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The 21st Century Board: Agile and Capable

Soccer player- Stand on front of foot and not on heel

“Be on your front foot.” “Don't be on your heels!”

As a former football(soccer) player, these were phrases constantly used for players on the pitch. The coach would constantly enforce that you need to be ready to move quickly to the ever-changing situation. If you wanted to stay in the game, you listened. We had a plan and a strategy, but as with any game, we may have needed to change our approach depending on the challenge in front of us.


The greatest coaches I ever played for were the ones who could see when things were ‘just not right’ in a game. Even though it was only ten minutes into the game and we had practiced to a specific game plan, they recognized when it was wrong and changed course quickly. Luckily for us the environment we grew up in promoted this type of behavior. We expected to change. We were prepared for change. We had to. Football is a business after all. We were there to win. Being able to adapt and pivot from real-time data analysis was our norm. We trusted our leader and quickly realigned as instructed. This approach was paramount to our success.


Those playing days are long gone, but the mindset and approach have never left me. I’m sure it will be no surprise to you all that I now work in the Agile community. Since the world-wide pandemic took over, it has made me think more of the industries and organizations we work in. How have these organizations adapted? Have they been able to adapt? Do they truly understand the impacts of canceling and/or stopping X, Y initiatives? Do they understand the financial impacts this may have on their lines of business?


It would be very hard to answer these questions, but it’s fair to say that the organizations that are now thriving through these uncertain times are the ones who have been able to adapt their business models to the wants and needs of the new norm in a seamless manner. For some, it’s slowing down the speedboat to change course before accelerating again, while others it’s moving the titanic, (after they found it! )


But how has this been possible for some and not others?  


For me, it’s all based around embracing Agility at all levels of the organization, especially in the Boardroom.  


Agile is not something new to any of us, it’s been around for many years, labeled (most of the time) as the software development approach at the team level. Which for us ‘agilists’, we know it’s more than that. 

I recently read in the 2020 14th State of Agile Report (VersionOne), “Culture is still a thing when trying to adopt and implement agility.” It’s been almost 20 years since the Agile manifesto was established and organizations are still not able to adapt to agile values & principles. ‘Resistance to change’, ‘Inadequate management support and sponsorship’ have been common reasons for many years and as of the 2020 report, ‘not enough leadership participation’ is listed as the main reasons.

So why is this the number one thing in the State of Agile Report?  IMO Leaders do not think that Agility involves them, where, in reality, it impacts them the most and the boardrooms they operate.


So how is it that some boardrooms are more equipped for change and others not?  As a leadership team, they have embraced organizational agility, clearly understanding that agility is not just a team thing. It’s a collective ‘Us’ thing. They have embraced it, promoted it, and exemplified the behaviors.


The boardrooms have moved on from the usual annual planning approach, and moved to a more iterative and incremental approach, thirsty to gather actual consumer and analytical feedback. That’s not saying, don’t plan, it is saying, these are the outcomes we are trying to achieve and this is the plan at this moment in time that we think we need, BUT we understand we may need to pivot depending on the challenges we face. Think of those coaches I mentioned earlier.


Balanced delivery with innovation – They have given the delivery engines time to innovate to test new ideas, explore new possibilities, and build in agility and elasticity into their technical frameworks. This, for me, is one of the key areas usually missed. As the old saying goes “pay now, or pay later”, for some there is no ‘later” though.


Real-time feedback – They have enabled and promoted regular feedback loops from the execution layer and the consumers. This may involve the KPI’s for a product, progress of product delivery to-date, or simply what is blocking us from achieving our goals – i.e. Why does it take 2 weeks to deploy code? They have looked beyond the permafrost of the organization to ‘Walk the Gemba”. The differentiator for this area is that leadership, who welcome and praise feedback will see a different workforce. Psychological safety is key.


Another significant area is that leaders are involved in the efficiency and effectiveness of organizational delivery.  I’ve seen some leaders acting as the ‘Chief impediment remover’ or phased in a more positive light ‘Chief FlowMaster’.  After all, the executives are usually the reasons why we have impediments. #OfficePolitics.


The key for all of this is the organizations that have viewed Agility as the organization’s DNA, and the organizations that have viewed Agile as an alternative to a traditional waterfall approach may be having different conversations for the next steps since the pandemic.


Keep on your toes, be ready to adapt, or be prepared to sit out of the game.

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