Over the last year, more and more of our clients have been talking about an agile culture as their source of competitive advantage. They found that this change in culture required new organizational and leader behaviors to enable the new agile operating model.
We are supporting a few of our larger clients as they work to reconfigure their operating models to be more agile, quicker to react and ultimately more effective. They are looking for support for digitalization, lean process redesign, and outsourcing; all to try to bring silos, along with piecemeal operations and technologies, into integrated improvement programs designed to increase revenues, lower costs, and delight customers.
Having an agile operating model, and moving towards embracing and fostering an agile culture, requires a mindset that change becomes your business. Change needs to be thought of at the enterprise level to support the level of agility demanded.
Having agile skills and agile practices does not equal having an agile culture
An agile culture is no different from any other culture, and is defined by how people inside the organization interact with each other. Culture is learned behavior. It is not a by-product of operations, and it is not an overlay.
For example, an innovative culture is a product of the behaviors that we embrace throughout our organization. One of those elements is a willingness to have open and frank discussions about what separates great ideas from bad ones.
If you want to be innovative, you also need to accept failure. If your teams aren’t enabled to push boundaries, knowing that they will sometimes fail along the way, then you probably don’t have an innovative culture. Likewise, if the leadership perspective is focused solely on positive results “It’s only results that count!” then the culture is not innovative.
Instead, by accepting and even celebrating a failed effort, we encourage people to innovate more. We need to reward someone who tries, even if they fall short, because in so doing they have created an experience we can learn from and build upon, and that’s what innovation is all about.
The same holds true for agile. And an agile culture starts from the top.
Starting from the top, C-suite behaviors shape culture
We create our desired culture by the actions we each take as leaders. A lot of the difficulty associated with adopting agility has been attributed to a lack of C-level support and behavior modeling.
So, what are the agile leadership behaviors that send the right signals?
Interestingly, this idea of an agile culture is not new. Over 10 years ago the principles underlying agile from a software development perspective appear in the Agile Manifesto, published in 2001 by a small group of IT leaders. Principles of:
- People (overlapping communities) Over Process
- Dynamics (configured for speed, working in short iterations) Over Documents
- Collaboration (less about owning and more about sharing) Over Cascading
- Leadership (to serve and enable) Over Management
As Agile practices developed over the years, these principles have been associated with a number of myths, or misconceptions, about the practice of agile based on people’s experiences.
We can turn these myths around and use them to identify the right C-suite behaviors that will foster an agile culture.
Debunking agile myths and identifying the C-suite behaviors to drive an agile culture
- People over process does not mean a lack of discipline
There can be many innovative ideas for change, but leaders oversee the initiation of fewer initiatives because of their tremendous focus on each initiative.
Leaders clarify and reiterate the organizational context, as it changes, to provide a focused platform to manage the demand and desire for change.
- Dynamics over documents does not mean anti-architecture
Leaders understand that change is a contact sport and needs to be managed. Change also needs to be easy for people to access, if they are going to be optimistic, self-assured and dynamic in their contribution to achieving the future.
Leaders make long term investments in building resources which are accessible, skills that are transferable, processes which are repeatable and consistent. Re-inventing the wheel is not rewarded, because it is the enemy of agility.
- Collaboration over Cascading does not mean consensus
Those who try to lead by consensus can quickly see decision-making and execution grind to a halt. Agile leaders are crafting a different change leadership style that could get the benefit from a more hyperconnected environment.
A few years ago Marc Benioff (CEO of Salesforce.com) showed how this could be done using social media. Employees had already been using Chatter extensively and many of the people with critical connections to customer knowledge were adding the most value but were not even known to the leadership team.
Benioff was keen for leaders to craft a new leadership style that would loosen control but not lose control:
- Leaders model collaboration themselves: valuing both learning and sharing goals (which encourage exploring opportunities to acquire knowledge from others), versus performance goals (which induce people to favor tasks that make them look good).
- Attract and develop diverse talent: bring people together from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures and generations; rather than attracting talented employees only to subject them to homogenizing processes that kill creativity.
- Play the role of the connector: in his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell used the term “connector” to describe individuals who have many ties to different social worlds. It is not the number of people they know that makes connectors significant. It is their ability to link people, ideas, and resources that wouldn’t normally bump into one another. Leaders are the critical facilitators of collaboration.
- Balance strong and soft: maintaining agility by directing teams, forming and disbanding as opportunities come and go, AND coach and support their teams when people get weary and as implementation gets difficult.
- Leadership over Management does not mean that developers get to do what they like
Instead, leaders should be delaying implementation through using small investments to fund small releases (MVPs) until the imperative for change is clearly understood and shared.
Being an agile company is more than just running a few projects with agile processes and practices. Adopting agility is an organizational change. Agility needs to be fostered and supported throughout the organization, and modeled by the top leaders. An agile culture can be achieved when the C-suite embrace and driving agility throughout the organization, and model these behaviors.
And you are going to have to put in place a central change management tool to manage the entire process.
To learn more download our white paper, How to Deploy Organizational Change Long Term and Stay Agile in the Market.
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