Survival of the Fittest
Taking Organizational Agility to the Next Level
Leonor Viturro, PMP
Today's constantly changing world presents companies with the challenge of answering rapidly to uncertain and fluctuating scenarios. Traditional organizational structures and decision-making processes are outdated and don't help them stay fit in front of change. Companies find themselves in a context where unless they evolve, they run the risk of becoming extinct.
Agile methodologies appear as a solution and are usually the first evolution step taken. Still, however appealing agile approaches may seem, applying them as the sole effort to get the organization ready to answer to change quickly has limitations that, if not properly addressed, may even fail.
This article presents all the aspects that should be considered to evolve toward organizational agility.
In 1990, the United States Army applied the term “VUCA” to depict the Afghanistan war zone, referring to a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment.
-“Volatile,” because the speed of changes makes it impossible to set rules and procedures. It describes the unstable and unexpected.
-“Uncertain,” meaning the lack of predictability. The environment requires a culture focused on risk management.
-“Complex” relates to the multiplicity of forces, chaos, and confusion around us.
-“Ambiguous,” because the context allows various interpretations of the same.
Nowadays, the term “VUCA” is used to describe the world we live in, as change comes up in unprecedented, widespread, and contradictory ways.
On the one side, it is the best moment for mankind: Connectivity is fast and reduces distances, life expectancy has been increased, and we have much luxury and comfort in our day-to-day lives.
On the other side, jobs become redundant, depression expands among people, societies and countries close themselves to the outside, and there is less person-to-person interaction.
In this scenario, leaders state that they can't make sense of such rapid, widespread, and seemingly contradictory changes, and companies strive to understand:
-How can an organization survive in a context in which it is almost impossible to understand what is happening?
-How can organizations survive the VUCA world?
-Can we prepare to succeed in a VUCA context?
The answer to these questions seems to be the combination of “innovation and agility.” In regard to agility, the first approach companies take is toward running projects through agile methodologies, such as Scrum, Lean, Extreme Programming (XP), and so on.
But this strategy may fail because of (at least) one of the following:
-The impossibility of applying agile methodologies to all projects: Agile frameworks are not suited for projects where work cannot be done incrementally.
-Problems with setting up the project team: Team members are distributed geographically (they are not colocated in the same location), they are not dedicated full time to the project, or there isn't a customer representative in place (no product owner to establish requirements or set priorities).
-Processes adjacent to the project (running either before or after the project) are neither agile nor fast: For example, a project is expected to be delivered in 6 months by a Scrum team, but requires 3 months to get the business case approved and 1 month for the operational teams to implement the project outcome.
-The organization presents slow or bureaucratic decision-making.
The bottom line is that applying agile methodologies and frameworks is just the top of the iceberg. Making the organization agile needs a deeper approach, as agility can't be achieved through the implementation of a unilateral effort. Applying agile methodologies as the sole initiative toward becoming an agile organization is like trying to melt an iceberg by aiming only at its top.
The Dimensions of Organizational Agility
Organizational agility is the ability of an organization to renew, adapt, change quickly, and be successful in an ambiguous, turbulent, and constantly changing context.
To become an agile organization, agility should be present at different levels. As we mentioned before, the use of agile methodologies could be a first step. We can refer to this as “project agility.” We identify this kind of agility at the top of the iceberg as it is the most visible expression of agility.
At the center of the organization, an agile culture should be fostered. This will be driven through the interaction of agile people. To have agile people in our company, we need to encourage them to develop their “personal agility.”
Last, but not least, agility should manifest in the decision-making processes. Trying to evolve toward an agile, decision-making company will require the organization to mutate from a rigid, hierarchical structure to a more flexible, flat one, where people are organized in multidisciplinary teams that interact among each other and are empowered to make decisions. This will necessarily impact bureaucratic practices within the organization and resistance to change may be found.
Summarizing, the three dimensions of agility are:
Level 1: Project agility
Level 2: Personal agility
Level 3: Agile decision-making
Working agility into these three levels will ensure the evolution of organizational agility as a whole. Let's detail each one of these dimensions.
Level 1: Project Agility
Project agility includes applying agile methodologies and approaches like Scrum, XP, and Lean every time they are suitable for the project's characteristics. But it also implies injecting agility into the project management methodology or framework of the organization.
To have an agile project management methodology or framework, the project management office (PMO) should ensure the following are in place:
- Flexible project management processes that can be tailored to respond to different project sizes and durations. For example, the Develop Project Charter process (PMI, 2017) should either be optional for a project that will take less than 5 months or fast enough to get a charter written and approved in a week. Another example is the Integrated Change Control process (PMI, 2017). In a traditional project, this process should ensure that only approved changes under the umbrella of the project charter are implemented. In a Scrum project, this process makes no sense.
- A set of project key performance indicators (KPIs) aligned to agile practices that allow organizations to measure progress and project health. Earned value (EV) method indicators like schedule performance index (SPI) might not be useful in a project driven through an agile approach, as it won't have a detailed schedule planned to establish planned value (PV) for each period.
- Very clear role descriptions. When running agile projects, there will be people taking the roles of “product owner” and “scrum master.” In many organizations, confusion arises around how these roles interact with the project manager. Even more, many people believe that a project manager is not needed when driving a project with Scrum. This is a misconception, and although it is an important matter when trying to move toward agility, the debate exceeds the scope of this article, so I'll only say that to have a good shift toward the use of agile frameworks, the PMO must ensure that the description of each role and its responsibilities are crystal clear to everyone.
- Project reports with the right information provided in the right time and with the right frequency. I have seen organizations where project status reports were done weekly on a mandatory basis. Project managers with more than five projects would either spend almost their whole week writing project reports or would just end up copying last week's report. In a project that is going to last more than 6 months, having weekly reports probably will not add any valuable information, as few things change from one week to the next.
Level 2: Personal Agility
They say people are the most important asset of a company, and because of this, most organizations invest in improving the work environment, engaging their employees, helping them grow in their careers, attracting and retaining talent, and other similar actions.
At the same time, people are the muscle and tendons that hold up and help the structure in an organization move. When an organization needs to change either its processes or the way things are done, or promote a cultural change or even a move to a new building, the only tool they have is to start a change management project intended to help people accept the change. But change management does not always get people to embrace change. It may just help them to tolerate living with it. Furthermore, as the need to change comes from outside the person, change management projects take considerable time and effort.
What could be an alternative to this? I believe that for an organization to be agile and answer rapidly to changes in the context, agility at the personal level should be encouraged to be developed. “Personal agility” should be considered a new soft skill or competence, and leaders should help their teams to develop it as a new ability.
Let us go deeper into this concept. What do I mean by “personal agility?” Imagine the following situation: A company, due to a lack of space, has decided that people do not have fixed desks assigned to them anymore. When they arrive in the morning, they should be able to use any desk available. This will help make better use of the physical seats, as there's a new policy of working from home once a week that will guarantee that not everyone shows up at the office every day. So now, employees are required to leave the desks clean of personal stuff and they are encouraged to move around, using different seats, as this will also help with integration and team-building.
Tom works at this company. He is a Certified Scrum Master® with many years' experience working in agile projects. He has so much experience that he's seen at work as a guru in agile practices. Although Tom complies with the new request of not leaving his stuff at the desk, he uses the same desk he has been using since the day he joined the company. One day, when he arrives at the office, he sees Mary sitting at his desk. Although he doesn't say anything to her, he finds himself in a really bad mood all day long. From that day forward, he starts to arrive 30 minutes earlier so that nobody can take his seat. So, the question is, although Tom is so knowledgeable in agile practices, how is his personal agility doing? Do you think he is really open to change?
Defining Personal Agility
Personal agility means having a positive attitude, resilience, and being open to changes in processes, structures, or relationships.
It involves adapting your personal approach as the situation changes, feeling comfortable in ambiguous situations, and working effectively in different scenarios and with individuals or groups of diverse backgrounds and experience.
It can be developed, as there are different levels of personal agility:
- At level 1, the person changes when it is necessary. They see change as something imposed from outside and bear it as there is no other choice. This is Tom, from our previous example, removing his wife's picture and his kid's drawings from the desk.
- At level 2, the person is open to evaluating the change. Although they still see the change as something imposed, they are willing to learn more. With time, they will probably adapt and be okay with the change.
- At level 3, the person is noticeably agile; they can adapt to change rapidly and feel comfortable with it. People who are naturally at this level of personal agility usually find the good side of all things, and that helps them embrace change.
- Higher levels of personal agility portray people who are a role model of change-effective behaviors. Not only do they adapt to multiple changes and feel comfortable about them, they also flourish and grow in changing environments. They are also agile leaders who foster a personal agility environment, helping others to understand and embrace change.
Later in the article, we will go deeper into how we can develop our personal agility.
Level 3: Agile Decision-Making
Decision-making is one of the most important functions of management. Planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling are carried out through decisions. A study from Bain & Company (Blenko, Mankins, & Rogers, 2013) found that decision-making drives 95% of business performance.
However, decision-making processes are the most poorly tracked processes in most organizations. As Peter Drucker said 40 years ago, “what gets measured, gets improved,” so it's no wonder that most organizations have slow and frustrating decision-making processes.
In a traditional organization, critical decisions are made by senior managers on alternatives presented by groups of consultants hired to study the problem and come up with alternative solutions. Though decision-making can be fast, as it involves few people with the power to make decisions, execution can be really slow, as the people who are in charge of implementing the decision, usually at the bottom of the pyramid, don't feel ownership, are not aligned, or may even disagree with it.
The other way around (i.e., letting the lower levels of the organization make the decision) may take a lot of time to reach consensus, though implementation will be faster, as everyone is on the same page. Each organization should find the balance between the two alternatives.
The suggestion is that organizations put in place some metrics to measure their current decision-making process and find the balance needed to have a more agile decision-making process.
The Cat Metaphor: Adopting a Flexible Structure
A couple of years ago, when I started working around organizational agility, I tried to look for examples in nature. Cats came up first in my mind as the most agile and flexible animals. I did some research on which characteristics allow them to be so flexible and fast to see if those qualities could be extrapolated and applied at an organizational level.
Although not everyone is a “cat person” (which I am), most of us are usually captivated by what these animals can do. They have great speed, balance, and can get their bodies into cramped spaces in the most curious positions.
As predators that pounce and chase their prey, cats evolved in such a way to have an extra-long stride, the ability to run almost 30 mph for short bursts, and the capacity to jump as much as nine times their height from a standing position. Those evolutionary adaptations have also given them the ability to land on their feet when they fall (almost) all of the time.
So, let's go through some of the cat's best abilities and see if we can learn anything from them.
Flexibility: Cats have an unusually flexible backbone and no functional clavicle. This lets their spine rotate as far as 180 degrees to the left and to the right. The muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the spine are also connected very flexibly.
Speed: When cats run, their backs contract and extend to give them maximum stride. Their shoulder blades are not attached with bone, but with muscle, and this gives a cat even greater extension and speed. This is also the reason why cats can get themselves into tiny spaces, as they can squeeze their shoulders very tightly together.
Landing on their feet: Because of their flexible backbone, cats can flip themselves in mid-air and land on their feet. To do this, first they need to know which way is up and which way is down. They achieve this through the vestibular system in their inner ear. So, the first move when falling is to rotate their head to see the ground. While doing this, they also twist their upper body so that their front legs face downward. Then, the rest of the body follows the rotation.
Agile mindset: Cats do have an agile mindset, as they are open to change, learn from new experiences, and innovate constantly. Though there's a famous phrase that states “curiosity killed the cat,” it is curiosity that enlarges the cat's knowledge of its environment and lets them collect lessons learned. From those lessons, the cat can improve its decision-making process.
Continuing with the cat metaphor, in this section we will see how to make our organization more agile. First, we will discuss the similarities between cats and organizations, and how we can apply the cat's flexibility to the company. Then, we will see how this effort can take the form of a concrete project.
Infusing Agility in Organizations
Let's pretend we are genetic scientists and we can manipulate the DNA of an organization to improve some genes to make it more agile. To do so, we're going to instill some cat genes.
We will try to emulate the cat's flexible backbone, ensure the organization's vestibular system is in place, and will also try to inculcate some curiosity, one of the cat's main soft skills.
Step 1: Get a more flexible backbone.
Let us start with the backbone. We can think the backbone is, to our cat, as the organizational structure is to our company, because they both give shape to the subject (cat and organization).
So, let us have a look at a traditional organizational structure. How fast do you think an organization with a “tall” structure, composed by several hierarchical levels, can make decisions or implement change?
Most organizations today have what's called a “traditional structure,” where people are organized hierarchically with a linear chain of command and are grouped in functionally specialized areas, like production, distribution, operations management, finance, IT, human resources, marketing, and so on. This model goes back to the time of the first management theories, when authors like Henri Fayol (1949) proposed to organize tasks by specialization, so that new employees would learn faster from more experienced workers.
Gareth Morgan (1986) describes these kinds of organizations as “machines.” This structure, inspired in the military model, used to work in the past because it was seen as the most effective and reliable way to manage people at scale, ensuring top-down decisions were followed.
Nowadays, in an era when we can communicate instantaneously across vast distances, and work can be distributed much more efficiently, hierarchies and bureaucratic processes are turning organizations into slow, heavy mammoths, close to extinction.
Summing up, adding agility into this type of “backbone” requires:
- Flattening the hierarchies, and
- Changing the “specialized silos” pattern to multidisciplinary teams with end-to-end accountability. This means that we must empower people to have autonomy to make decisions, instead of waiting for top-down approval. This will help our organization gain the flexibility that the cat has when it twists its upper body independently of the rest.
Step 2: Support self-orientation.
The vestibular system, in the cat's inner ear, is what lets it know which way is “up” and which way is “down.” It gives the cat a sense of orientation. Mirroring this in our organization, the sense of orientation should be provided through communication of the company's strategy.
Having just flattened the organizational chart, the once-reliable, top-down decision-making flow needs to be replaced by an empowered set of leaders who:
- Have a shared view of the big picture: This is when everyone understands and supports the purpose, values, and strategy of the organization. This shared vision is what provides guidance—the sense of orientation we spoke about. This enables a peer-to-peer decision-making process that will replace the top-down one. The benefits are that this kind of decision-making will come from a broader population of contributors and prosper in a creative and innovative context.
- Understand the balance in the new decision-making process: It can't be expected that all decisions come from consensus. Most of them need to be made by those directly involved in the matter. But the ones affecting the big picture need to be made at the team level, not the individual one.
- Let the team know that they already have permission: Permission to what? To act, improve change, and even to make mistakes. This might be challenging for managers because it means switching from a controlling to a trusting relationship, but it's key for encouraging teams to change and transform the product and the internal processes in a flexible way, and to adapt to different goals in the changing environment and be more innovative.
- Know that sharing information is critical: Leaders need to keep the channels of communication open among different teams, and also between their team members and other leaders, to allow the flow of the big picture. However, good processes for communication—where the focus is made on providing easy access to relevant information—need to be in place.
Step 3: Encourage agile learning.
So far, we've made a huge improvement in our organization's DNA. We still need to infuse some cat-like curiosity to develop a culture of “agile learning.”
Agile learning is defined as the ability and willingness to learn from all kinds of experiences and use those lessons effectively in new and different situations. To encourage agile learning, organizations should:
- Share a vision, not an objective. A vision gives people the chance to choose whether they want to follow it, while an objective is perceived as a directive from upper management.
- Focus on collaboration, not competition.
- Promote teamwork, not individual players.
- Encourage initiative.
- Share knowledge.
The Importance of Personal Agility
The first part of this article was mostly about organizational agility and how to make it grow. But I saved the best for last because what I would like you to take away is something that you can apply not only at work as project managers, but also in your personal life. What I want you to take away is the answer to the question: “How do we become more agile, flexible, and resilient?”
My personal belief is that we are either “aligned with the universe” or we are standing in its way. This is not motivated in religious principles; it is only the result of lessons learned in real life. You may be in tune with the universe, move accordingly to whatever changes it imposes on you (which will allow you to grasp new opportunities that come up with change), or you may be standing against change until the universe decides to run you over as it continues with its plans.
No matter how personally agile we usually are, we can also move a degree above or below our original level when standing in front of specific situations. If the change before us presents a possible threat to our well-being or status quo, we might be less open to it than if it is something related to our work or less personal aspects of our lives.
Let me tell you a personal true story. I believe that I am usually at level 3 of personal agility. I have adapted to the most extreme and sudden changes, such as having to undergo unexpected and urgent surgery in a foreign country where I did not speak the language, by myself, as I was traveling alone. However, I can recall a much less tragic situation at work, when I felt the change was so astonishing, so imposed, and so unfair that I saw myself dragged to a “minus 3” level. I could not even bear my own thoughts, going over and over in my head about the unfairness of this change and how it would impact my work and my team. At that moment, I knew nothing about personal agility, so I would like to share the following with you, as this advice may help you in situations such as the one I have just described.
First, if you want to have personal agility, avoid tying yourself to ideas. The more we need to defend a position, belief, or opinion, the more rigid we become, and we stop seeing the opportunities brought by change as well as being unable to see the larger context in which they develop. This is about having an open mind and a growth mindset that, instead of being attached to preconceptions, gives us the ability to see things from different perspectives.
Second, use the right leadership approach for each situation, just as a surgeon does: Surgeons are empathetic and compassionate with their patients and their relatives. They are democratic when discussing each case with their team during surgery planning. But they are also authoritarian in the operating room.
Third, avoid taking frustrating situations from a personal standpoint. Keep your thinking and acting aligned to the team's (or community's) perspective.
Try to understand the context from where the change comes from, try to see the “big picture,” and from that angle, give the appropriate relevance to each circumstance.
Last, but not least, think positively and embrace change. Try to see the glass half full. Look for positive aspects even when the situation looks negative. This will make new ideas and innovative solutions come up, and you will be ready to seize unseen opportunities.
Why is personal agility so important? Always keep in mind that our work as project managers is all about change. Organizations can make changes only through projects. So, if we, as project managers, cannot deal with change in an agile way, what value can we add to the organization or its projects? Work on these tips and you will see the change within yourselves soon.
Ah! Do you want to know how that story of mine about that unbearable change finished? Well, days went by and I could not figure out how to solve the situation, and I knew that whichever posture I took, the rest of the team would align behind it. If I took a stand as angry as I was, things would not be easy or nice for anyone. So, as I usually practice meditation, I meditated about the situation. Meditation gave me the possibility to see this “big picture” I have been talking about, and I was finally able to understand the origin of this apparently unfair change. I eventually saw that a greater good would come out of it. I made peace with the situation, took a positive attitude, and everything went well in the end.
Never forget: If you want to change, you must be willing to feel uncomfortable.
Blenko, M. W., Mankins, M. C., & Rogers, P. (2013). Decision insights: The five steps to better decisions. Bain & Company.
Fayol, H. (1949). General and industrial management. Pitman.
Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organization. Sage Publications.
Project Management Institute (PMI). (2017). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Sixth edition. Author.
About the Author
Leonor Viturro has more than 20 years of experience in project management, including leading virtual teams that were geographically distributed in many countries and time zones. During this time, she has worked in all kinds of organizations, both in the private and public sectors. She is an international speaker, project management instructor, and author of several articles related to the project management profession.
She holds a degree in technology, a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification, and a master's degree in information technologies. For 7 years, she was the head of the IT PMO at Banco Ciudad de Buenos Aires, whose creation and evolution she led. After that, she was a resource manager for the GIT PMO at JP Morgan. Currently, she is a PMO advisor at National Meteorological Service. At the same time, she teaches project management at the University of Palermo.
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