become more important than performance, achievement and continuous improvement.”

The reality is that companies today face serious challenges with surviving in this globally competitive, turbulent business climate, and leaders need to recognize that their old model of work is outdated – and why – along with what they need to evolve into. And we’re only just beginning to communicate what that means.

Organizational agility is a huge shift that involves a range of interlocking pieces: leadership agility, autonomous teams and business units, HR practices, IT, budgeting, etc.  It’s going to take some very hard work over a long period of time for companies to learn what it means to be agile in a broader context. In their book Beyond Budgeting: How Managers Can Break Free from the Annual Performance Trap, Jeremy Hope and Robin Fraser clearly articulate this challenge:

“…the management model used by most organizations today is not up to the job. It was designed to enable leaders to plan and control their organizations from the center. Enabling business units and subunits throughout the organization to focus on creating value for customers and shareholders was never part of its design.”

In many ways, agile is an antibody which the existing system will attempt to eradicate, or at least reduce to a mild inconvenience (sniffle). This is why agile teams need to be protected and isolated from the rest of the organization; there will be constant pressure to conform and comply with established patterns of work. We want to advance to a new model, not be pulled back to the old one!

There is an opportunity for agile development teams to become part of the organization’s learning process. Demonstrate that agility works and become a working model, not only on what to do differently, but why. It takes a continual stream of messaging over a period of time for organizations to learn new things and apply that learning in order for it to stick.

I’m deeply passionate about and firmly convinced of the transformational benefits of agility – organizational agility as well as agile development – that I’m willing to continually champion all things agile at every opportunity.  What can we do – or should we being doing – to promote agile more effectively and change how businesses operate?

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