Friday, January 16, 2015

The Importance of Being Agile in a VUCA World

We are well aware that to survive and thrive in the VUCA world, we need to be agile in all respects – in learning, towards change, regarding work as well as life. We talk about learning agility, organizational agility, individual agility, agile as a philosophy and much more. Yet, we are still unclear as to what makes an organization agile. When the agile manifesto was crafted along with its 12 principles at a ski resort in Utah, the group of people may have had software development in mind. However, during my tenure at ThoughtWorks, I learned and realized that “being agile” is a philosophy, a way of working and living, that is going to determine whether we survive and thrive or fade into oblivion in this VUCA world. A recent post by Abhijit Bhaduri called Talent Predictions for 2015 begins with the following lines: “2015 will be the year of agile innovation, agile learning and agile careers.” I wholeheartedly agree with him. It is time organizations and individuals took note. We can no longer afford to rest on our laurels, give the excuse of “this is how we do things here,” or ignore the multiple forces of change bombarding us from all sides.

Hence, I thought it’d be a fitting time to revisit my learnings regarding the philosophy and principles of Agile from my tenure at ThoughtWorks and subsequent reading, reflection, and “bunkos”.

Coming from a very traditional, waterfall-driven background replete with all the drawbacks (what I perceive as drawbacks in comparison especially in the context of a rapidly changing world), it took me quite a while to assimilate the philosophy—even the basics of Agile. A dictum like “Just deliver; don’t document unless the document is going to add value” would throw me into a tizzy. Don’t we need to document so that in case a point comes when the blame-game starts (I assumed it would), we have our backs covered? Apparently not because there is no blame game! There is no one to blame. Everyone is in this together—the team, the client, and all other remaining stakeholders.  As I mulled over these rather shocking, almost blasphemous, aspects of Agile, I thought it would be a good idea to pen down my thoughts for further inspection and feedback.

The VUCA world calls for constant communication, transparent exchanges, and action over procrastination. Communities and teams of diverse people have to work together to solve complex and emerging challenges through innovative and creative means. This is where I keep harping on my theme of workplaces as communities, and enterprise social networks as platforms for communication and learning. The VUCA ecosystem no longer lends itself to standard operating procedures, best practices based on past experiences and a handful of executive taking strategic decisions while the employees comply and carry out orders. Dealing with ambiguity is the name of the game. Dealing with ambiguity requires collaborative efforts by diverse sets of people who will bring to bear dissimilar heuristics and frameworks such that the challenges can be perceived from all angles leading to the best possible solution. All of this requires us to be agile – in principle and in practice.

In this post, I have focused on a few key aspects from a workplace learning perspective. I have perhaps taken a deliberately idealistic stand in the post, but I firmly believe that unless we adopt the fundamental philosophies of agile, we are going to go the way dinosaurs did. The original Agile Manifesto, which is my source of inspiration, can be found here

My interpretation of the Agile philosophy
I am trying to acquire better ways of learning and building personal knowledge networks and helping others do it. Through this endeavor, I have come to value: 
1.    Adaptive over predictive 
2.    Collaboration over documentation 
3.    Continuous feedback over periodic reviews 
4.    Specialization over generalization

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, I value the items on the left more and have found them to be in synch with what is required today to build a learning organization, an organization of motivated, passionate individuals.

Unpacking each claim 

1.   Adaptive over predictive
Ruth Clark describes adaptive in relation to expertise in her book Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, and I think it reflects my understanding of Agile philosophy very well. Being adaptive means to be flexible, open to change, reacting to situations just as the situation demands. Adaptive expertise brings open-ended inquiry to the problem and not a pre-defined solution. Being adaptive is to be always ready. In this context, I am reminded of the phrase “a mind like water” by David Allen. Paraphrasing from Getting Things Done below: 
“Water neither flinches nor ignores the impact when a huge boulder hits its surface. It welcomes a boulder just like it would a pebble. The ripples it generates are in direct proportion to the size and impact—neither more nor less. Water neither underreacts nor overreacts. And very soon, water goes back to its natural state—open and clear—ready for the next impact.”
This is the state of being truly adaptive and agile. With the unknown and the complex becoming the norm in knowledge work, adaptability is the key to dealing with challenges, to be comfortable with ambiguity, and to move to a state where we are constantly learning.

As Eric Hoffer very aptly says (the highlights are mine):
We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling. 

2.   Collaboration over documentation
Going back to my roots in traditional organizations where documentations supersede communication, conversations and listening, I can appreciate the value of collaboration. Please note that I am not advocating doing away with documentation, but documenting only what adds value and when it adds value—to the project, to the team, to the stakeholders or to oneself. I am using the Minutes of Meetings (MOMs) as an example to make my case. 

Unlike any of the methodologies that fall under the umbrella of Agile, in traditional orgs most meetings are conducted as rote and many of the crucial stakeholders are missing. Hence, a stringent documentation is required to capture what transpired and to keep everyone in the loop (so to speak). Needless to say, many of the subtleties of discussions are lost, and the minutes become more of a “save our backs in the future” documents with little of value coming out of them. If critical points from meetings must be thrashed out and discussed, let those discussions happen on the internal social platform. This way, those who may not have been a part of the meeting but has relevant knowledge and inputs, can pitch in and provide valuable insights.  

Let me clarify what I mean by collaboration in this context. When I claim that under the aegis of Agile philosophy, collaboration is more valued, this is what I imply. First of all, collaboration for me implies disciplined collaboration—a term popularized by Morten T. Hansen in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Disciplined collaboration is to collaborate for results. And this is precisely what the philosophy of Agile supports. Some of the quotes from the book that supports my understanding of effective collaboration are:
“The idea of disciplined collaboration can be summed up in one phrase: the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.”
“Disciplined collaboration requires that organizations be decentralized and yet coordinated. To build this model, leaders need to detect the barriers to collaboration and overcome them without reducing the benefits of a decentralized structure.”
“Collaborative companies run on networks, those informal working relationships among people that cut across formal lines of reporting. If the formal org chart shows how work is divided into pieces, networks reveal the informal organization-how people actually work together.”
Finally, a collaborative company can do away with unnecessary documentation, remain lightweight and agile because the concerned people are all in it together. Everyone is in the loop, always! 

3.   Continuous feedback over periodic reviews
This is my biggest learning from Agile. The very environment and processes—pair programming, TDD, retrospectives, continuous integration, whatever else you will—support continuous feedback, one of the keys to learning. In this environment, a mistake becomes a stepping stone to excellence. A philosophy that centers on feedback also encourages mistakes by default. I think of these as bunkos where a “bunko” means - “to make a mistake from which the benefits of what you learned exceed the costs of the screw-up” as described in The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. Because one knows that feedback will be immediate, one is not scared to experiment, think big and explore. Imagine the reverse of this—where feedback comes in the form of yearly appraisals that tell you how many times you have screwed up far removed from the time and the context of the screw up itself. It leaves one mentally screaming, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? How does it help now?” Making sense of the VUCA world will involve more screw ups before we arrive at a solution.

Here’s one of my sources of understanding and clarity on the purpose of feedback and the way to deliver as well as receive it: Tightening the Feedback Loop by Patrick Kua

4.   Specialization over generalization
As @AbhijitBhaduri points out in his post, I agree that with increasing work fragmentation, the rise of new skills, rapidly changing technology, workplaces will need specialized skills. Standard job descriptions will give way to role descriptions – the tasks and outcome someone holding the role will have to perform. Ross Dawson points out the key drivers of change in his The Future of Work infographic highlighting factors like work modularization, value polarization and economy of individuals – all of which call for deep specialization and domain expertise. The onus will lie with the individual to continuously explore, learn and connect with others to remain on the cutting edge of their skills and domains. Organizations have to support individual learning in every possible way – from facilitating connections within and without to coaching, mentoring, and encouraging exploration and mistakes.  

However, in a world and world economy where situations throw us into unpredictable circumstances and poses unknown problems, we should not confuse specialization with crystallized intelligence. Ruth Clark in the aforementioned book talks about this at length. I have described it briefly here. Quoting from the book:
Routine experts are very effective at solving problems that are representative of problems in their domains. They are adept at “seeing” and solving the problem based on their domain-specific mental models.In contrast, adaptive experts evolve their core competencies by venturing into areas that require them to function as “intelligent” novices.
Fluid intelligence
is the basis for reasoning on novel tasks or within unfamiliar contexts; in other words, it gives rise to adaptive expertise. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is predicated on learned skills…and is the basis for routine expertise.”
To remain adaptive and responsive to changing situations, it is important to develop a fluid intelligence, one that enables us to take on the role of inquiring novices when required, which in turn helps to view a problem from different perspectives. 

Thus, the new age worker must remain an eternal learner. Idealistic notion? Perhaps! But critically important IMHO.

Reference reading:

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