What if “the way we’ve always done things” is the fastest way to agility?

Posted on September 12, 2018.

One of the biggest obstacles in changing the way your company works is undoing the years, often decades, of institutionalised inertia of “the way things have always been done.” There’s comfort in doing things the same way. It made us successful. It made us big! And, perhaps the most persuasive argument: no one ever got fired for doing it that way. So much of our organisational change efforts are focused on undoing these ways of working but, stay with me for a second, what if these etched-in-stone practices are actually the best and fastest way for us to become more agile?

I had the pleasure recently of listening to Jonathan Smart share his wisdom from years of transformational leadership. One thing Jon pointed out is that in the same way a martial artist uses her opponent’s momentum to improve her position in a fight you can use the things your organisation is good at — your internal, historical momentum — to promote better ways of working. It may sound unintuitive. How can being an organisation obsessed with meetings or building consensus with committees, for example, be good for driving org-wide agility?

It all depends how you use those tactics. Here are two examples:

“We’re great at project management!” — I had a client recently who listed out all the things they were particularly good at as a company. One of those things was project management. They were proud of their PjM’s and the work they did. Now, you know as well as I do that traditional project management flies in the face of many Agile practices. I have, on several occasions, talked about the inevitable death of project management as we know it today as Agile practices increase and improve. Nevertheless, this client had recently decided to build a wizard of oz MVP that required stringing together several departments, existing content, a few new landing pages and coordination with procurement and accounting. There were lots of moving parts and the team was on a tight, seasonal launch deadline. What to do? Project management to the rescue. The team brought in one of their top PjM’s to bring the experiment online in an orderly fashion and on deadline. Their ability to execute a list of tasks, manage the tasks to a deadline and coordinate the various people involved ensured their experiment got the exposure it needed to their target audience.

“Our financial planning season has become an annual tradition” — Stop me if you’ve heard that phrase before. Ok, I know you’ve heard it before. That said, how can this predictive, static, 100 year old practice be used to increase agility? Well, it depends on what gets discussed and presented during financial planning season. Yes, you still talk about budgets. But what you’re funding and how you’re funding it becomes the change that increases agility. We also change how we measure success. Here’s how another one of my clients did it. With decades of practice at it, financial planning season was one of my client’s strong suits. To increase their agility they maintained the focus on the “season” but changed a few things. First, they reduced the requirements for each “business case” required to get funding for next year’s initiatives. Instead of a 20–30 page slide deck, they asked for a single sheet pitch, similar to a business model canvas. Teams were expected to speak to their one-sheeters with context, justification and assumptions (listed from low to high risk) about their funding request. The assumptions included a list of features they were considering building. If approved, each team would get an “annual” budget but would only receive a quarter of it. At the end of each quarter, each team would present its work for the quarter, report on progress, what they chose to build, what fell by the wayside and what is coming up. The finance team would then be able to make (slightly) more real-time decisions about whether this initiative was still worth funding. If they saw proper progress, the team would get another quarter’s worth of funding to continue working. This way financial planning season began being distributed over the course of the year. The amount of effort that had gone in each fall was reduced significantly and, seeing the transient nature of features on a quarterly basis, helped the finance team reduce its obsession (over time) with feature-centric, delivery-centric ROI for each round of funding.

Each of these clients took one thing they were already good at doing — project management and financial planning in these cases — and used them to their benefit. Instead of fighting to change these ingrained practices they found value in refocusing this energy towards more agile ways of working. The end result was organisational change that felt more natural and less combative to those involved. It allowed people to do what they were already good at doing and still help the company progress.

Does this sound like something you might be able to use at your company? What are you already good at doing? Make a list then pick one of those practices and see how you can use it to increase the success of your Agile teams.

Good luck!


P.S. — I am extremely excited to share that Debbie Madden’s new book, Hire Women, from Sense & Respond Press is now available for purchase. Get your copy here.

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