The Agility of (Relative) Autonomy

The Agility of (Relative) Autonomy

What is not to like in a good Agile Transformation? Probably nothing, if there only was such thing as a “good Agile Transformation”.

We keep hearing about Digital, Agile, Business Transformations, but what these stories have in common is the fact that they are never straightforward, without a great deal of pain, and marked by high turnover. Defining any of these programmes a “transformation” is in most of the cases an understatement, as they are predominantly disruptive, almost violent, in the way they unhinge the old internal dynamics.

However, what we have to be ecstatic about is the fact that the tide has finally changed and many companies recognise how they have failed at sustainably moving into the Agile space, so far. They thought it was all about having standups and letting teams chose a fancy name for themselves (yes, I am exaggerating, but how far off am I?) and soon they started wondering why they were not harvesting from their Agile teams as much as the Agile dream (not the Manifesto, by the way) was promising.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros

As many of those organisation have realised by now, Agile is not a cure-all solution. It is a paradigm, a philosophy that we can easily abstract from the software development context within which it was designed, an outline of ways of working that seem to be a much better answer than command-and-control structures, to the challenges ahead and to the Millennial post-revolution.

The shortcomings of top-down models are hardly deniable today. Weak and unattractive company culture, low innovation rate, lack of proactivity, diminished loyalty are among the main issues that a strongly hierarchical company would face today.

The question is how these firms will deliver on the request for sustained quality, continuous improvement, shorter time-to-market. Organisations are ultimately subject to a constant demand for far greater resilience and meaningful adaptability to change, and that is precisely where the Agile philosophy comes on stage, with a new vocabulary, new values, new parameters, ultimately a new culture.

What many doubt is whether or not Agile can concretely support the transformation from the inside and help to drive value across the organisation, and can stop being just another buzzwords, the emblem of an ambition to change the dialectic in and between companies, but that never gets to change them in the substance.

The Agile Transformation

One of the most exciting features of an “Agile Transformation” is that while moving towards the Agile space, companies are also meeting some of the demands of their Millennial employees. For instance, autonomy, even if never listed as one of the fundamental postulates, is a cornerstone of Agile, as we can infer from the frequent exhortations to empower self-organising teams. Many Agile frameworks also urge to resort to open and regular communication to facilitate the flow of information. Both make it in the top five requirements that Millennials seek in a company.

Leaders who tapped into and adopted a more Agile culture, who have been available to renounce to top-down directives in favour of self-governing authorities, who replaced command-and-control groups with more creative (and agile) teams, started seeing the virtues of a more adaptive organisation, in which executives still determine the “what”, but entrust their teams to define the “how”.

The benefits of Agile Transformation are not only in the internal dynamic of companies. One of the most unexpected results of entrusting a self-organising team to nurture the relationship with customers, for instance, is the ability to move up the point of engagement with them.

What I mean is that a traditional company, a software house for instance, would engage their customers through a rigid structure made of multiple departments or teams, each with a precise domain or expertise: every customer would have an account manager, a client service manager, a sales manager, a customer care team, and so on. This setting would in all likelihood turn out to be a costly obstacle to keeping the customer engaged as early as possible in the product development process, and all those dedicated managers just a glorified churn-fighting task-force.

The cost of a layered company structure.
The cost of a layered company structure – ©2018 Mirko Grewing

The main principles behind the Agile Manifesto are self-explanatory of why Agile could be not just a mantra for software development and delivery, but a whole new way of thinking a company and, perhaps, a solid foundation for an alternative to the old way of doing business.

Agile teams are by definition cross-functional, and customer focussed. Although there might not be an out-of-the-box solution for every company in every industry, having t-shaped people from different domains within the same team will immensely help to move towards more proactive stances in a shorter time-cycle.

The Line of Autonomy

Having good, agile, cross-functional teams is just the first step companies have to take to start moving into the Agile space. However, without a strong mandate, Agile teams won’t work

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

from “Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

The principles per se are not enough if the team does not have the trust of the board. On one side, having to report and refer to the steering committee for every decision will remove all the agility that a cross-functional team can offer. On the other, every organisation must ensure that all agile teams are aligned with the company vision.

That is why it is of utter importance that the business unequivocally identifies the Line of Autonomy, the point from which the Agile team is the owner and the upper management doesn’t interfere.

Line of Autonomy
The Line of Autonomy – ©2018 Mirko Grewing

Above the Line of Autonomy, the organisation provides leadership in regards to keeping all teams aligned to the vision and, to a degree, between each other. Below the line, each team has nearly full autonomy to make and execute a plan aiming at achieving the company objectives. Of course the plan, as such, provides direction for a fixed term and must be recalibrated at regular intervals.

Teams have to understand how to maintain synergy and synchronisation between disciplines, how to define priorities, how to quickly react to changes and learn from mistakes without central management intervening, and while also ensuring alignment with the company vision.

Agile is multidisciplinary, fast-paced, adaptive by design, and when implemented correctly it almost always results in extended productivity, higher morale, and better quality than top-down management.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them

Ernest Hemingway

Trust is the engine of this whole process. However, trust is a 2-way road: management must trust the team leadership to make autonomous choices, and the team must earn that trust by consistently delivering results.

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