What are the top 3 barriers to achieving agility in organizations and why?

Each year, the agile community produces a ‘state of agile report’ that includes all the research, insights, and ideas around where agile currently is, what is working, and what the primary impediments to progress are so I would recommend you read that for a generalized insight into the industry.

In my experience and based on the conversations I have had with other agility practitioners, I would say it boils down to the following three (3) things.

  1. Lack of executive agility.
  2. Lack of agility in supporting or enabling functions.
  3. Flawed compensation and incentive programs

Lack of executive agility.

I see lots of progress with teams who are working at the coalface of product development, and I see great strides being made by suppliers who integrate into the organizational value chain, but there is a mistaken belief amongst executives that agility can occur without creating the environment for it to thrive.

I was talking to Joe Krebs yesterday, he is training me on Agile Kata, and he said something that really inspired me.

He said that we can’t create an environment for agile to thrive simply through PowerPoint decks and executive meeting rooms, we need an open space. We need a space that looks and feels different.

Often, when I first engage with executive teams around agility, their first request is for me to put together a slide deck. I get it, this is the way it has always been done, but potentially, there is far greater value if they engage with me differently too.

We are trying to do something different and incredibly powerful here.

We are trying to create an authentic path to business agility for the organization and sometimes that requires more than a slide deck and a slick pitch. It requires real engagement, interaction, and deep connection around the problems we are trying to overcome and the business objectives we are trying to achieve.

In a complex environment such as the 21st century marketplace, there are heaps of threats to ‘doing business as usual’. There is disruption from competitors, deep change in customer behaviour and preferences, and there is complex disruption from multiple variables in the global marketplace.

If we do things the way we always have, the organization could cease to exist within a few years.

We must embrace agility and that includes cultivating and growing executive agility.

Lack of agility in supporting or enabling functions.

A lot of the time, executives don’t really have autonomy or real power to create change. In some cases, executives don’t even have the power to create and authorize a purchase order.

They must go through a myriad of bureaucratic processes and cut miles of red tape before they can get a concept, idea or business case approved. It can be surprising, especially if – like me – you thought that all executives had the power and authority to make real decisions.

It’s like the organization has tied itself up in a knot and the executive and leadership teams are caught in a trap. A trap that prevents them from making any real, significant changes that could empower the organization to move forward effectively.

In a past engagement with an oil company, I worked with all the supporting functions throughout the company to negotiate different ways of working.

I would let them know that I was aware of all the list of things that they wanted completed and acknowledged the competing priorities between different departments and functions, but also invested time in making them aware of the customer priorities, the need for cross-functional collaboration, and the importance of delivering the most valuable work in order of priority.

I need to inform, educate, and empower them to understand the difference between the traditional approach to business and the business agility approach to value creation and delivery.

One of the significant breakthroughs came from acknowledging that rules are important, but that we need to prioritize and invest in the spirit behind those rules.

  • Must we follow these rules to the letter?
  • What is the purpose behind the rules.
  • What risk are we trying to manage and control?
  • Is there another way to achieve that purpose?
  • Can we honour the spirit of the rules but achieve them in a different way?

And so forth.

It helps to understand that rules are based on history. Controlling risk from the past.

Things have evolved a great deal and whilst we still want to control risk and achieve a business objective, we don’t necessarily need to do it the way it has always been done. We can pioneer new ways, reinvent old ways, and rejuvenate functions through agility without compromising the spirit of what those rules and laws intended to achieve.

Negotiating alternative ways to achieve the primary objectives and manage the primary risk was one of the most significant achievements of that client engagement.

Flawed compensation and incentive programs.

In my experience, the people who are in charge of the workflows, processes, and systems that determine how people are inspired in the company, are demotivated and demoralized.

In a command and control, hyper competitive environment, it doesn’t matter whether we achieve executive agility or agility in supporting functions because all the great work falls apart when people compete rather than collaborate.

When an executive is incentivized to work against another department, rather than with that department, it becomes incredibly hard to achieve organizational agility.

If the only way to get promoted and rise to power within the organization is to demonstrate anti-agile values and principles, your agile transformation will fail.

We need to incorporate horizontal growth with vertical growth.

If individuals can grow their earnings, job security, status, and power through demonstrating and embodying agile values and principles, growing agility in the organization is inevitable.

We can incentivise people to grow their skills, both business and technical skills, and we can increase earning potential for people that demonstrate all the capabilities, attitudes, and behaviours that we know increase organizational agility and effectiveness.

If we do this, we empower the organization to achieve true business agility. The ability to turn on a dime, for a dime, in response to both threats and opportunities. We create an organization that is resilient, powerful, and has unlimited potential for the future.

So, in my opinion, these are the 3 primary barriers to organizational agility and any organization that invests time, effort, and resources into overcoming these barriers will likely succeed in the future.

About John Coleman

John Coleman has deep experience and expertise working with executives, #leadership teams and product development teams to achieve increased #businessagility and create environments where creativity and collaboration produce high-performance teams.

https://linktr.ee/johncolemanxagility – social and podcast links

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