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On Learning and Information by Liz

Published Tue 31 May 2016 15:32

This has been an interesting year for me. At the end of March I came out of one of the largest Agile transformations ever attempted (still going, surprisingly well), and learned way more than I ever thought possible about how adoption works at scale (or doesn’t… making it safe-to-fail turns out to be important).

The learning keeps going. I’ve just done Sharon L. Bowman’s amazing “Training from the Back of the Room” course, and following the Enterprise Services Planning Executive Summit, I’ve signed up for the five-day course for that, too.

That last one’s exciting for me. I’ve been doing Agile for long enough now that I’m finding it hard to spot new learning opportunities within the Agile space. Sure, there’s still plenty for me to learn about psychology,  we’re still getting that BDD message out and learning more all the time, and there’s occasional gems like Paul Goddard’s “Improving Agile Teams” that go to places I hadn’t thought of.

It’s been a fair few years since I experienced something of a paradigm shift in thinking, though. The ESP Summit gave that to me and more.

Starting from Where You Are Now

Getting 50+ managers of MD level and up in a room together, with relatively few coaches, changes the dynamic of the conversations. It becomes far less about how our particular toolboxes can help, and more about what problems are still outstanding that we haven’t solved yet.

Of course, they’re all human problems. The thing is that it isn’t necessarily the current culture that’s the problem; it’s often self-supporting structures and systems that have been in place for a long time. Removing one can often lead to a lack of support for another, which cascades. Someone once referred to an Agile transformation at a client as “the worst implementation of Agile I’ve ever seen”, and they were right; except it wasn’t an implementation, but an adoption. Of course it’s hard to do Agile when you can’t get a server, you’ve got regulatory requirements to consider, you’ve got five main stakeholders for every project, nobody understands the new roles they’ve been asked to play and you’re still running a yearly budgeting cycle – just some of the common problems that I’ve come across in a number of large clients.

Unless you’ve got a sense of urgency so powerful that you’re willing to risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater, incremental change is the way to go, but where do you start, and what do you change first?

The thing I like most about Kanban, and about ESP, is that “start from where you are now” mentality. Sure, it would be fantastic if we could start creating cross-functional teams immediately. But even if we do that, in a large organization it still takes weeks or months to put together any group that can execute on the proposed ideas and get them live, and it’s hard to see the benefits without doing that.

There’s been a bit of a shift in the Agile space away from the notion that cross-functional teams are necessarily where we start, which means we’re shifting away from some of the core concepts of Agile itself.

Dan North and Chris Matts, my long-time friends and mentors, have been busy creating a thing called Business Mapping, in which they help organizations match their investments and budgets to the capacity they actually have to deliver, while slowly growing “staff liquidity” that allows for more flexible delivery.

Enterprise Services Planning achieves much the same result, with a focus on disciplined, data-driven change that I found challenging but exciting: firstly because I realise I haven’t done enough data collection in the past, and secondly because it directs leaders to trust maths, rather than instincts. This is still Kanban, but on steroids: not just people working together in a team, but teams working together; not just leadership at every level, but people using the information at their disposal to drive change and experiment.

The Advent of Adhocracy

Professor Julian Birkenshaw’s keynote was the biggest paradigm shift I’ve experienced since Dave Snowden introduced me to Cynefin, and those of you who know how much I love that little framework understand that I’m not using the phrase lightly.

Julian talks about three different ages:

The Industrial Age: Capital and labour are scarce resources. Creates a bureaucracy in which position is privileged, co-ordination achieved by rules, decisions made through hierarchy, and people motivated by extrinsic rewards.

The Information Age: Capital and labour are no longer scarce, but knowledge and information are. Creates a meritocracy in which knowledge is privileged, co-ordination achieved by mutual adjustment, decisions made through logical argument and people motivated by personal mastery.

The Post-Information Age: Knowledge and information are no longer scarce, but action and conviction are. Creates an adhocracy in which action is privileged, co-ordination is achieved around opportunity, decisions are made through experimentation and people are motivated by achievement.

As Julian talked about this, I found myself thinking about the difference between the start-ups I’ve worked with and the large, global organizations.

I wondered – could making the right kind of information more freely available, and helping people within those organizations achieve personal mastery, give an organization the ability to move into that “adhocracy”? There are still plenty of places which worry about cost per head, when the value is actually in the relationships between people – the value stream – and not the people as individuals. If we had better measurements of that value, would it help us improve those relationships? Would we, as coaches and consultants, develop more of an adhocracy ourselves, and be able to seize opportunities for change as and when they become available?

I keep hearing people within those large organizations make comments about “start-up mindset” and ability to react to the market, but without having Dan and Chris’s “staff liquidity”, knowledge still becomes the constraint, and without having quick information about what’s working and what isn’t, small adjustments based on long-term plans rather than routine experimentation around opportunity becomes the norm.

So I’m going off to get myself more tools, so that I can help organizations to get that information, make sense of it, and create that flexibility; not just in their products and services, but in their changes and adoptions and transformations too.

And I’ll be thinking about this new pattern all the time. It feels like it fits into a bunch of other stuff, but I don’t know how yet.

Julian Birkenshaw says he has a book out next year. I can’t wait.


This article was originally published here.