Designing your Agile Organization

Last month at the Paris Scrum Gathering, a colleague and I ran a workshop on designing an Agile organization using Lego. We have done this type of design modeling for several years now. We’ve learned a great deal about organizational dynamics by both going through this process ourselves, and facilitating organizational design with teams.


We licensed the method under Creative Commons and have made it available to everyone. We call it Whole-Team Dynamic Organizational Modeling. When teams engage in designing their own organizations, they are much more likely to accept the trade-offs they have to make in order to deliver their products and services to the market. No organization is perfect. Each model creates its own set of silos. Each model is tuned to be effective within a particular organizational culture. All solutions have a messiness that is unavoidable. The usual reason for re-designing an organization is improved throughput and higher value delivery to customers. Sometimes, the organizational design is crafted to achieve a specific outcome related to culture or product architecture. Goals vary, but the act of building and testing an organizational model reveals consistent insights.

You can find more information at, including a facilitation guide to help you plan and deliver your own modeling experience.


Whole-Team Dynamic Organizational Modeling a Success at Agile2012

Yesterday, Catherine Louis and I delivered our three-hour workshop on “Whole-Team Dynamic Organizational Modeling” at the opening of the conference. It was well-attended–standing room only. Our colleague, Neil Johnson wrote about in his AgileSOC blog here. InfoQ wrote an article about it here. Thanks to Shane Hastie of InfoQ for attending and sharing our work with everyone.

Sources of Complacency

Leading change without a Sense of Urgency… is it possible? John p. Kotter lists 9 sources of complacency. They are:

  1. The absence of a major and visible crisis.
  2. Too many visible resources.
  3. Low overall performance standards.
  4. Organizational structures that focus employees on narrow functional goals.
  5. Internal measurement systems that focus on the wrong performance indexes.
  6. A lack of sufficient performance feedback from external sources.
  7. A kill-the-messenger-of-bad-news, low candor, low confrontation culture.
  8. Human nature, with its capacity for denial, especially if people are already busy or stressed.
  9. Too much happy talk from senior management.

So now what? Kotter recommends BOLD action. He suggests:

  1. Link 50% of top executives’ pay to significant quality improvements.
  2. Find ways to get all the external customer complaints in front of everyone every week.
  3. Sell the jet and corporate headquarters and move into a building that looks more like a battle command center.
  4. Set an objective to become #1 or #2 or we are forced to liquidate and shut our doors in 2 years.
  5. Set your business targets so high they cannot be met doing business as usual.
  6. Stop measuring sub-unit performance and narrow functional goals.
  7. Use consultants to help force the honest conversations that need to happen.
  8. Use company newsletters/communication to provide not only good news, but business reality.
  9. Bombard people with information on these future opportunities for capitalizing on these opportunities, and on the organization’s inability to do so.

Over-managed and under-led cultures fail to do this according to Kotter.

The Longitude Problem

Expert entrainment is both good and bad depending on the domain in which it is applied. Dave Snowden‘s video explains why. Not only is this instructive, it is humorous. The main points I took away were:

  1. Despite having a plausible theory and good empirical proof, uptake of a new idea is not a slam-dunk. External pressure is needed to to drive change in many instances.
  2. Mental filters cloud our thinking. Adapting one set of mental tools to solve a problem in another domain can fail when you are operating the complex domain.
  3. And finally, the Welsh discovered America.

Leading change effectively means dealing with expert entrainment by adding competing perspectives. Enjoy…

The Trajectory of Change

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on leading change at AgileTourRTP. The presentation is now available on SlideShare here. You can view it right here also.

Change is an emotional journey, for the change agent, as well as the colleagues you lead through change. Understanding the emotional arcs or trajectories that you will personally experience, as well as the emotions of others provides you with tools to lead change more effectively. The presentation has three parts:

  • Context – the business in which I work and the challenges of Wireless Telecom.
  • Experiences with Change – what I have personally witnessed as a change agent in our business, going from traditional to Agile.
  • The change models that can help you understand what to expect in terms of both emotions, action and performance.

There is also a caution here. Emotional responses can be unexpected. Being open and aware and not relying on cookie-cutter change formulas gives you a better chance of success. Given that two-thirds of all change initiatives fail to deliver on their promise, it is wise to carefully observe how emotion is playing out in your context, on an individual as well as organizational level.

Change only occurs when individuals see the value of it, can visualize a better future, and can see a personal cost/benefit trade-off that makes the journey worthwhile. Resistance to change is human nature. Change violates the equilibrium and status quo. Individuals and organizations are invested both financially and emotionally in the status quo. It provides a sense of identity and belonging. Influencing people to “leave home” and venture into the unknown requires care, a support system, and compassion. The journey is difficult and loaded with unseen obstacles.

The key to successful change lies in creating conditions where emotions are tied to focus, thus creating engagement. Ask yourself:

  • How do I personally feel about change?
  • Can my colleagues articulate the vision in their own language, in their own personal context?
  • Is the value of change clear and does it feel within reach?
  • Am I using more than rational explanations to describe the future? Am I tapping into how the new world will feel?
  • Have I created a support system that my colleagues can leverage to air their concerns and issues in an open and safe environment?
  • Am I championing those who take the leap?
  • Am I helping those who fail to try again, with compassion?
  • Am I providing “air cover” for those that venture out into the unknown?
  • Am I filtering the noise and turbulence so people can focus?

Change is hard. Think about the rational argument of more exercise and better eating habits to lose weight. We know it’s the best way to shed unwanted pounds. But without focus, emotional engagement, and a support system, change can fail.

Adapt or Die – US Military develops Agile Leaders

I read a very interesting paper on why the traditional Command and Control, plan up-front approach steeped in military history must change.

“Operating within an uncertain, unpredictable environment, the Army must be prepared to sustain operations during a period of persistent conflict—a blurring of familiar distinctions between war and peace.” This is a protracted war against adversaries employing irregular, unconventional, and asymmetrical means. The implications of this new context are clear: “Adapt or Die.”

The landscape of warfare has changed. More uncertainty, hidden enemies, and unpredictability. Training leaders to respond in this context requires a different approach.

The Army’s Training and Leader Development Panel (ATLDP) Officer Study concluded that, because of the ambiguous nature of the future operating environment, leaders should focus on developing the “enduring competencies,” or what they call metacompetencies, of self-awareness and adaptability. They recognized that the two were symbiotic; one without the other is useless. These metacompetencies are the essential building blocks of learning. Agility embodies this symbiotic relationship between self-awareness and adaptability. In this paper, agility is a metaphor for self-awareness and adaptability in action, the essence of learning.

Adapting fast requires changes in doctrine and the evolution of rapid organizational learning.

The process of rapid, effective organizational learning is the essence of organizational agility.

Senior leaders have the authority and resources to drive this change into their organizations, be they military organizations, or otherwise. The organization’s culture must be tuned to allow Agility to take hold. Differences between British and American military culture is telling.

Culture is unique; it is the organization’s personality based on its own set of experiences. Nagl’s study, as well as others that he cites, show the differences between the American and British military cultures and the impact on their ability to innovate during conflict. His conclusion is that differences in organizational culture allowed the British military to adapt and learn during its irregular warfare experience of counterinsurgency in Malaya, while the U.S. Army’s culture prevented it from learning during its similar experiences in Vietnam. Culture, an organization’s conventional wisdom about its essence, is a powerful lens that organizations use in interpreting their experiences and determining how or what to learn from these experiences.

The change in mindset required is the adoption of the “culture of innovation”

The training approach recommended in this paper is a move away from the traditional master-apprentice approach to that of co-learner and facilitator. I’ll close with this quote from the paper which says it all.

Rather than operating in a paradigm that perceives certain determinable linear cause-and-effect relationships, students will operate in a context that sees holistic, open, dynamic, emergent, complexly organized, rationalistic relationships that are too complex to be absolutely known. Applying knowledge and skill sets in this complex and ambiguous environment, dealing with the unexpected, operating with incomplete information, and making calculated decisions of risk all increase individual agility.

You can find the paper here.

Perfection and Pragmatism

This is a long post, so here is the digest version first.

  • Develop a vision of perfection for your Agile business that includes the product AND the people that create it.
  • Think about what it feels like to work in this perfect Nirvana – engage your right brain.
  • Start moving toward that vision now as fast as you can without losing control – be pragmatic.
  • Be prepared to suffer some mental pain along the way – so eat cookies and drink milk.

That’s it. The rest of the post is some ranting to prime some thinking.

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