Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls

mused on 27 May 2016

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Have you noticed how often workplace change initiatives are conceived as facility or organisation-wide change initiatives.  They require substantial investment, cause significant disruption, require very senior commitment, the involvement of multiple functions (Real Estate, HR, IT, Marketing and so on), executive level sanction, large governance structures and take months if not longer to roll-out.  Needless to say these projects have to be treated with the care and attention that a high-risk, long lead-time, significant investment should be treated. 

What if there is a different way?  What if its possible to empower the teams affected to create portfolios of working contexts that helped them to be maximally efficient and productive in the creation of their business outcomes.

Lets apply some Agile thinking, its a serious discipline that can be applied everywhere in business.  Obviously the original Agile Manifesto (see agilemanifesto.org) was associated with software development, but the principles can be generalised to other (indeed all) aspects of business (a restatement of the twelve principles in a generalised way is attached below)¹.

Agile methods focus on the individuals performing the work task, helping them strip away unnecessary effort and focus on the essential activities, they focus on small quick deliveries such that there is room to test, adjust and learn during the change process; an outcomes focus.  Indeed as the deliveries and changes take place, new opportunities and approaches can be discovered and incorporated.  Bottom line, there is too much complexity in any large project (complexity meaning things change, new things emerge during the project that cannot be anticipated in advance).  As projects increase in size the possibility of successful delivery being met disappears.  Even if the project does deliver, the business benefits will not be fully realised, as the business needs will have evolved and new needs will have emerged during the project; the situation moves on.  Project Managers might claim that a successful project is one in which the project delivers within time and budget, but business people know that a successful project is one that achieves or exceeds the forecasted business benefits.  Not many projects satisfy the first criterion fewer still the second.

So, lets start introducing a little Agile into our workplace thinking.  What suits one group of people won’t suit another group, different undertakings require different settings, different activities can be accomplished more readily in different contexts. 

Collecting all of these needs is a massive undertaking (needs are normally collected through a set of surveys and very rarely reach this level of insight), let alone building a project that seeks to address them all.  Any project that will address all of this will take months and require board level approval because of its size and associated risk. In an agile approach we would seek to create small, committed teams empowered and supported to create the workspace they need to make them maximally efficient within the context of some overarching design and financial framework.  Expertise from the functions (Facilities, HR, IT, Marketing, etc.) would be used to provide the frameworks to work within and to help the team accomplish the task of creating the environments that makes them most effective.  ‘What does the user need?’ ought to be the mantra and you can only find that out from them.  That seems a more agile way to change the workplace.

Lets think about the normal governance and stakeholder management issues you get in traditional projects.  ‘How do you get user buy-in?’ is an irrelevant question in an agile project as the user is integral to designing the solution.  As for scope creep and slippage, agile methods incorporate discovery and learning; it works on the basis of a consistent pace of short term delivery so that progress can be seen quickly, change is welcomed and incorporated and results are measured continuously. Business benefits are more likely to be realised because of the commitment of those involved in their realisation. Governance is a light touch from Senior Management to steer and maintain clarity and focus helping everyone stay aligned with the overall needs of the business.

Smaller, lower risk, less costly, more quickly delivered change that empowers and meets the user need.  No more impossible decisions for senior executives who doubtless want to support their staff to make the workplace as fulfilling as possible but are mired in decisions of such complexity that there is unlikely to be a ‘right’ answer.

Small is beautiful.  Simplify, empower, hear the user…be Agile.

¹ Twelve Principles of Agile

  1. You ensure customer/user/employee satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of value.
  2. You ensure that as you move forward, changing (could we say emerging?) requirements are welcomed.   The whole point of Agile is to harness change.
  3. You deliver pilots/beta’s/interim solutions (you can choose your language) frequently, in weeks rather than months.  The preference is always for the shorter timescale.
  4. You encourage, indeed require, close co-operation and daily interaction with the users/employees/business people and those helping them to effect change.
  5. The best solutions emerge from teams of committed people who have an investment and commitment to the problems being solved.
  6. You favour face-to-face communication.
  7. The principle measure of progress is delivered value.
  8. You focus on being able to sustain a particular pace of development.
  9. You maintain scrupulous attention to excellence and good design.  It enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity, maximising the elimination of the unnecessary, is essential.
  11. The best value comes from people who self-organise because they are invested and committed to solving the problem.
  12. Regular, frequent reflection on how to be more effective is encouraged to tune and adjust accordingly.