Three Little Words

There are three little words that are easy to say yet extremely hard to actually demonstrate; sometimes you say them too soon, letting your heart rule your head.  Once you’ve said them you can’t take them back – they linger there, waiting for you to prove that they’re not just empty words.  So once you’ve said “we are agile”, how do you set about showing it?

Well first off you need to understand the difference between “agile” or “Agile” – the principles are still the same.  When you talk about Agile with a capital A you probably mean software development.  This is easy to implement as an IT project delivery method – get your IT supplier to find some guys who ride fold up bicycles to work, have humorous stickers on their laptop lid, whose idea of dressing up for a client meeting is to wear clean socks with their sandals, who have shares in 3M so they can do insider trading on post-IT notes – hey presto you’re doing Agile.

Yet even moving to Agile IT project delivery doesn’t make your company agile.  Without the lowercase “a” being adopted by your organisation, the uppercase “A” will invariably fail.  Your IT supplier will hoodwink you back into doing Waterfall whilst using Agile as a ready-made stick to beat you with.

So what does “we are agile” actually look like.  What will those three little words really mean for your company?  The best place to start is the dictionary – Agile (adjective):

  1. Able to move quickly and easily
  2. To be active and lively
  3. Marked by an ability to think quickly

Synonyms: Nimble, Quick, Dexterous, Lithe, Rapid, Sprightly, Swift

For a company to be agile, its people must have the ability to perform in accordance with the definition; the people must have a combination of skills, knowledge and experience – yet what makes them truly able is being empowered. 

Agile is an iterative approach to working that encourages a rapid and flexible response to the present situation; it promotes incremental evolutionary enhancement through prototyping and collaboration by adapting to and embracing change.  The key principles of being agile are valuing:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Tangible output over comprehensive documentation
  3. Collaboration over Contracts
  4. Responding to change over re-planning
  5. Adaptability over predictability
    The most valuable asset of an agile organisation is its people – the tools and processes are always secondary to the people, they must only exist to support the people.  If your organisation requires someone to have completed a process, to have filled out the correct form, then you are not agile.  An agile organisation focuses on the result – 3+6 or 7+1+1 or 3×3 or 11-2 –how you get there is less important than getting the right result.  An agile organisation doesn’t throw process and paperwork out of the window though – it just makes sure that they are proportionate to the outcome they support and that the successful output is valued above the process that supports it.

    Before you even dare to utter those three little words “we are agile”, you have to get used to the four letter “f” word.  It isn’t a bad word; agile organisations aren’t afraid to use it and they certainly don’t castigate their people for saying it or for doing it!  Stand up, take a deep breath and shout it out loud “FAIL”.  If you don’t fail, you don’t learn.  If you don’t fail, you aren’t prepared to take risks.  If you don’t fail you can’t reach your full potential because you don’t know where the limit is.  Good agile organisations fail often because they fail fast.  They are brave enough to try something new.  They manage their risks and exposure.  They recognise (and sometimes reward) failure when it happens so that they can stop before any damage is done.  They honestly evaluate, assess and analyse their failures so they benefit from them.  They refocus their efforts at the earliest opportunity to do something new.

    Within an agile organisation, the whole team works towards the same outcome; stakeholders don’t sit on the edge saying why something can’t be done the way you want to do it – you don’t have committees to decide what needs to happen – you don’t have gatekeepers telling you when you’re not following the procedure.  Agile organisations are structured so that if you’re a stakeholder you are part of the team; you are responsible for deciding what needs to be done and for getting it done.  Change isn’t a function or a set of processes – change is something you expect, so you don’t need to re-plan when it happens; agile organisations accept change, they embrace it and most importantly they respond to it.  Agile organisations don’t set off with certainty of outcome; they fail fast, they adapt to the current situation; they prioritise what is important and focus on relentless attainment of the things that add the most value.

    Agile organisations don’t pursue perfection – they know the reward isn’t worth the effort.  They are sometimes excellent, often brilliant, regularly good and rarely poor.  We all know someone that stands looking at themselves in the mirror for hours before they go out to buy a pint of milk from the corner shop.  An agile organisation would happily head out in their onsie, knowing that it will keep them warm, it won’t offend anyone (or if it does they will deal with it) and it will enable them to get the real task done.

    The final trait of an agile organisation is that every strand of the company DNA is agile.  It is a binary state – your organisation is either agile or it is not.  If one person, one department, or one committee penetrates the organisation with their process it will creep through to every part; it will grow and it will spread.  People will no longer be empowered; they will counter it with their own process; your organisation will no longer be agile.  Whether it is how you get time with the CEO or how you order paperclips, value the outcome over the process in exactly the same way for both.

    So whether you have thought long and hard about it or you have just blurted out – if you are prepared to back up those three little word by real action then maybe, just maybe people will look at your organisation and think – I love you.

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    About me

    Bryn Robinson-Morgan is an independent Business Consultant with interests in Identity Assurance, Agile Organisational Design and Customer Centric Architecture.  Bryn has near 20 years experience working with some of the United Kingdom’s leading brands and largest organisations.

    Follow Bryn on Twitter: @No1_BA

    Connect with Bryn on Linked In: Bryn Robinson-Morgan