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The agility misconception – Part 1


The ability of companies to adapt to rapidly changing markets is a critical success factor, especially these days. Shorter delivery cycles, flat hierarchies with short decision-making paths and innovation are more in demand than ever – and often these sensible and important strategic goals are not well implemented due to little planning, lack of entrepreneurial spirit and time. Good approaches are at risk to fade out just because they are promoted and THE solution to all problems without further reflection. Agility and agile transformation fall into this bucket. They are important and good strategies – but like any other solution they must be fit for purpose. Actually, they can become relevant resilience factors for companies in times of change – but they have to fit and need to be questioned.

“We must become agile” – the great misunderstanding or: the great mystery of “agility”

One of the biggest misunderstandings about agility and agile project management is to talk about agile project management at all – I hear this again and again in discussions. If the pure doctrine of the agile manifesto is taken as a basis, then this is actually the case.

But what in practice is already pure teaching – I say, and start to list the components of agile work that we have established in the team over the years, such as retros, Minimum Viable Product and a new understanding of roles. Yes, of course there are these elements, but they are just elements. Hm, how many elements of agile work must be established before I can talk about agile work? And when can we start talking about agile transformation? Is it enough to implement agile elements in companies or teams or does it have to be the pure form to speak of agile transformation?

There are many misunderstandings and prejudices here, because in fact the terms are not used properly – among other things because an agile transformation as such cannot be defined properly at all (in my opinion). And this is the soil on which word cases grow.

In this article I would like to pick up on a few misconceptions about agility and agile transformation that I often encounter and that I consider very important. Because whether it is called agile software development, agile project management or agile product development – for me, agile is one thing above all: a thoroughly sensible implementation of corporate strategy! Furthermore, I am convinced that agile work can help companies to overcome problems in a volatile, uncertain and complex world.

For me, agility thus becomes a central resilience criterion of a company, together with digitalization. And resilience is becoming an important survival factor for organizations, especially in these times when Corona is making the already enormous complexity of our world virtually unmanageable.

But agility is still not the answer to all questions, not the solution to all problems. It is therefore very important for a company to ask itself where it stands, what the goal of a possible (agile) transformation should be and which measures will lead there step by step.

The following misunderstandings are often formulated goals with which an agile transformation is justified. In my opinion, they are first and foremost corporate goals – whether an agile transformation leads there must be critically examined.

#1 – We are too slow – we must become agile!

Why? Because we’ll be faster. Okay, um… …sometimes it’s even true. First and foremost, the release cycles of output such as software prototypes, reporting prototypes or product prototypes are shorter, and this can indeed appear faster and sometimes even be faster. The actual delivery time of the finished product (if “finished” may even apply in an agile world) can be as early or late in reality as in a waterfall planning. However, early feedback and early iterations save the otherwise frequent hectic last-minute changes when the product planned according to the waterfall principle is delivered – and that can cost some time in the end. Nevertheless – if you are in a hurry, you have to go slowly. Agile work should not be confused with speed or hecticness. According to the Duden dictionary, “agile” means: “testifying to great agility; active and agile”. There is no talk of speed here yet. In fact, it is precisely this lack of agility and activity that makes a company more adaptable and thus more resilient.

So the following conclusion would be better: We have to go faster. How can we do this, and could “agility” be a way of helping us do so?

#2 – We have to make faster decisions – we have to become agile!

This is even true – in some cases. However, it usually takes some time for an organization to reach decisions. Agile hierarchies are flatter, so decisions are distributed among more people and one or a few members of higher hierarchical levels do not become a bottleneck.

To really get to the point where an organization is so well networked and positioned that it feels comfortable with more decentralized decision-making by more teams or individuals, a few steps are needed. Culture and values play a really big role here. An organization that sees itself as part of a complex whole and whose strategy is based on cooperation and collaboration is closer to an agile way of working than one that relies on clear structures, processes and decision-making paths. Both can be very successful and both can develop in the direction of “agile” – the way there will be very different for both. It is important to look honestly at the current situation and to check which changes and measures can lead from the “is” to the “should”. Agile is not the right measure in every company to make faster decisions. For example, increasing the efficiency of certain decision paths may be the better way for some organizations.

The opposite can also easily happen – decisions are not made faster, but not at all. An agile transformation that has not been carried out carefully can certainly make previous managers worried. If one of their previous functions and tasks was to make decisions, an agile transformation can lead to fear of disempowerment and loss of control on the part of the previous management level, with an – open or less open – boycott and complete lack of decision-making.

Here, too, another conclusion would be more appropriate: we need to make decisions more quickly. What is stopping us so far, and could “agility” be a way to help us do so?

#3 – We must become more innovative – we must become agile!

Innovation certainly has something to do with agility, especially if you focus on the meaning of the word according to the Duden: agile, active, mobile.

An agile mind, new perspectives and also tools and methods that stimulate creativity, recognize trends or that recognize and promote disruptive ideas – all this makes for innovation. Agile as an organizational form is not mandatory.

Innovation is not really a strategy at all, but a goal and simply a necessity in many areas. But where I do see the connection between agility and innovation: Flat hierarchies encourage more people in the company to become actively involved, so that the creativity of the masses, and not just of individual teams, is available to the company.

So here too, it would be better to ask yourself what blocks the innovative spirit of an organization and not to see “agility” per se as the solution.

#4 – We have been around for so long – we cannot become agile!

This is really a misunderstanding. There are criteria that make agile transformation difficult – and they can, but need not have anything to do with the age of the company. In my view, culture and the ability of an organization to change are much more important factors. The openness and willingness of the workforce to embrace change and also the ability of management to communicate a transformation transparently and with a meaningful vision play a much greater role than age. A company can have been active in the market for 30 years and have a greater openness and flexibility towards change than one that has somehow fallen asleep after only ten years.

This list of misunderstandings is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide examples of how strategy and strategy implementation can intermingle.

It should also show how important it is to deal with the meaning and goal of transformation in general, and then think about how to get there instead of starting with agile transformation and seeing it as a panacea.

But what I always find important: When planning a transformation, a company should always check to what extent an agile transformation can contribute to the achievement of objectives. Because as I mentioned at the beginning: Besides digitalization, I consider agile working to be one of the most important resilience factors of companies in our dynamic and complex times.

Picture: unsplash, Thanks to Susan Yin for sharing their work on Unsplash.

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