Unlocking the Agility Paradox


‘I am sick of it. We are now two months working with our new team and we are not even able to define team goals,’ the frustration can be read from Toms’ face when he expresses himself during the retrospective of the team he is part of. The energy of the team is low when Tom continues, ‘it really drives me crazy with all these different managers who keep interfering in how we do things and putting their goals first.’ The team members all nod as one of them adds, ’I really thought this new way of working would help us, but now I feel it is even throwing us backwards. We need to find a solution otherwise it will not work at all.’

During any transition towards an Agile way of working, questions and comments arise from various teams, who all find themselves in different phases of the change. Managers and employees experience all kinds of difficulties in their work and collaborative practices. Teams become less effective, and discontent grows, while you would expect the new way of working would do the opposite, like to eliminate constraints, improve collaboration, and thus boost employee engagement. This phenomenon is also known as the Agility Paradox.

Constraining processes and behaviour

The transition towards an Agile organisation ironically also creates new constraints. Which is strange isn’t it? Let’s elaborate a bit more on this. 

In practice, organisations that decide to change their traditional methods and move to a more Agile way of working tend to not shift the whole organisation at once. Those employees who are the first to work in a self-organising team often start to work in a different rhythm and adapt an iterative approach.

Which means they are able to deliver products or services faster and to make changes early in the process as well. Due to this new way of working they are also the first to face processes that have not yet been adapted to the new way of working. These early adaptors face constraints in processes such as budgeting, governance, performance and so on. These processes have an annual cycle, but the new teams work mostly with a quarterly cycle.

And, as you can imagine, the self-organising teams are also held back by the organisational units that still operate in the traditional way. These traditional teams still work in the hierarchical structures and frames, and do not really understand what a self-organising team needs. They also do not understand that these new teams have a different approach because they are not experiencing it themselves. They are also the ones who are held back by organisational units that still operate in the traditional way. 

Distrust & Control

It is no surprise, therefore, that the self-organising teams experience constraints during this transitional period. We humans come from an age of the carrot-and-stick approach. 

According to a traditional theory on motivation, developed around 1800 by Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, people are motivated by things such as money or a promotion, while punishment also helps prompt employees to adopt the desired behaviour. Fabiola Eyholzer, co-founder, and CEO of Just Leading Solutions, calls it the ‘Douglas Effect’.

Most HR processes were defined on worst-case scenarios and the worst possible employees you can imagine. Douglas is the personification of all kinds of bad behaviour and character traits. Our processes were designed with one thing in mind: to keep Douglas in check. 

Maybe everyone knows a Douglas, but in general it will be a handful. Imagine how much effort it costs to create and implement the processes for this small group. That’s a waste of time. Not to mention the fact that we live in a different era now, one in which people value other things that make them thrive. This way of working generalises and is based on distrust and control. 

‘Constraints can spur creativity and incite action, as long as you have the confidence to embrace them.’ Tom Kelley

How to Act?

So, what to do with the constraints we encounter? Eliminate them! While this is easier said than done, it is essentially the only thing you can do when you, as an organisation and as a human being, want to achieve your goals and pursue your purpose. Constraints blocks progress and have a demotivating effect. It stops you and your organisation from developing and making progress. The only remedy is to identify those constraints and do something about them. 

5 Actions that will help you move forward

In the corridor or coffee-corner of your company, you can often pick up chatter about things that are not going well. The question is how to make such discussions, challenges, and constraints transparent, and bring them all out in the open. After all, there are truths to be found in all this information that you not only want to make visible, but also want to resolve.

  • Start working from purpose and introduce value-based Performance Management: Shift from traditional performance metrics solely based on individual goals to a more value-oriented team approach. 
  • Create a transparent & visual governance – To drive performance, use an Obeya, or other big room planning methodologies to create an overview of the overall status of your organisation or department so teams are able to understand what they contribute to and get aligned.
  • Onboard and train everyone – Encourage learning for all stakeholders, including managers, on the principles and benefits of agile methodologies – even if they are still working in the old way. 
  • Prioritise – Define where to start with the necessary improvements and divide roles and responsibilities.
  • Organise retrospectives – evaluate and follow up on these prioritisations. Discuss with multiple teams what is going well and what has to be improved. Track progress and solve impediments rapidly.

These actions will help you and your organisation to start having a transparent dialogue, engage employees in the discussions on how to get rid of constraints and quickly improve on overall company and/or departmental performance. 

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Have you experienced the agility paradox? Or maybe you are in these circumstances right now. What helps you to eliminate them?

#futureofwork #leadership #transformation #change #management

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Alize Hofmeester


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