The number of Agile organizational practices can leave you bedazzled: What is this practice for? When to apply it? What is the primary target of the practice? Here is a map that should provide some orientation.
Why use Agile Practices?
Agile practices work like your personal fitness work-outs: They change the organization over time if deliberately practiced. They increase organizational fitness over time. In other words: They increase the maturity level of an organization over time.
Thereby, they are offering a bottom-up avenue to organizational change: Pragmatic change which can be initiated by everyone in the organization, not just high ranking managers. There are only really two ways how an individual without management power can change an organization:
- By changing her personal attitude, work style and behaviors or
- by proposing, trying out and adopting new practices how to collaborate with others.
Sources of Agile Work-outs
A lot of people have recognized the value of Agile Work-outs, for example:
- Jurgen Appelo wrote a book about it (Managing for Happiness), resolutely markets them on Management30.com, and has just successfully concluded a crowdfunding campaign for an app centered on explaining Agile Work-outs (Agility Scales).
- Harvard professor Robert Kegan writes about them from an organizational learning perspective in his 2016 book “An Everyone Culture.”
- Hedgefund Manager Ray Dalio seeks to evangelize the world by showing off the agile practices of his company Bridgewater ( see The World’s Leading Hedgefund is Relying on Key Principles of Self-Managed Organizations)
And there are many more sources of Agile Methods. Just take the king of all Agile project methods, SCRUM, which contains dozens of practices which can be used even outside the context of projects and in an organizational context instead. Like the “Daily Stand-up Meeting” with its three round-robin questions to every team member:”What did you do? What will you do? What are your problems?”.
It is possible to extract practices of Self-Managed Organizations such as Holacracy or Sociocracy, too. Just like SCRUM, these are systems of management which rely on some practices and principles. Why not reusing some of these practices in different contexts?
A Map of Agile Work-outs
The number Agile Work-outs can leave you bedazzled (some online source can be found in Resources). Here is my attempt to bring some order into this chaos by ordering them by three criteria:
- Maturity Level of an Organization: In the last post I came up with a “Capability Maturity Matrix for Liberated Organizations,” a simple 4 level ranking that provides orientation about the maturity level, that the work-out should be best used in. Basically, the higher the maturity level, the more decentralized decision making is.
- Severity: A somewhat subjective measure of risk and the number of requirements this work-out has. Severity has some correlation to the potential benefit this workout might have, but benefits really depend a lot on situative factors, where else increased severity represents the chance that the work-out will fail and backfire.
- Category: These are loosely based on criteria used to describe classical management theories, such as those of Peter Drucker or Fredmund Malik.
As Agile Workouts come from many sources, in many flavors, and in plenty of variations there are no standardized names. As I drill down the Agile Workouts by category, you will find a short description in the tables below. For more detailed references, please check out the “Resources” page.
Agile Workouts for Control
Hundred years ago, the Art of Organizing had been described by Max Weber as seeking an optimal balance between specialization and coordination: The more you specialize, the more the need for and the costs of coordination increases.
In more liberated, self-managed companies, the need for coordination remains, but coordination is achieved by other means. While Coordination is decentralized, the most potent form of coordination, control, remains necessary.
Control is achieved by a multitude of factors, as for example managerial oversight, social control by co-workers which crowds-out managerial control, target agreements, and Meeting routines. And control can be enhanced explicitly by adopting one of the Agile work-outs listed in the table below.
I won’t explain every single Agile Work-out. But I hope you get a hunch what the work-out is about from reading the short description in the table. To find out more, you have to refer to the listed source.
Instead, I will just mention my favored Work-put in each category. In the Control-Category, I really like Self-service targets, as it invites people to reflect, think about what they can achieve on their own, and creates more commitment than goals set by superiors.
Agile Workouts for Feedback
To paraphrase Harvard Professor and developmental psychologist Robert Kegan: “A learning organization is an organization saturated with learning.” Every feedback given is a learning opportunity.
Giving positive feedback might happen too seldom, but is easy to do. Providing feedback that criticizes is much harder and requires a relationship built on trust.
My favorite of this category is Moving Motivators. A Card based, simple game where everyone ranks value and simultaneously explains her reasoning. In a second round, everyone explains how a particular change would impact her values. This is a great way to get to know one another, discuss a proposed initiative. It will pay dividends to every team over a long time.
Agile Workouts for Learning
Learning is, arguably, the most central thing in an Agile Organization or a Start-up. Naturally, there are lots of Workouts centered on Learning.
My favorite is Pairing and Job Shadowing. Two people working on a single task or job can give surprising insights, productivity improvements and creates ideas on a personal level. Its apparent inefficiency is what makes it so compelling. Pairing is the crucial ingredient to agile software development approaches as eXtreme Programming, but it works fine outside software development, too.
Agile Workouts for Organizing
Organizing means structuring work. And if there are less and fewer ways a manager can do that competently, there need to be agile exercises that help structure work on the meta level.
Here I choose Mirroring. Just identifying a customer for an organizational entity, creating a clear line of sight from the coworkers to the customer creates the impetus to want to work for the benefit of the customer in every co-worker. Humans really want to do good for others. Often the way we organize is an obstruction to that.
Agile Workouts for Meetings
Where is the place where collective intelligence happens? It is the Meeting. Isn’t it shocking how little thought is given to organizations about how meetings are run?
I have an emotional attachment to “Benefits & Concerns,” as I have practiced that since I joined Capgemini Ernst & Young in 2001. I still use it. Nowadays, my favorite is Liberating Structures, which provides Meeting structures that couldn’t be more elaborate and simple.
Agile Workouts for Transparency
Transparency acts as a fertilizer to innovation: The more, the merrier.
I admit I am a transparency freak. I like them all! But if I need to choose, I go for KANBAN for its universal usefulness and supplement it with Trello, an App for any distributed teams and/or Jira, for bigger teams.
Agile Workouts for Decision Making
Who calls the shots? With increasing maturity of the organization, decision making is more and more decentralized. These Work-outs highlight how.
My favorite is the Delegation Board.
But what I really want to try someday is the real fancy stuff”Believability weighted decision making.”
Agile Workouts for Human Resources
There are no norms for classifying Agile Workouts from other Organizational practices. Out of the plethora of HR practices, I found this bunch especially interesting.
I really admire doing things in HR based on data, just as described in Lazlo Bocks, who is the HR director of Google, book. Therefore my favorite work-out is Candidate Testing by giving out small and tests that are relevant to the position, that the applicant is supposed to solve. This allows so much more profound insights than any number of interviews by any number of people. It is indeed astonishing how much we oversee by talking to people and how much we reveal if we see a person working to solve a problem.
Agile Workouts for Projects
Well, there are a lot of project methods and methods for projects out there. I won’t include them here, except the two significant Methodologies of SCRUM and conventional Waterfall projects. Both methods contain innumerable amounts of work-outs themselves. But this Blog is focused on the organizational side of Agile.
I think there are enough sites covering agile or any other type of project management – and too few sites covering management structures and routine that allow such excellent Methods like SCRUM to shine. SCRUM runs optimally is embedded in a maturity level 3 organization. The trouble is, so many companies on level 1 and 2 try SCRUM and find it hard to digest.
I like to highlight Value Poker here, as it is an excellent way for people to engage and delivers – empirically – the 2nd best accuracy of all estimating methods, behind the much more resource, time and effort intensive Delphi Method.
And what about the fish?
Ok, you have been served the 76 Agile Work-outs. Now you want the fish, don’t you?
As so often, headlines can be sooooo overpromising and underdelivering. So here is my slightly fishy disclaimer:
- Work-outs should be deliberately practiced and repeated. Do not expect one hit wonders. You need to practice, with deliberation and over time
- Do not command a team to use a work-out. Propose it, try it, invite feedback and adapt.
- Some work-outs work better in conjunction with others
- Do not do too many workouts. You want your organization to work and not become a circus, I guess. Unless your organization is a circus. Hm.
- You want to know why a particular Work-out is attributed to a particular Maturity level or severity? There is about zero academic rigidity beyond my personal judgment. So take it with a pinch of salt.
Finally, take your time to choose work-outs from higher maturity levels if your organization is still at a low level. Think of your role like being a Gardner of the organization: Give things – like e.g. trust – time to grow.
This is what I think. What do you think?
Note: I have excluded Innovation Techniques(e.g. 6 Hats, Design Thinking) and Coaching Techniques from this post. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what is an agile management workout, and what is an innovation or coaching techniques, tough.