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How to Create An Agile Organization

Becoming agile requires a mindset shift. Here’s how to get started.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 24, 2020

Culture Transformation Must Be Mindset Driven, Not Process Oriented

“What do you mean by becoming more agile?“ That’s my usual reaction every time a client tells me that they want to create an agile organization. It feels that executives are looking for a silver bullet – the one that everyone is using – to solve all their problems.

Agile has become a buzzword that people use for everything. From adopting a process to help teams work together and manage projects, to behaving like a startup, or simply moving faster.

Most agile transformations fail to deliver the promise. What we see is that companies try to “adopt agile” without changing their mindset.

Building an agile organization requires to not just adopt an agile methodology, but to “become more agile.” And that starts by encouraging a new mindset. In this piece, I will share the most critical mindset shifts and how to make the agile principles stick.

Agility: The Need for Speed and Adaptation

Executives have made extensive changes to deal with the COVID-19 disruption. The need to adapt has pushed organizations to increase the speed of adjusting their strategic direction, making decisions, and implementing actions.

The big question is, will they be able to sustain that change or will they go back to business as usual?

“We have adapted to work-from-home unbelievable well. We’ve learned that we can now hire and manage a company remotely.” – Heyward Donigan, CEO Rite Aid

Research by McKinsey shows that organizational speed is a crucial ingredient to increase performance, especially in times of unprecedented change. It pays off to be fast, outperforming competitors by a wide margin in profitability, operational resilience, and growth.

The trademarks of agile companies include a network of teams within a people-centered culture, operating in rapid learning, fast decision cycles which are enabled by technology, and a common purpose.

However, adding speed is not easy. It takes more than just encouraging your people to act quickly to get rid of siloes and limiting rules. What your employees think is what your organization becomes. To create an agile organization, you must change the corporate mindset first.

Your organizational mindset, more than anything else, determines business agility.

A mindset is a frame of mind; the sum of your team’s beliefs and thoughts that are vital to your culture. How people deal with mistakes, conflict, and making decisions – to name a few – affect your organizational speed.

Building an agile mindset requires more than just changing the way “we think.” It’s about transforming what really matters to the organization – and that starts by rethinking priorities.

How to Develop An Agile Mindset in Your Organization

Whether you are a leader of a business unit, the leader of your project team, or a team member looking to try new agile ways of working, here are 7 mindsets that will help you move from “adopting agile” to “behaving in an agile way.”

Think of them in terms of what you should prioritize.

1. Adapting to change over following a plan

How do we adapt and iterate instead of making long-term plans?

Hear me out before your planning or strategic mindset freaks out. I’m not saying “throw out planning” but to not spend too much time on planning.

Predictions are valuable in a predictable world, but lose any relevance in a VUCA reality. Rather than following plans, agile teams adapt to the changing reality because they are intrinsically driven to fulfill the organizational purpose.

Agile organizations thrive through sensing and responding to the changing environment. Rather than trying to predict and control, i.e. the mindset behind setting plans and goals, they sense and respond.

Something unexpected happened when nurses at the Dutch home care service Buurtzorg noticed that primary caregivers needed a break from taking care of their loved ones. Nurses came up with the idea to develop a bed and breakfast approach where patients could receive care, thus giving caregivers a break.

Becoming Burrtzorg Boardinghouse – a bed and breakfast solution for patients – was not part of any plan; it was a response to a problem nurses sensed.

2. Participation over power

How do we get everyone’s input rather than rely on a few people?

Usually, 80% of conversations in a meeting is dominated by just 20% of participants. Silence not only seeds disengagement, but also harms organizations. Companies fail to tap into the collective wisdom – a rich source of thinking to uncover the best possible solutions.

Creating courageous workplaces starts with making people more aware of what is hindering participation. Why are people afraid of speaking up? Which behaviors silence people or inhibit them from asking questions?

Participation and transparency go hand-in-hand. Slack’s default to open mindset or Spotify’s “every question will be answered” townhalls are perfect examples of this. However, agile organizations promote participation at a micro-level, too.

IKEA’s fikas (coffee in Swedish) create impromptu spaces for collaboration. Small talk quickly opens up more interesting conversations; employees end up collaborating and solving problems while sharing a coffee and a small piece of cake.

Nonprofit RHD created the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, a document that clarifies their detailed ground rules to encourage safe behaviors and forbid unacceptable ones. It covers the topics of conflict, expressing anger, decision-making, managing differences, and open communications.

Building an agile organization requires using transparency and open feedback to increase participation.

3. Vulnerability over certainty

How might we lead with questions rather than answers?

Uncertainty is the only certainty. Becoming agile requires supporting people to be themselves. From developing a shared vocabulary to express emotions, to supporting their community, or promoting self-reflection, agile teams view vulnerability as a strength – not a weakness.

Online retailer Zappos not only invites people to be themselves, but to set the “weirdo” inside them free. Zappos rewards being weird even over fitting in. This goes beyond company values; the company host dozens of events to celebrate one’s weirdness.

Embracing vulnerability requires leading with questions rather than with perfect answers. At agile organizations, reflection is a common practice that starts with oneself. This practice allows people to learn from mistakes, to adjust the course, and to continually improve.

Sounds True, for example, offers employees a space and time for silence and/ or meditation. Collaborating in silence increases cooperation and strengthens bonding.

Reflective practices are not just a personal development tool, but also a way to enable people to explore and develop new ideas. People learn to be more open-minded by being more present and paying greater attention to others.

4. Speed over consensus

How can we improve the speed of decision-making?

We often think that there are only two ways to make decisions: by consensus or by someone calling the shots. That’s why most organizations suffer from either dictatorship leadership or analysis-paralysis.

The solution lies in the middle; giving people the authority to act with input from others. Safe-to-try decisions are the antidote to trying to find the perfect solution that everybody will like. “Consent” is different from “consensus” – it’s a process that gives a go-ahead when no one has a reasoned, substantial objection. Consent doesn’t mean everyone loves the decision, but that they can live with it. 

Is it safe to try? Will this decision harm our team or move us backward? If no one can find an objective, realistic objection, then the proposer can move ahead.

California food processing company Morning Star uses an advice process to involve employees in the decision-making. The purpose is to understand people’s reactions, not to please everyone. A few years back, the CEO had an all-company videoconference where he shared a new strategic direction. Everyone was invited to reach out to him directly with concern, comments, or advice.

To create an agile organization don’t look for perfect decisions, but have a bias for action instead. They distribute authority to front-line employees or teams to move faster. They also involve people to uncover potential issues and move forward when it’s “safe to try.”

5. Autonomy over control

Can people decide how to work rather than be told what to do?

The carrot and stick model doesn’t work to truly motivate people. We are all driven by the desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves (a purpose) and want to define how we work, on what, and with whom (autonomy).

That’s why command-and-control organizations fail to drive engagement, they are trying to persuade people to enjoy their work instead of letting them define what drives them.

At videogames developer Valve, employees can choose which projects they want to work on. People don’t join projects because they’re told to; instead, they ‘vote’ on projects with their desks-on-wheels.

Strong projects staff up quickly at Valve because people are attracted to them. However, if an employee is working on something that’s going nowhere, they can opt-out by simply moving their rolling desk to a more exciting place.

Autonomy is the best way to reward people. Control and micromanagement are not scalable; not only do they fail to motivate people, but they limit the organization’s potential. COVID-19 drove many organizations to delegate more authority – some by chance, others by choice. The truth is that it unleashed a level of responsiveness that was unthinkable until the crisis shook everything up.

6. Action over analysis

How can we make meetings more action-driven?

Organizations spend too much time in meetings. The problem is not the meetings, per se, but having endless conversations that go nowhere. Unproductive meetings are driven by analysis-paralysis, not action.

In agile organizations, meetings are how teams get work done. However, they don’t meet simply because they have decided to or feel they should; they meet only when they need to. Meetings can happen spontaneously to deal with unexpected issues, and scheduled meetings can be cancelled if there’s nothing concrete to address.

Agile teams have fewer, shorter meetings yet are more productive. They are properly designed and facilitated with a clear outcome, not an agenda, in mind. In top-down companies, most meetings take place to make people aware of what’s going on.

At French metal manufacturing company FAVI, teams follow a rhythm of meetings to suit the manufacturing process:

  • a short tactical discussion at the start of every shift
  • a weekly meeting with the sales account manager to discuss orders
  • a monthly meeting with an open agenda

Beyond that, they don’t have any other scheduled meetings. They just get together to address unexpected events.

Agile organizations meet not to talk about work, but to make things happen. Communication happens in the open – they don’t need a meeting for that.

7. Progress over perfection

Do we focus on what’s working or on what’s missing?

Perfectionism usually gets in the way of getting things done. By trying to find the perfect solution, teams get stuck and fail to launch. The difference between successful organizations and others is not that they have better ideas, but that they launch faster.

Agile teams are comfortable with messy, imperfect, scrappy ideas. They prefer to put a prototype in front of clients rather than waiting months to build the best solution. They have a bias for action; they don’t try to get it right the first time. They learn as they go and iterate. Team members are encouraged to sense opportunities and use the advice process to get feedback.

Pixar has built a culture of collaboration and creativity, turning ugly babies into successful movies. The first rounds of ideas for a movie are far from perfect. By using braintrusts, team members get early feedback and input from colleagues, helping move the project at speed. Also, there are no hierarchies and everyone can talk to anyone regardless of their title.

In agile environments, anyone and everyone can be an innovator. Prioritize  sprints over big moves, steer continuously, and commit to a cadence.

Creating an agile organization is not about adding new processes but about unlocking the potential that already exists. It’s more about removing rules, practices, and mindsets that get in the way.

An agile transformation is a transformation of the people first. Adopting an agile mindset requires prioritizing speed, action, participation, and progress over everything else.

Do you need help developing an agile mindset in your team or organization?
Schedule a free consultation call.
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