3 Questions Every Agile Business Has to Ask, or Perish
“In 1983, Jeff Sutherland was a technologist at a financial firm in New England. He was very frustrated with how software got designed. Companies followed the waterfall method, right, in which executives issued orders that slowly trickled down to programmers below, and no one had ever consulted the programmers. Eighty-three percent of projects failed. They were too bloated or too out of date by the time they were done. Sutherland wanted to create a system where ideas didn’t just percolate down but could percolate up from the bottom and be adjusted in real time. He read 30 years of Harvard Business Review before stumbling upon an article in 1986 called ‘The New New Product Development Game.’ It said that the pace of business was quickening — and by the way, this was in 1986 — and the most successful companies were flexible.” Bruce Feiler: Agile programming — for your family
Why Hasn’t Agile Made a Bigger Impact?
Fast forward to 2015 and while some areas of technology have adopted the concept of Agile (all be it often poorly), the rest of the organization is still rooted in approaches that stagnate flexibility and creativity. They invest millions of dollars in innovation programs and then cannot understand why they get the same poor results they have gotten the last 30 years. Why is this? At its core it comes down to the fact that agility asks three basic questions:
1. What worked well?
2. What didn’t work well?
3. What do we need to focus on next week/month/year?
Fundamentally, corporations fail before they ever get to the first question. Highly paid senior executives don’t need to ask what worked well. They already know, even if what they know is completely wrong. Without a willingness to probe and understand where that recent change went wrong, there can never be learning, there can never be growth, there can never be improvement.
How to Enable Agility through a Mindset Shift
Carol Dweck and others have labeled this desire to learn as the Growth Mindset. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities… When managers were taught a growth mindset, they were more willing to coach employees and the quality of their developmental coaching became higher. Also, managers with a growth mindset actually sought more negative feedback from their subordinates. They wanted to learn how to improve their management techniques and were not threatened by the idea of hearing some negative things about themselves.”
This represents a significant change from the view of the executive leader as the infallible titan to leader as dynamic coach and team member. Dr. Dweck’s research actually showed that companies that valued only innate ability versus ability to grow, found that they ended up stifling that very talent and alienating star performers.
Making the Change
Making the change to an agile organization requires much more than processes and pronouncements. It requires a change to the values and culture of the organization. These start at the executive board and organically spread throughout the organization not by fiat, but through the act of coaching. The ability to give and receive honest and open feedback becomes a pillar upon which successful performance is based.
The pace of change has continued to accelerate. We are already starting to see the internet darlings of the past few years, like Uber, begin to react to market challenges that require them to adapt or perish. The time between brilliant idea and market victim seems to be shrinking. It is time for team members, managers and executives to look at how they value learning and feedback and start to make the changes that are necessary to excel in that rapidly changing business environment because it’s not 1986 anymore.