Scaling or Not, Agile Dynamics Beat Agile Mechanics Time After Time — Or, What’s Your Personal Agility Quotient?

(originally published 24 January 2008 by the Cutter Consortium Agile Email Advisor)

by Christopher M. Avery, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

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In his ongoing Agile Advisor series on agile transitions, Cutter’s Agile Practice Director Jim Highsmith referenced Cutter Senior Consultant Michael Mah’s extensive database showing the actual performance characteristics of companies pursuing agile methods adoption (see “Agile Transitions, Part 6: Rollout Strategies for Your Culture,” 17 January 2008). Jim wrote:

The highest levels of performance are reserved for those organizations that have altered their culture from top to bottom, and not just tried to “change” the individual contributor levels (developers, QA staff, product managers, etc.). Those companies that have accomplished changes in management style and altered their performance measurement systems to encourage agile development have gained the greatest rewards.

Is anyone surprised? I bet not.

It’s fantastic to have Michael’s evidence for confronting the true problem with agile adoption; i.e., that agility is really about mindset and culture, not about process and tools. But the overall finding isn’t news. Industry insiders, experts, and analysts have opined for years that the real problem in scaling agile beyond a few teams is cultural. Agile processes and tools — i.e., the “mechanics” — just don’t flow well in command-and-control cultures.

What’s missing? The dynamics of Personal Agility.

As a student of organizational agility — not just project agility — for the last 20 years, I’ve seen the same pattern time and again across a variety of productivity movements, including at least:

  • Total quality management, continuous improvement
  • Concurrent/simultaneous engineering
  • Business process reengineering (flattening)
  • Cross-functional teaming
  • Team-based organizing
  • Supply chain partnering
  • R&D consortia
  • Joint venture collaborations
  • Lean enterprise
  • Agile, Scrum, XP

Each of these productivity movements has required an identical set of cultural features for success. Those features include the following propensities:

  • For collaboration, partnering, and trust
  • For openness, transparency, and visibility
  • To adapt, iterate, and evolve
  • Toward heightened human awareness, learning, and the courage to confront reality
  • Agility requires it even more so.

Consider arranging results in a classic personal agility matrixtwo-by-two matrix that measures agile tools quotient (i.e., mechanics) on one axis and personal agility quotient (i.e., dynamics) on the other. The scaling trend I’ve seen has been that most agile adoption efforts today attempt to move from quadrant 1 (low agile tools quotient, low personal agility quotient) to quadrant 2 (high agile tools quotient, low personal agility quotient) by teaching and installing agile tools and processes — i.e., the mechanics. The result is much pain. When enterprises instead focus on developing the leadership and people dynamics of agility, what I call personal agility, they move from quadrant 1 to quadrant 4 (low agile tools quotient, high personal agility quotient). From there, it is a much easier and more successful move to install the mechanics.

So What Is Personal Agility?

Personal agility has two major components, the first of which is “personal responsibility.” Let’s start there.

I’ve studied personal responsibility since 1991 and have found that it is not just a character trait (or character flaw), as society teaches us to believe. Instead, responsibility is a mental process that each of us uses naturally either to avoid or to take ownership of our lives and choices. Frequently, it takes guts to own up to responsibilities. As a highly responsible person, you know this, and there are probably plenty of things you aren’t owning (the same is true for me). So the truth is that even highly responsible people do irresponsible things every day.

These little things make a huge difference in individuals, teams, and organizations. Unfortunately, there are more psychic rewards in most cultures for avoiding responsibility than for taking it!

It seems that when individuals at all levels opt-in, engage, and own their behaviors and results, then really great stuff happens. You don’t need to focus on driving people, because they are driving themselves.

The second component is “shared responsibility.” Shared responsibility is a natural shift in behavior whereby you and I are both willing to fill the gap between us (i.e., between our roles) when one of us drops the ball or when something goes wrong. I’m not talking about just mutual back-watching or reciprocity. I’m talking about when you absolutely know that helping me moves you toward your goal, and I absolutely know that helping you moves me toward my goal. In the language of team-building, shared responsibility is what “breaks out” when we fundamentally realize that we are in the same boat together, and that the only individual win comes from a collective win.

If you are interested in understanding more about how responsibility works in the mind, I have written extensively about both personal and shared responsibility in my Advisors and articles for Cutter as well as other places. What most people seem to want to know about it is how to develop it. The good news is that it is relatively easily developed in individuals, teams (even families), and enterprises willing to study and apply the principles and practices to leadership and decision making.

Posted in Agile, Recommended Resources, Responsibility on 01/24/2008 03:09 pm
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