Slow Agile: The New Normal for Business Agility

How to lead your organization into true Business Agility

Fig. 1. Iceberg Model of Awareness Based Systems Change. Image: Presencing Institute

This is a revised and expanded version of the second part of the article published in the Field of the Future Blog of the Presencing Institute. Read it here.

Today, the main requirement for individuals, teams, and organizations, is to Sense and Actualize their best path to success under the current disruptive conditions. Yet, it is not possible to do that within the structures, mental models, and leadership capacities that most organizations have. True “Business Agility” requires a whole new set of competencies, ways of operating, and above all, a new type of leadership capable of navigating the treacherous waters of today’s disruptions.

The Current Reality

We live in times of extreme uncertainty and complexity, therefore, organizations need to change from a paradigm that had worked well in an era of stability and predictability, to a new paradigm that allows them to adapt, to be flexible, and to be able not only to survive but also to thrive in the new reality. Consequently, they need to change their actual systems, structures, processes, and human interactions, from the old plan, command, and control system to a new one that allows radical human interaction and collaboration in self-organizing units that focus on generating value for their clients, internal and external.

“Business Agility”

The Agile Manifesto for software development was created in 2001, and consists of 4 values and 12 principles that are easy to understand because they prioritize “what to think” over “what to do”. Since then, a series of practices and methods have been developed that address the “how” of Agile software development.

As time went by, Agile has expanded to what is known as “Business Agility”, which is supposed to be a way of operating businesses under uncertainty and complexity. According to the Agile Alliance, “Business Agility” is the ability of an organization to sense changes internally or externally and respond accordingly in order to deliver value to its customers.

Notwithstanding, this new territory presented the Agile methodologies, originally created for efficient software development, with the challenge of having to change business processes, culture, and leadership.

“Business Agility” has become a buzzword in organizational transformation, especially today, when businesses are facing historic disruptions that affect their operations in a profound way. Likewise, there is the general perception that organizations reach “Business Agility” only through the adoption of Agile-based methodologies.

To clarify the field regarding the effectiveness of Agile-based methodologies as a way to reach “Business Agility”, let us take a look at what type of companies are true examples of “Business Agility”, and how Agile-based techniques have performed so far in the attempt to reach that goal for existing organizations.

Types of Business According to Their Success Reaching “Business Agility”

  • The “Business Agility” influencers. The Googles, Teslas, Facebooks, successful startups, tech companies, and the likes. They are the paradigm of “Business Agility” and everyone wants to be like them. They were born using Agile or other project management methodologies, and have nothing to change internally because BA is part of their DNA.
  • The “Business Agility” newcomers. Existing businesses that have made the transformation from traditional to a “Business Agility” framework successfully. They have reached that goal using Agile-based and other project management techniques.
  • The “Business Agility” next success stories. In different degrees, this is where every other type of organization is located now because traditional companies need to change, although most of them don’t know-how.

Agile-Based Techniques Are Not the Panacea to Accomplish True “Business Agility”

This article is about how to reach true “Business Agility”. It concerns the three types of organizations, but the information that it contains is most needed by the ones of the third type, the next “Business Agility” success stories.

To reach true “Business Agility,” existing corporations face the challenge of changing their Business Processes, Leadership Practices, and Organizational Culture. Under normal conditions, undertaking that company-wide project is very complex, but doing it under deep disruption potentiates its complexity. Consequently, due diligence is mandatory when trying to choose the right methodology to assume such a project.

Agile-based project techniques are not better or worse than other Project Management methodologies. According to the Project Management Institute, “The Ambler report concluded that agile projects do not fail more than other projects. They succeed at the same level as other iterative methodologies. However, agile projects face a set of challenges and problems related to applying a different approach to project management.”

Image: Agile Alliance

Agile-based techniques fall short of attaining true “Business Agility” for existing companies. As we said above, to accomplish true “Business Agility” existing companies need to transform Business Processes, Leadership Practices, and Organizational Culture. Nevertheless, so far they have proven successful in changing Business Processes, but changing Leadership Practices and Organizational Culture, is still a job to be done. In fact, according to the Agile Alliance, leadership and culture are four of the eight leading causes of failed Agile projects:

#2 Company Philosophy or Culture at Odds with Core Agile Values.

#3 Lack of Management Support.

#5 Lack of Support for Cultural Transition.

#7 Unwillingness of Team to Follow Agile.

Agile-based techniques go awry, even when they do what they do best — agile business processes.They go awry because as companies strive for high performance, they either become too tactical (focusing too much on process and micromanagement) or too adaptive (avoiding long-term goals, timelines, or cross-functional collaboration). The key is balancing both tactical and adaptive performance.” HBR.

So, Be Aware

Urged by the need to adapt to the current reality, many organizations, allured by the wild success of Teslas, Googles, Facebooks, and the like, are in the process of adopting “Business Agility” as one of the frameworks of choice for transforming their businesses. Notwithstanding, if you lead one of those organizations, you need to be aware of the following facts:

  • “Business Agility” may not necessarily be Agile-based.
  • Agile-based methodologies are not better than other project management techniques that also help businesses to reach “Business Agility”.
  • When existing companies attempt to reach “Business Agility” using Agile-based methodologies, they have been successful in changing “Business Processes”.
  • Nevertheless, Agile-based techniques are still developing ways to tackle the difficult task of transforming “Corporate Culture” and “Leadership Capacities”, which count as 4 of the top five causes of failed Agile projects.
  • Moreover, companies using Agile-based techniques, run the risk of becoming too tactical, focusing too much on process and micromanagement, or too adaptive, avoiding long-term goals, timelines, or cross-functional collaboration.
  • Therefore, Agile-based techniques used to reach “Business Agility” in existing companies, do not consistently reach that goal.

How Do Agile-Based Techniques Face Complexity?

Agile-based techniques are often sold as “the solution for facing complexity”. Notwithstanding, Inga Weile calls them Agile approaches, not methodologies, in the context of Systems Thinking. I agree with her because they lack both, a Whole Systems perspective, and Systems Sensing methodologies. First, most of the Agile-Based methodologies were developed to solve specific Business Processes, consequently, they lack the Expanded Awareness that viewing the Whole System requires. Second, because of the specificity of their attention, they did not need to incorporate Systems Sensing methodologies.

A Whole Systems perspective and Systems Sensing methodologies allow organizations to perceive the multiplicity of factors influencing systems, and the different layers of interacting systems causing the disruptions happening in the visible reality.

In the article, Leading in Complex Times. The Blind Spot of Leadership, I quote Sonja Blignaut, from Cognitive Edge:

“…as long as decision-makers believe they are dealing with complicated systems, they will assume they are able to control outcomes; find solutions to problems and waste a lot of money on expert consultants to give them the “answers”.

She also quotes Roberto Poli, “On the other hand, complex problems and systems result from networks of multiple interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished; must be addressed as entire systems, that is they cannot be addressed in a piecemeal way; they are such that small inputs may result in disproportionate effects; the problems they present cannot be solved once and for ever, but require to be systematically managed and typically any intervention merges into new prob­lems as a result of the interventions dealing with them; and the relevant systems cannot be controlled — the best one can do is to influence them, or learn to “dance with them” as Donella Meadows rightly said.”

How Do Agile-Based Techniques Change Systems?

Most of them just change the Structures. (Fig. 1)

If most of them lack Whole Systems perspective and Systems Sensing methodologies, they are unable to change what they don´t see and what they don’t sense. In existing organizations, Agile-based techniques change Business Processes at the Structures level, but when they try to percolate that change down to the Thought level to modify the existing Mental Models, aka Corporate Culture, they will generate instead Cultural Resistance because the change is imposed in a top-down fashion. This type of change does not affect the whole system and is not sustainable on time.

The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener. Bill O’Brien

To bring about sustainable whole systems change, organizations need to be aware of all the factors depicted on the Iceberg Model (Fig. 1). Decisions taken at the “Source” level have a direct influence on the Mental Models at the “Thought” level, that shape the “Structures” that bring about the results at the “Symptoms” at the surface.

How Do Agile-Based Techniques Transform Corporate Culture?

Agile-based techniques “hack the culture”, they do not transform it.

Agile-based methodologies are efficient at changing business processes, but they are not the right tool to change the hearts and minds of the people who manage those processes. Cultural hacking, as its name implies, does not win the hearts and minds of the people, whose organization and relationships weave the fabric that makes Corporate Culture. Peter Drucker thought about this type of strategies when he stated,

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast .”

Size of the Cultural Transformation That Is Required By the New Reality

Image: WEF

Covid-19 has rewritten many things in our way to conduct our lives and do businesses. But there is a change about which not everyone is aware, and whose massive scale has no precedent— the need to reskill the human resources of every type of organization out there. According to the World Economic Forum, 50% of the workforce will need to be reskilled by 2025.

“The Forum estimates that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines. But even more jobs — 97 million — may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines, and algorithms.”

Image: HB Consulting

The WEF predicts that from the top ten skills that were required by the workforce in 2020, only Complex Problem Solving and Critical Thinking and Analysis will remain in 2025, the rest will be new skills of the types pictured at the left.

Agile-based methodologies have been successful at changing Business Processes. However, most of them neither have prepared organizations to face complexity nor have been successful in changing their Leadership Practices and Organizational Culture. Furthermore, if we look at the scope of the changes that need to be implemented in the near future, we realize that “Business Agility as usual” won’t do the job that needs to be done.

What Kind of Leadership Creates True “Business Agility”?

Leading From “The Source”

The conditions of origin (internal condition of individuals) give rise to the quality of the relationship (patterns of thought, conversation, and organization), the Mental Models known as Corporate Culture, which produces practical results, in this case, changes in Business Processes. (See figure 2)

Fig. 2. Drivers of Systems Transformation. Image: Presencing Institute

Consequently,

Leading from “The Source” transforms Corporate Culture, which changes Business Processes, enabling the organization to function with true “Business Agility”

How do organizations achieve true “Business Agility” so that they can face disruptions successfully?

Awareness Based Systems Change Is the How

Otto Scharmer describes awareness-based systems change in the following three sentences, the first of which is by Kurt Lewin. (Fig. 1)

You cannot understand a system unless you change it.

You cannot change a system unless you change consciousness.

You cannot change consciousness unless you can make the system see and sense itself.

Today, the main requirement for individuals, teams, and organizations, is to Sense and Actualize their best path to success under the current disruptive conditions. Yet, it is not possible to do that within the structures, mental models, and leadership capacities that most organizations have. True “Business Agility” requires a whole new set of competencies, ways of operating, and above all, a new type of leadership capable of navigating the treacherous waters of today’s disruptions.

The best path to success for any organization is what Otto Scharmer calls “The Emerging Future”, and the failure to adapt our Mental Models and Leadership Capacities to what the new reality calls us to do as individuals, organizations, and society is what he calls “The Blind Spot of Leadership”.

Picture a submarine navigating on the surface of the sea under a storm. Now picture it going down to a depth that allows it to flow freely towards its destination regardless of the storm conditions above. The Iceberg Model of Awareness-Based Systems Change (Fig. 1) shows the disruptions happening above the surface, at the level of symptoms. True “Business Agility” is the ability to go under the surface, to Sense and Actualize the best path to success. To do that, it is necessary to deep dive to the Source level.

Acting from that space of letting go of past patterns of behavior and letting come what is emerging from the future, the leader can bring about sustainable whole systems change.

The “Blind Spot of Leadership” is the inability to go to the Source level when facing disruptions, re-acting instead to them at the Symptoms level. As an illustration, it would be like keeping the submarine on the surface, attempting to steer it while trying to weather the storm.

Slow Agile, the “new normal” in Business Transformation

It all started with an idea …To integrate Agile techniques into the Theory U methodology.

Theory U

Theory U (Fig. 3) is an Awareness-Based Systems Change methodology, developed by Otto Scharmer at MIT, to change large, complex systems. It incorporates in its process the State of the Arts of Systems Thinking, which is the combination of Systems Thinking and Systems Sensing, as well as an unprecedented competence called Presencing, which is the capacity to perceive and actualize the best possible future of the system, Crystallizing it. Additionally, it integrates Design Thinking to Prototype the results, leading to the Evolution of the system so that it causes an ecosystem impact.

Fig. 3. Theory U. Image: Presencing Institute. (1)

Agile methodologies have proven very successful in changing specific “Business Processes”, but most of them are not able to achieve “Business Agility” consistently. Therefore, insisting on their application is likely to: build cultural resistance, take longer than necessary, cost more, and risk failure, as shown above. Whereas,

Theory U allows the organization to Lead from “The Source”, sensing and actualizing its best possible future, transforming its Corporate Culture, so that it incorporates the operation of self-organized teams in its Business Processes, optimizing them to face disruptions successfully. When I had that idea, the word Slow Agile started ringing in my ears.

The idea consisted of integrating Theory U, an Awareness Based Systems Change methodology, with Agile Based techniques, obtaining the best of both worlds. Therefore,

Slow Agile consists of integrating Theory U for addressing the “Leadership Capacities” and the “Corporate Culture”, and Agile-Based methodologies for changing the “Business Processes” of any organization

As a result, the migration to true “Business Agility” by existing companies, would take less time and have a lower cost. Specifically, the organizations would count on distributed leadership and cultural collaboration to drive the change and would have business processes flexible enough to adapt to disruptions, and ultimately, they will be able to cross “leadership” and “culture” off the list of main causes of failed agile projects.

Additionally, organizations such as B-Companies, of the Circular Economy, and Regenerative ventures will benefit from this merger of methodologies, given its organic nature.

The Journey Begins

In December 2020, the Presencing Institute approved our project’s participation in u.lab2X 2021, the Presencing Institute accelerator for systems transformation. As a result, Slow Agile, an idea to integrate Theory U and Agile in a disruptive methodology that allows a true and sustainable “Business Agility”, began to grow from prototype to the impact on the ecosystem. Three months later, at the end of March 2021, we have become a team of 13 change agents from six different countries that are closer to completing the development of our project with each passing day.

To follow the evolution of Slow Agile from idea to ecosystem impact, read the article Agile U / Slow Agile. Adding consciousness to systems change.

If your organization plans to conduct or is conducting a “Business Agility” transformation process, contact us at helio.borges.consulting@gmail.com to have a generative conversation.

(1) Note to Fig. 3: The Agile Zone has been added by the author as an illustration of where it fits into the U process. It is not our intention to modify the original image in any of its parts.

This article is open to discussion, if you have a different opinion about the issues that are discussed here, please comment on it to have a generative conversation about that particular issue.

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Helio Borges

Helio Borges

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Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges