Blog 4.2.2021

Is your business Agile?

Good to see you here! We have no doubt this post has good information, but please keep in mind that it is over 3 years old.

How to tell if your business is Agile? How to ask from a C- level people whether their organisation is Agile?

From small to big

There are tons of advice on how to measure agility at a team level; Velocity, Burndown, Planned vs Actual, Work in Progress, DevSecOps, etc. All these measures aim to estimate and optimize the long-term work capacity and work quality of a team.

However, when assessing overall Agility at an organisational level, we need to take a step back. The main idea of a business is to deliver maximum added value to stakeholders. Therefore, we need to bring our attention from “HOW” to “WHAT”. The main idea of Agile is to accelerate the decision-making-and-learning loop. The Decision Driven Organization by Harvard Business Review 06/2010 had a Quick Test of Decision Effectiveness, which describes nicely the Agile mindset:

  • Quality: When looking back on critical decisions, you find that you chose the right course of action most of the time.
  • Speed: You make critical decisions much faster than competitors.
  • Yield: You execute critical decisions as intended most of the time.
  • Effort: In making and executing critical decisions you put in exactly the right amount of effort.

Agile Leadership

Without leadership, an organisation slides down to an ad-hoc Limbo. While being agile, the organisation still needs a strategy, a long-term vision. Parallel, you must avoid mid-term planning. Mid-term planning turns into a middle-management, where both the long-term vision and the short-term agility is lost. Mid-term planning is a waste.

In Agile it is OK to fail. Failure means learning. Agile is about embracing the scientific approach: hypothesize, test, analyze and decide to preserve or pivot. It is OK to run multiple hypotheses’ in parallel with the ‘Least-fit’ principle instead of selecting a single idea and running with it. Dare to start parallel strategic change projects and after some time kill the failing ones. A/B testing is a fast way to learn more.

Lean Management

Bureaucracy tends to fulfill all the gaps. Bureaucratic managers will always figure out new ways to measure, manage and control. Bureaucracy never leads to a better business.

Bureaucracy lives from the fear of uncertainty, but it will not fix the uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a byproduct of complexity. You can reduce both bureaucracy and uncertainty by making information transparent and keep the decision making as close to the operations as possible. As Scaled Agile Framework states, continuous learning focuses on relentless improvement, where improvement activities are fact-based, and increase the effectiveness of the entire system instead of silos.

Management is about making decisions. Making hard decisions is difficult. A weak manager easily lists a dozen of things where you must focus next. “Let’s first focus here, and then here, and let’s keep our options open also here”. This is slack decision making and a waste of energy. A strong manager lists only one thing. “Let’s focus here and say ‘No!’ to everything else”. In an Agile mindset, you focus a period of time on the thing that matters the most. Then you reflect and learn.

Complex Business

Reductionism means that you can solve a problem by breaking it down into smaller parts, solving the small problems, and then putting it all back together again. This works in a simple environment. However, the assumption that past experience leads to a deterministic future solution is valid only within an ordered system. With enough data, you can find a correlation between anything. “People drown when they eat more ice cream”. But this does not imply causation. Problems arise when the work is based on wrong assumptions. In a complex environment, you need trials, where you break the system into components, study their interactions and create a holistic model of the system as a whole. The situational awareness model helps you with such systemic decision making.

Small investments can be made into safe-to-fail experiments in a balanced portfolio before committing more resources. Traditional enterprise control mechanisms doesn’t work with Agile mindset, while traditional annual budgeting doesn’t support the fail-fast principle. Still, you can still make agile decisions along the way about what to do with the budget.

Agile Resiliency

Even an Agile organisation needs a fast re-planning mechanism, which triggers if a positive opportunity or a negative risk materializes. Re-planning means you stop the ongoing planning cycle, re-plan a new cycle and keep going. As long as the long-term strategy is viable, you need to reset only the latest short term cycle. You are able to make fast decisions concerning the short term direction.

Again, at the event of sudden change, a weak manager tends to re-plan everything from long term strategy to mid-term plan and finally to short term actions. This is slow, slobby and useless. At the event of a sudden change, you need to make fast decisions. Fast decisions are a sign of resilience. Fast decisions enable you to exploit sudden opportunities and avoid quick threats.

Agile Predictability

Embracing Agile by Harvard Business Review 05/2016 states “Some executives seem to associate agile with anarchy.” While an Agile organisation can make fast adjustments, the wider direction is still based on a long-term vision. Often the vision translates into a short-term roadmap, which customers can use safely to plan their own activities. In addition, the roadmap prevents individual teams from being siloed off. Vision and roadmap empower decentralized decision making by enabling everyone to work towards a common goal.

Agile checklist

  • Have a transparent vision
  • Near term future is churned into a prioritized backlog
  • Most of the time is used on the items at the top of the backlog
  • Measures are transparent and they provide additional value for the stakeholders
  • Seek automate everything and have an effective DevOps running
  • Constantly innovate on how to deliver value faster for your stakeholders
  • People feel safe and they trust on each another
  • People start their own initiatives. The swarm intelligence produces new business opportunities
    Have an ability to have difficult conversations.

Transforming an organization into a truly agile one, and modernizing operating methods and tools are big, but in the long run, mandatory change:


Jari Hietaniemi

Jari Hietaniemi is a digitalization messenger who develops Gofore's subsidiary Sleek Oy. He is also a published author and one of the most annoying characters on Finnish Linkedin.

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