When do you not want an agile team?

For the past few years I’ve been an agile enthusiast, and I still am. But when we talk of scaling agile to the organization, it is easy to forget that agile practices work well under certain conditions. Many teams in an organization will not be able to create those conditions, and standard versions of agile rituals will not work as well for them as other “project management” approaches. This is old news, going back to the 1994 classic “The Wisdom of Teams” at least, but I don’t see it shared in most descriptions of “how to scale agile”.

In “The Wisdom of Teams”, the authors describe a productivity curve — the Y axis is productivity, and the X axis is how close a team is to being “real” or “high-performing”. The most interesting thing about the curve is that there is a substantial dip in productivity just at the start. To the left of the dip, a team is not really a team — it is a working group, with a clearly defined leader coordinating the work. The dip represents a period of self-organizing (often described with the classic Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing cycle). On the other side of the dip, we have teams with progressively more of the qualities we would consider to be “agile” today, enjoying ever-greater productivity.

The key is, if your team cannot work closely together in the same physical or virtual space, with constant easy informal communication, with every member taking responsibility for the work of the whole, then your team cannot make effective use of agile practices. Formal delegation and differentiated roles are necessary if the team’s ad hoc coordination takes more than a few seconds to arrange. Literally three seconds! I think the process of making a phone/VOIP call is long enough that it requires a context switch, and that means that the work stops. When I say “the same virtual space”, I mean working with the IM chat window open or conference call running, for hours at a time.

There are hacks available — for example, arranging work sessions where everyone is online at the same time, or working from the same office (or cafe). But unless this is the only way your team works, you will still need to divide up the work, which implies more structure than is usually part of “best practice” agile.

The approach used in sociocratic organizations represents a good example of how you can scale agile with a mix of team / working group types. Each team (in Sociocracy, a “circle”) meets at least once a month to do the team learning and decision-making that makes agile or lean teams into “guaranteed learning organizations”. At that time, they have the characteristics of a “real team”, setting their methodology together and taking ownership of their outputs as a team. Between these “circle meetings”, however, some sociocratic circles use agile ritual, and others use classic approaches such as PRINCE2, with a high degree of coordination and direction from an “Operational Leader”.

In sociocratic organizations, a double-link connects teams up and down the functional hierarchy. It provides guidance from the general teams to the more specific and provides feedback from the specific to the general. A lead link (the “Operational Leader” just mentioned) provides a downward connection from the more-general circles to the more-concrete ones; a measuring link (a “Representative” elected by the more-concrete circle, who participates in the monthly “circle meetings” of both lower and upper circles) provides an upward connection. Thus, each circle has a well-defined structural connection to the circles above it (and below it). With the structural feedback loop built into the organization by these two roles, each circle is tightly coupled and dynamically steerable — whether they use agile processes internally, or more elaborate formal structures.

Does my description of “when you can’t use agile” match your experience of working in various teams? Are you familiar with other ways of scaling agile which don’t require every team to use the same methodology? Let me know!

Beyond the Learning Organization

We face a dramatic challenge. We are changing our climate and driving species to extinction on a scale similar to the asteroid and/or volcanic eruption that destroyed the dinosaurs. We struggle with social inequality (from slavery to the prison industry to our failure to invest in poor youth), theft of our cultural commons (theft both legal and illegal), and the tyranny of mass surveillance and robotic war. Our global governance systems pit one nation against another, one social class against another, and all against the very ecology on which we depend for life and livelihood. Learning organizations are necessary, but getting better at capitalism — improving our ability to extract value for shareholders — is not enough. Humanity and the biosphere — what we think of as ‘the world’ — needs more than ‘learning organizations’ at this point in history. We need radical change. We need Genius Organizations.

We are indebted to Peter Senge and his collaborators for the concept of the learning organization.  That concept, and the various practices shared through books such as The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, have been constant guides through our  professional lives.  For those reasons, people who hear the phrase “Genius Organization” may think we simply mean “learning organization, re-branded”.  It is true that every Genius Organization must be a learning organization, but it must be a very specific kind of learning organization — perhaps what every learning organization should be.

Defining the Genius Organization
A “Genius Organization” is an organization which serves a community both by cultivating the community’s genius and by delivering a particular set of products the community values.

We understand the “genius” of a community to be a combination of special resources (tools, location, history, etc.), useful complexity (knowledge, social organization, social diversity, biodiversity, etc.) and integrity (mutually beneficial connectedness within the community and with its environment).  A community’s genius allows it to produce value in a way that no other community can.

A Genius Organization must be able to maintain a long-term commitment to delivering human development that also benefits the ecologies on which people depend, and must deliver on that commitment with ever more skill over time. A Genius Organization is what Arie de Geus would call a “living company”.

When we use the word “community”, we include the physically co-located communities of neighborhood, village, and watershed, the virtual communities of social networks, the temporary communities of festivals and gatherings, and the broader extensions of these meanings to cities, regions, industry sectors, social classes, psychographic and demographic units.  The important thing is that a community must in some way be self-organizing — “teenagers” are not a community, but “teenagers that go to Beatles concerts” were a community, in the way we use the term.  “Baby boomers that went to Beatles concerts and still love the Beatles today” are a community in the way we mean it, because that group of people accesses the same media and shares an “imagined territory”.  Most of the communities served by Genius Organizations today are imagined communities, in the sense Benedict Anderson used when coining the phrase.  In other words, the people do not all know each other, but they relate to the same media and the same stories about a shared “imaginary territory” — an imaginary territory which may also be physically real, like the physical territory controlled by the United States of America, or which may be virtual or temporary, like the performances of a pop music act or the playspace of an online game.

The Genius Organization provides a kind of servant leadership to its community by enabling that community to develop and transform, in addition to providing whatever other products it may offer.  In fact, those “other products” are usually the means by which the genius organization delivers the transformation.  CSR (“corporate social responsibility”) is usually a separate functional silo within large companies; it makes grants to deserving charities.  While making grants to charity is a desirable thing, a Genius Organization requires CSR (like all functions) to be integrated in the product-based divisions of the organization. Corporate social responsibility is a practice throughout a Genius Organization, and results in strategic benefits that disconnect charitable grants cannot.

Required Ingredients
Every Genius Organization must have certain qualities or practices in order to reliably deliver the servant leadership that makes it a Genius Organization.

In order to understand its community and serve it effectively, the Genius Organization must be a Lean Enterprise (or at least a Lean organization) — it must understand what its customers value, and take responsibility for the whole value chain involved in delivering value to its customers.

A Genius Organization must understand its product in terms of the customer’s experience, and it must bring the different elements of customer experience together into a guided transformation.  This requires an understanding of personal, organizational, and community development and transformation.  At a minimum, this means that the Genius Organization implements the five disciplines of the learning organization. Most Genius Organizations will benefit from practice of user-centered design, lean or agile product development, and personal transformation of the kind documented in ‘Presencing’ by Senge et al. or taught by the Hendricks Institute.

Finally, the Genius Organization must have the structures, processes, and skills necessary for it to govern and manage itself in a deeply participatory manner. If the governance structure is not strongly participatory, there will be a tendency over time for an influential group in the company (such as management) to enrich itself at the expense of the other stakeholders (e.g. shareholders, other workers, and the human and biotic communities where the company does business).  Cautionary tales abound — such as the example of WireMold, once an exemplary Lean company, which was sold and placed under management that was not committed to Lean, resulting in the evaporation of a decade’s devotion to learning and excellence. Either the Genius Organization uses a management and governance structure such as Sociocracy, or it will endure great risks with each new owner and each new generation of management.

Progress on the Journey
When a company is functioning as a Genius Organization, that is the beginning of a journey which may continue for centuries.  I suggest that, as a leader, you track your ongoing success on at least these measures: the productivity of your colleagues, the wellbeing of colleagues, trading partners, and ecosystems where you operate, customer satisfaction, and the resilience of your communities.

To truly transform our world for the better, we must go beyond the learning organization.  Genius organisations learn constantly, but they intentionally serve their communities in very particular ways and they are structured to ensure that they continue to serve into the indefinite future.