Grow Roots To Strengthen AGILE

Grow Roots To Strengthen AGILE

Agile Coaches are key transformation agents when organizations look to pivot from traditional ways of working to Agile methods. Such transformations are sponsored by organizations for various reasons — competitive pressure, low employee engagement, as part of digital transformation and in many cases just for its coolness factor. Whatever the reasons, business and organizational leaders bring in Agile Coaches to own the transformation journey.

Agile Coaches are generally configured as senior management or leadership positions due to the influence they need to exert in the change journey. Trained and certified in various Agile frameworks like Scrum, SAFe, LeSS, Kanban etc. Agile Coaches bring their own blend of training, mentoring and coaching and apply them to unique situations every team and organizations presents in the transformation journey.

Oftentimes however, Agile Coaches in all good intentions and in alignment with their charter, use the language of their own Agile Frameworks to teams and leaders who do not understand them well enough. E.g. a coach who is an expert in Scrum will train, mentor and coach teams and managers in Scrum rituals, help pivot project managers and team leads into Scrum Master roles and inject Agile backlog and collaboration tools into the organization’s fabric.

“If we truly want to be Agile, we are going to have to adopt the language of our customers. To that end, we must choose words and concepts that they are comfortable with—not force them to learn a new, arbitrary, and unhelpful vocabulary.”

Daniel Vacanti in Actionable Agile Metrics for Predictability

In ideal conditions, Agile Coaches will succeed in bringing about change both in letter and spirit. In most scenarios however, Coaches hit upon mental blocks and resistance from the very leaders who sponsor these change initiatives. This comes from two broad areas:


  1. Leaders grow up through the ranks with traditional management styles and expect all Agile transformation change to be restricted in the “lower layers” of the organization while still retaining the comfort of their own Command and Control mindset. It is only fair to expect this because the organizational structure, power structures and the domain of influence is founded in hierarchy — with no models to challenge and educate.
  2. Organization leaders typically see Agile as a “software thing”. When organizations take up transformation, they would limit the influence to remain within the software development community. Such a constraint limits the impact of Agility and bring sub-optimal outcomes. Agile Coaches find it hard to challenge the fallacy — and Agile frameworks provide no vocabulary to do the same.

“A Scrum Master who takes teams beyond getting agile practices up and running into their deliberate and joyful pursuit of high performance is an agile coach.”

Lyssa Adkins in Coaching Agile Teams

Under such conditions, using the language of Agile frameworks is NOT sufficient to break through such resistance. Agile coaches need a new vocabulary and framework that encapsulates Agile to communicate what it needs to build self managed organizations and self-organised teams – the essence of Agile. Something more broad in scope is needed.

Such broad frameworks by necessity have to talk about transformation, but in generic terms (not limited by software) and the role of business leadership in the transformation. Assessment tools, process flows/practices and governance rituals that such frameworks emphasise must also talk in terms that transcend the boundaries of software and technology.

The Semco Style framework is one such framework that practicing Agile Coaches can find very handy to break out of the shackles that they may find themselves in. The broadening of their horizons with insights from the Semco Style framework will help them learn how to challenge leadership mindsets in people who may be above their pay grade or are the same people who are their sponsors. The framework equips Coaches with assessment tools that expose the dysfunctions in organizations brought out of traditional mindsets. These findings will help navigate the resistance from senior/exec leadership.

The Semco Style framework also provides a roadmap that Agile Coaches can use to devise a path that is unique to the organizations’ state in adopting Agile mindsets, starting with senior leadership. It also prepares Coaches to recognise areas of resistance and build empathy on why they exist. Such awareness equips Agile Coaches with the patience and also the wisdom to navigate the choppy waters that will come in the form of leadership resistance.

In summary, using Agile tools to drive Agile transformations in organisations beyond the execution teams and software/technology is often limiting. Agile Coaches need frameworks that transcend these boundaries and equip them with knowledge, tools and practices that expand their areas of influence and drive true Business Agility — something that can bring growth to them and their organizations.

Bust Bureaucracy

Bust Bureaucracy

The word bureaucracy instantly invokes negative emotions in people. Most connect it to something slow or inefficient. Indeed, as Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini say in their 2018 HBR article, “Bureaucracy has few fans.” But then, the question is – why do organizations worldwide find it hard to eliminate bureaucracy from their systems despite all this? The answer probably lies in the anatomy of “bureaucracy.” 

Back in the 18th century, French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay came up with this word by combining bureau (“desk”) and –cratie (a suffix denoting a kind of government). Later on, by the late 19th – early 20th century Max Weber, a German scientist, defined bureaucracy as a highly structured, formalized, and impersonal organization. He instituted the belief that “an organization must have a defined hierarchical structure and clear rules,” regulations, and lines of authority that govern it. His “management theory of bureaucracy” had four pillars:

  • Specialization of labor
  • A formal set of rules and regulations
  • Well-defined hierarchy within the organization
  • Impersonality in the application of rules

Interestingly, this was around the same time when Fredrick Taylor published his “Scientific management” theory, dividing the role of managers and workers on a “scientific” basis to boost productivity. 

Both these theories complemented each other and probably made sense in the industrial era, when, according to one source , “…nine out of every ten working people did manual work, making or moving things, whether in manufacturing, farming, mining, or transportation“. 

We are well past the industrial era and speeding fast through an information era. According to the same source, by 2010 itself, nine out of ten working people were knowledge workers. Change is pervasive and cruising in a super-fast lane.  Most of the pillars on which both Taylor and Webber built their theories are slowly but surely crumbling. Technology is continuously democratizing access to information. In his book “Neo-generalist,” the author Kenneth Mikkelsen argues that the “I” model of the past, which was driven by the need for specialization, should now look more like “T.” It may even take the shape of “E” or “F” soon.

So when the “purpose” of those theories has lost relevance, why are organizations still following them and worst, some clinging onto them? Are there no new-age principles that leaders find a worthy replacement? The answer is, of course, no.

To their credit, some Business leaders are exploring new ways of organizing themselves and experimenting with different non-hierarchical structures in their organizations. As Agile is becoming mainstream, the focus is shifting to multi-disciplinary teams and collaboration over individual contributions. 

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

Laurence Johnston Peter

Canadian educator and “hierarchiologist”
best known
for the formulation of the Peter principle.

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Aldous Huxley
19th  Century Writer

But however leaders wish it to be untrue, bureaucracy is still integral to most organizations. From our experience and working with clients, we realize that bureaucracy has many forms and roots. Our survey shows that bureaucracy is not limited to any specific sector, size, or business complexity. It exists even in mid-size and smaller organizations. The only exception to the rule seems to be organizations in the early years of their existence. So why do early-age start-ups not show symptoms of bureaucracy like their older siblings? The answer probably lies in understanding when and how bureaucracy creeps into any organization. 

Organizations are collections of teams, and like teams, they also go through forming, storming, norming, and performing stages as they evolve. As they grow, maybe somewhere between storming and norming, founders and entrepreneurs think they need a structure to manage day-to-day function, processes to drive efficiency and scale, and so on. And in most cases, this is when bureaucracy silently puts a foot in the door. 

Now, to set things in perspective, organizations do need processes, structures, and systems to operate at a scale. While bureaucracy is strongly correlated to all that, the number one reason bureaucracy creeps in is the complexity of those structures and processes and not the mere existence of it.

On the contrary, not very intuitive, but the complete absence of clearly defined processes also leads to a sense of bureaucracy. It is true, especially in a large or rapidly growing organization. Not having a clear map to navigate different parts of the business limit new joiners’ ability to decide “what is the right thing to do at that moment”. Over time it creates a sense of bureaucracy because they need to “ask someone about day-to-day things all the time” .

Another layer of bureaucracy that is often less understood is the bureaucratic mindset. People working in an environment where one is not allowed to make their own decision develop a bureaucratic mindset over time. In an environment where every work product is “supervised,”; instead of driving efficiency, the objective becomes achieving compliance, and the teams focus more on the task than the outcome. Individuals begin to take shelter in processes and systems to find ways to defer execution. They start over-relying on their supervisors to trap mistakes rather than do it right in the first place. Overuse of the “maker-and-checker” concept is one example that triggers this chain reaction. Typically, “makers” begin to own less, knowing the “checker” will flag if things are wrong. It also becomes self-fulfilling nexus because the “checker’s” existence depends on “makers” (in)efficient execution. Slowly but surely, this slows things down, building a sense of bureaucracy.

Agility and bureaucracy can’t co-exist. Assuming you are leading an organization or a team where “agility” matters to you, where people make and own decisions and do not find ways to hide their inefficiencies under the umbrella of “system,”; you need to take decisive steps to break from the shackles of bureaucracy. Acknowledging that bureaucracy exists in your organization is an excellent first step. Identifying the exact cause of why bureaucracy exists and then owning the responsibility to bust it is crucial. Simplifying the set of processes, policies, and systems is necessary but not sufficient. It can, at best, be a foundation. But to tackle this challenge holistically, you need to focus on building a culture of ownership and accountability supporting that foundation. It may take time and investment, but it will be worth it!

How Can You Steer Smoothly In Turbulent Times?

How Can You Steer Smoothly In Turbulent Times?

The inspiration for this blog post is another viral post on LinkedIn about a bad customer experience by a passenger traveling in one of the leading low-cost airlines in India. 

Here is how the incident in the original post unfolds: 

A flight of the said airlines has landed at one of the modern airports of India and is waiting for ladders and ground buses so that passengers can disembark and reach the arrival lounge. Not expected at this time of the year in that area, but it’s raining heavily outside. Naturally, from the passengers’ point of view, they see hardship, and one of them (the author of the original post) takes the matter up with the cabin crew requesting them to explore the option of an aerobridge. The staff refuses to act on it. The passenger then calls the Airport ground personnel and confirms that the aerobridge is available and not allotted to their flight because the airline didn’t ask for it. So, the passenger goes back to the cabin crew and escalates to the captain when no response is received. Nothing changes. The lack of empathy by the staff agitates the passengers, escalating the situation and resulting in some sharp reactions. 

The post generated many responses, and naturally, almost all the comments shared passengers’ PoV, finding fault with the airline. 

Let’s Switch Sides! 

Each coin has two sides, so let’s switch sides. It is not to support one side or the other, but to gain a whole and balanced perspective on the issue.

If asked, the airline company certainly will have a version that supports their staff and how they handled the situation. 

If we step back a bit, we will appreciate the turbulent conditions the airline industry is going through. The impact of pandemic and the rising fuel costs, to name a few, would have put massive pressure on their balance sheet. So, if they are extra cost-conscious, that’s not unfounded for a low-cost carrier.

From the airline company’s point of view, maybe this was how it was planned and executed for numerous such flights before this specific flight. From the ground and cabin staff’s point of view, the situation was unique in itself that it wasn’t probably part of their SOP or most likely not covered as part of their training. 

So, what could be the real problem that agitated passengers on the flight? 

Is it that the airlines had not planned for an aerobridge in the first place or that it failed to provide it when passengers asked for it? 

Or is it just that the ground staff didn’t show the desired responsiveness, given the unusual weather condition, and planned for the aerobridge in time?

Could the cabin crew have done something else to address the passengers’ concerns? Maybe they could have requested umbrellas for passengers or a covered landing ladder or something else?

As it appears from the original post, the core issue is that none of the airline staff members—either ground or cabin—seemed to feel they had the authority to make those decisions. 

What Could The Airline Company Have Done Better? 

The original LinkedIn post seeks Government intervention. That may or may not work, but we will not delve into that.

Many organizations face these kinds of problems where teams are up against unique situations, but they need to respond to them.

What would you do if you were at the helm of this airline and were keen to see that your teams don’t create this kind of customer experience in the future? 

  • Would you introspect to assess where you stand regarding how things work and invest in training? 
  • Do you think it’s time to update SOPs and add more prescriptions for handling such situations?

From our perspective, it’s an opportune time for the airline company to reflect and invest in building a culture that enables everyone to take ownership, feel truly empowered to do what is right at any given moment to create an experience that the organization is committed to do.

We would love to hear your thoughts!

OD is up for disruption. Are you ready?

OD is up for disruption. Are you ready?

Image source -

A search for the earliest published formal organization structure goes back to 1855. Yes, more than a hundred and fifty years ago! Millions of things have changed from the pre-industrial era to now. Technology has disrupted everything – how we hire, retain, produce-buy-sell goods and services (and sometimes what). The only aspect that has remained unchanged through more than a century is organization structures – how we organize businesses.

It is interesting to see how this structure came about in the first place. To quote from the article published by – “Daniel McCallum, general superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad, defined an organizational structure that would allow the management of a business that was becoming unwieldy in its size.” It may appear surprising, but that is how it happens even today. Most companies do not start with any fixed structure. But as they grow beyond a threshold size, everyone feels compelled to “organize” themselves smartly around structures. They create departments, draw reporting lines, and add layers.

** Image sourced from

Daniel McCallum used a tree metaphor to depict the relationship between management and front-line workers to represent the organizational structure. By 1917, as seen in the organizational structure of CTR, the orientation was turned top-down. It looked more like a pyramid than a tree. Maybe this was a result of the growing influence of the military in that era. In hindsight, though unintended, it did more harm than good. At least in the tree metaphor, though there is a notion of hierarchy, with leadership at the roots and trunk – it directly holds them responsible for providing a solid base and foundation that the rest of the organization needs to grow. With the pyramid, people at the top began to assume their role as giving orders and issuing commands more than providing support.

Fast forward a century and organizational structures still looked the same – like pyramids. Over the years, OD emerged as a core skill, but most work in this space, at best, appeared like minor tweaks around the core hierarchical construct. They oscillated between centralized and decentralized systems, experimented with reducing the number of layers to flatten the pyramid, or tried out a matrix form. But in the majority of cases, nothing radical happened that delivered a lasting impact.

Organizations like Spotify are exceptions. Very few have been able to emulate their bold experiment with a traditional matrix design. It remains aspirational for many organizations. Models like circular organizations can potentially disrupt “how work works,” but it is too early to say for sure.

To survive in modern times, a company must have an organizational structure that accepts change as its basic premise, lets tribal customs thrive, and fosters a power that is derived from respect, not rules. In other words, the successful companies will be the ones that put quality of life first. Do this and the rest – quality of product, productivity of workers, profits for all – will follow.

Indeed, OD is up for disruption. There is a consensus amongst leadership on how people work together to create a value that has little to no resemblance to whom they report and whom they share the box on the organizational chart. Everyone is on-board on the organizational structure’s role in building agile, nimble, and resilient organizations. Factors like multigenerational workforce, a growing percentage of Gen Z in the mix, and the rapidly changing ecosystem in which businesses are operating today add to the urgency.

There is also consensus that Organization re-design is not anymore about moving people into new boxes or drawing new reporting lines. It’s not just another independent change-management challenge. To make the lasting change, the OD professionals will need to increase their appetite for experimentation and broaden their perspectives of organizational design. They need to focus on changing the organization’s operating system – the culture. They need to drive this effort with systems and processes that help people succeed in a flatter, non-hierarchical and nimble structures.

OD professionals will play a critical role in holistically shaping the future of work for their organizations. And it will pay off for them to be ready.

Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 2)

Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 2)

In the first part of this article, we defined what Agile transformation is and what Organizational Culture and Organizational Climate are in that context. We also saw how Agile Transformation is a 3-dimensional change that affects the Execution Culture across (X-Axis) and deep (Y-Axis) and also the Climate/Mood (Z-Axis) of your organization.

We elaborated how the leadership in ALL execution teams that partner in this transformation has the responsibility to carry themselves and their teams through this cultural shift. At the same time, its the HR leadership’s responsibility to sense the Organizational Climate as the cultural shift occurs and support the teams with appropriate interventions to maintain a healthy environment of learning and growth.

Having an appreciation of how Agile impacts people, their roles and their responsibilities is key to designing how Organizational Climate is assessed and how as an organization you respond to it. The remainder of this article focuses on how Agile Transformation impacts the focus areas of assessment and also the intervention areas from the assessment.

What to assess in Organizational Climate for Agile Transformation?

Typical assessments of Organizational Climate focus on how well people understand their roles, their growth trajectories, skill requirements, confidence in the leadership and the effectiveness of the feedback process that leads to professional growth. It would also look at feedback on compensation and benefits, rewards programs and other softer aspects like diversity, values and alignment.

It will now be evident, that with Agile transformation inverting the ownership model in your teams, the traditional notions of growth, skills requirements and definitions of leadership will change. Assessing the team’s confidence of the leadership has to shift from their ability to direct, to their ability to coach. This also needs to be paired with finding out if teams are sensing an increase in their ownership domain as well as their comfort with it. It will be important to understand how collaboration between people of different skill sets are affecting team morale and power distances. Quite paradoxically, if you sense your organization doing very well and comfort on all these change dimensions, you could well assume that Agile transformation is NOT going right; it could also be a indication of fear to communicate the reality in your organization — a fundamental flaw that will kill your Agile Transformation journey.

How to engage the organization with Organizational Assessment?

A redesigned Assessment framework that accommodates Agile mindsets will help the HR organization support the leadership to influence the Climate. The lazy approach to use the Climate assessment is to ask leadership to go easy on those areas that are causing discomfort to the teams even if they are “growing pains” of the journey. E.g. if the teams complain that managers are not engaged in the day to day tasks of the team and resent the “aloofness”, a direction to managers to revert to be more “engaged” will be the exact opposite of what should be done to drive Agility. Conversely, if managers are complaining that there is lack of clarity in their “vertical growth”, it may a good sign and call out the need to refine the roles and responsibilities of the management layer towards and incentivizing servant-leadership.

To re-iterate from the last article, the Climate is the effect and NOT the cause – so, it derives that each team now has to have its own understanding of the climate and work on what behavioural aspects to change. The teams themselves or the managers on their own may not be able to chart the next steps — Agile coaches must be engaged to help understand which pains are Agile friendly, and help the teams navigate them. Unfortunately, Agile Coaches are not considered part of the people leadership and kept away from understanding these aspects. HR leadership has the opportunity to influence this unfortunate status quo.

Another key aspect of the Organizational Climate is rewards and recognition. As organizations move to Agility, the move towards team goals, and collective ownership takes precedence over individual glory. Its important to appreciate this shift and use the Organizational Climate to gradually shift the organization to become more accommodating to losing “individual glory” and promoting “team success”.

In conclusion, the transformational journey to Self-Management using Agile as a framework is a long and arduous one. It requires enlightened leadership to guide the teams to the new Organizational Culture and partner with the HR organization that’s keeping a close watch on the Organizational Climate.

There are NO shortcuts, but with team work from ALL the leadership, the complexity can be handled step-by-step, iteration by iteration, quarter by quarter. Its a like grand orchestra and when there is alignment between the players and the conductor, you will hear the initial cacophony transform into a symphony that your organization will wonder how you ever lived without.


Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 2)

Agile Transformation, Organizational Culture and Climate (Part 1)

As organizations take on the Agile transformation journey, there are significant impacts on two key dimensions — the Organizational Culture and the Organizational Climate. This two-part article is an attempt to provide clarity on these aspects. It establishes who in the organization owns the Culture and Climate respectively and are accountable to the success of the transformation.

In the first part, we will focus on the definitions of these terms and how they are related. With a firm foundation on the definitions, we will then elaborate on the ownership aspects in next part.

Let’s start with the key question. What is Agile transformation and what changes does it bring?

Agile transformation is the process of an organization changing its discovery and execution approach from a Command-&-Control, Top down, Upfront Planning driven model to a Team Oriented, Collaborative, Just In Time and Iterative model. As you can see, its a complete inversion of the principles and – and hence the usage of the word Transformation. A change as dramatic as this runs broad (X-Axis) and deep (Y-Axis) into the organization’s fabric, and challenges the fundamental mindsets with which people do their daily jobs.

Let’s start with the X-Axis (breadth).

 On the breadth side of the equation, the transformation brings people from different parts of the organization (erstwhile reporting structures) into single teams. These team members now work by directly communicating with each other instead of through their “reporting structures”. This is only the beginning — as the journey matures, teams realize the need to bring in wider variety of people into the Agile team to effective. Such pressure coming from the “bottom of the hierarchy” will challenge the organizational design. If the transformation has to succeed, existing organizational silos will need to be broken to make the teams more effective. At this stage the same leadership that was “excited” with Agile, starts resisting the change given its discomfort with the comforting barriers now giving way.

Now for the Y-Axis (depth).

 The depth side of the equation is all about management styles, transparency and delegation. With the inversion of the execution model, the decision-making power on day-day execution shifts from erstwhile managers to the execution teams themselves. Teams will require greater autonomy in decision-making and transparent flow of information to facilitate the decision-making.

Information and decision-making that used to be the prerogative of the managers in the Command-&-Control world, and gave them a sense of power is now diluted. Managers now are required to focus more on aligning the teams’ direction to the organization’s goals and help remove impediments from the team’s pursuit of these goals set. Such a shift demands managers to communicate more outwards to the stakeholders and negotiate on alignment rather than on controlling inwards. On their part, teams are also now accountable to goals than to execute assigned tasks. As a consequence, the measures of performance also shifts from one of following plans and orders to meeting goals — a significant shift.

This shift in the operating model that demands a change in the mindset deeply influences employees’ daily work experience. This is the new Organizational Culture. Both managers and team members will experience discomfort and exhilaration in equal measure adopting to this model. While teams will fear responsibility and enjoy autonomy, managers will resent lack of control but enjoy liberation from the mundane. The organization is shifting to a new culture of self-managed teams and light (agile) management structures.

The leadership (managers at ALL levels up-to-the C-Suite) are responsible for owning up to this discomfort and taking the leap of faith that the shift to self-management is for the greater good of the organization. They are the OWNERS of the Organizational culture.

Is that all to the story? No. Your Organizational climate, the Z-Axis completes the picture.

 The Z-Axis (depth).

 As you can see from the above, the transformation WILL lead to major changes and challenge people at various levels — their hard skills, their soft skills, their definition of success and growth drivers – both up-and-down the organizational hierarchy (Y-Axis) and across the “department” verticals (X-Axis). Given the impact across so many dimensions, people across the organization will perceive this change with different lenses. The prevailing mood in the people will be directly impacted positively as well as negatively by this change. This constant “flux” in the mood from time to time as the organization transforms is your Organizational Climate. So, even as the Organizational Culture is changing, the Climate will also change. What’s important is to realize that the Climate is the “effect” and the Culture is the “cause”.

Who is responsible to sense the Organizational Climate? This is where HR has a pivotal role. The execution teams will be too busy with the culture to also focus on Climate. Its the responsibility of the HR leadership to provide a real picture of the mood swings and help the executive. In the next part of this article, we will explore the specifics of the HR Leadership in designing the Organizational Climate Assessment, and how they can be an active participant in the organization’s strategic journey.