Adaptability is the behaviour. Agility is the consequence.

Two female project managers arranging Post-Its on a clear board to manage tasks and stages for their project

Like their traditional counterparts, organizations that are struggling with Agile face the lack of executive involvement.

Despite Agile’s success in addressing software development issues, it hasn’t addressed strategic leadership. This is where I believe the real issue is now and the place where organizations that are using Agile approaches are running into their greatest impediments.

LarryCooperYou might feel a rumbling of recognition about this problem and see parts of the Agile community talking about the need for more senior level participation, though it’s not always articulated well. That said, there is hope with the Business Agility Institute which is tackling this issue by taking a whole of organization view of the problem; engaging organizations that have already done it, along with those that want to and connecting them with those that can help them become more adaptable and agile.

Meanwhile, the existing certifications on the market can give you some perspective into the increasingly blurred lines between methods and the fact that no single approach offers the whole answer.

For example, the Scrum community used to say Scrum is all you need; however, while Scrum starts with the premise that a product should be built, where and when was the strategic choice for it made? Is it even the right product? Is it the one we should be working on now? What else might we need to do and when?

Both authors of the Scrum Guide, Ken Schweber and Jeff Sutherland, have recognized this by adding the Nexus Framework and [email protected] to their respective offerings. Though both are still largely product focused, [email protected] acknowledges the leadership gap with the inclusion of the Executive Action Team (EAT). However, the EAT is still largely about product development rather than organizational strategy.

Agile understanding – the big issue

Let’s be clear: Agile is not a noun (a thing), it’s an adjective. It describes how individuals think and do. Adopting agility is about simplicity and getting rid of less important things. This concept is crucial at the executive level where you are driving things from strategic intent and need to focus on more than just product development. That means knowing what you’re trying to do, starting from results and outcomes and working backwards, while eliminating what’s unnecessary.

Rather than thinking about Agile in isolation, the C-suite have to make strategic choices; they need more than just good product development to happen. They need to consider procurement, partnership, facility, legal, process, and people implications for example. For the public sector it gets even more complicated and chaotic.

We also now have cyber threats to consider, which encompass a lot more than reactive software designed to detect things after the fact. These kinds of issues require much broader perspectives than we get from a product development-only focus.

Thriving in the post-agile world

When the co-founder of the Agile Manifesto Dr Alistair Cockburn called my 2015 book, Agile Value Delivery: Beyond the Numbers, the "first properly post-agile structure for us to use”. What did that mean?

Despite organizations wanting to do things differently, their current policies and structures – like finance, HR and legal – don’t allow for it.

In the 'post-agile' world, the fundamentals of organizations have to change. That’s already happened in companies such as Uber and Airbnb in the way they think, act and are structured. A company’s presence on the Fortune 500 is now measured in years, not decades. These companies disrupt entire industries, not just a single competitor. What we’re describing here is not even about Agile in software and product development– it’s about how we should be doing things across the entire organization and in how we engage with clients, customers (citizens in the public sector) and our partners.

Companies such as W.L. Gore and Associates and The Morning Star Company were formed to be adaptive from their inception. In the case of Gore this was in 1959! So this is not really a new concept. Some of these companies have decades of experience in acting and thinking this way.

Changing approaches to project management

Project management today, in my view, needs to start with the strategic intent and work backwards; you can then build a value map that is broken into smaller pieces and none of those should go beyond 90 days to deliver.

Today, it’s about “are we doing things for the right reasons?” (the WHY) to create the right things rather than focusing on the plans to follow. If the business wants something done, it’s not for the project manager to tell them whether they can have it or not – the PM is not the Scope Master! If there’s something in operations that’s not working and needs to improve, how do you do that as fast as possible for the organization to become more sustainable and resilient in the long-run?

Yes, that means achieving the minimum viable product while achieving the minimum viable process. How you orchestrate the rapid creation and delivery of value across all facets of your organization and your base, along with how you will measure success, is really what it’s all about.

Agile – what’s next?

Organizations that are adaptable, sustainable and resilient are the ones that remain most relevant to their customers over the long-run. Every organization would like to achieve this; it means understanding the concept of being adaptable; agility is a consequence of that adaptability and needs to be prevalent throughout your entire organization.

You can’t decide to do a change programme around culture and impose it on people. As Pat Reed says, you have to act your way to a new way of thinking, you can’t think your way to a new way of acting. It also needs to be values and principles based rather than rules based and when people start thinking that way they are working from intent; when everything in the organization is open to question and there is a higher purpose to talk about with your teams, then you quickly find out who is in line with those values and principles and intent. Then you have an opportunity to close those gaps before they become catastrophic.

As the writer William Gibson said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” So, how adaptable can you and your organization be? There are plenty of examples of organizations that have already figured this out. We can all learn from their experiences.

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