“How does this Agile stuff you’re doing help us ______?” Fill in the blank here, I’ve heard it all: “innovate”, “win in the market”, “grow”, “move faster”?  I’ve also heard “Why the heck are we doing this “Agile” thing anyway?”  These are common questions for Agile Coaches these days as companies engage us to help them change the way they work.  Today I’d like to take some time and share the best response I’ve come up with to answer these types of questions.

Learning and Adapting Quickly

To move faster, innovate, grow, and to ultimately win in the market you have to build your organization to learn and adapt quickly. Business today moves at an incredible pace and the key to winning is to learn and adjust course quicker than the competition. Agile can help you do this.

But before we dive into Agile, you have to figure out where you are today. You need to ask yourself: How fast can my organization respond to feedback/data, make (good/informed) decisions, and adjust?

Notice that question has three parts, and each is important:

  1. How fast can we learn (aka get good data so we are informed)?
  2. How fast are we capable of making a decision as an organization (once we have data/feedback)?
  3. How fast can we adjust after we’ve made a decision?

In small organizations and startups, the answer to these questions is easy. You don’t have many people, you usually only have one mission, information flows quickly, everyone is focused, and people are naturally closer to your customers. So, the answer to each part is “very fast”.
As companies scale up, all of this gets harder and things start to slow down. There are lots of missions and it’s not clear which to focus on. Hierarchies get larger. Functional units get setup and things get “siloed”. Information stops flowing. Depending on what level you make decisions in your org, it may take you a while to respond to feedback even if you are getting it. If data isn’t flowing both up and down your hierarchy, you may not be making very informed decisions. And then it takes longer to move the organization due to its size. This is why medium and large companies struggle to keep pace in terms of speed and innovation.

To battle this, you have to consciously setup or change your organization in a way that promotes speed in all three areas. Old (top-down, hierarchical) ways of building your organization won’t cut it.

Building an Agile Organization

I submit that the key to combating this slowdown is building an “Agile Organization”, or an organization that can quickly learn, move, and thus adapt. I’m talking about an organization where 80+% of decisions are made by the people closest to the customer/work/product. Where silos break down and people are encouraged and rewarded at every level to work together – engineering, product, sales, marketing, customer service/care, etc. Where there are feedback loops between customers and teams, teams and leaders, and vice versa.

Leadership’s role changes here. They’re often still setting the high-level vision/strategy, and they may be helping to clarify the most important missions. Once that work is done, they get out of the way and focus on eliminating what is slowing down the system instead of trying to make every decision themselves. This is an organization where you trust your people to make decisions just as much as (or even more than) your managers. This way learning, figuring out what to do, and choosing to adjust are happening at a level as close to the customer as possible. This is the heart of the Autonomy and Empowerment we talk about in Agile.

This is not an easy thing to do. You’ll have to make some tough decisions about all those layers in between the top and the bottom. You’ll likely unwind a whole bunch of new/old problems as you go along. People will need to learn to work in this new environment. You may even have to change your behaviors in the new system. But if you get it right, I argue you can continue to answer the three questions above with “very fast”.

What do you think? How does this Agile stuff help you ______?

Why are we doing this Agile thing anyway?

Also published on Medium.

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