Heal agile organizations!

Many companies working according to agile principles experience an inner turmoil: While the newly acquired agility in cooperation appeals to many, it becomes increasingly difficult to orient oneself and to obtain reliable information. Leaders can create the necessary clarity and security by examining and revising three central assumptions.

Agility stands for a new form of collaboration. It not only facilitates processes or eliminates complicated framework conditions, but also offers employees in particular unprecedented creative freedom. Three essential elements are necessary for this: clarity, security and ownership. If they are not present or not sufficiently present, you should ensure that they are.

But what limits these elements? It is mostly dichotomies that arise for employees from the shift to agile principles. I regularly encounter the same representatives:

  • Agility vs. Reliability
  • Freedom vs. discipline
  • Individual vs. corporate
  • Self-leadership vs. collective performance
  • Dynamism vs. stability

These and other dichotomies increase employees’ need for (material) clarity and (psychological) security in order to act autonomously today and tomorrow. Such dichotomies are nothing new and an everyday phenomenon. It’s just that the context of agility doesn’t make it any easier. Leaders can give employees the support they need if they check three key assumptions that ensure agile principles work. If they are not (yet) fulfilled, employees can hardly dissolve these inhibiting dichotomies.

Assumption 1: Employees act on their own responsibility.

Self-responsibility (or self-efficacy) cannot be limited to pure motivation (positive psychology likes to speak of will-power), but also presupposes a direction (so-called way-power). Together, these two forces generate hope and confidence regarding upcoming tasks or challenges. However, these can only be generated if there is sufficient (material, procedural) clarity and (psychological, social) security - and responsible leaders/roles should provide these.

Unfortunately, in a (new) agile environment, they themselves often lack the necessary clarity. So they also lack clarity and security. This limits their own personal responsibility to deliver just the two important building blocks: an unfortunate cycle.

A Possible Way Out: Although the two building blocks are equally important, they may give preference to one - depending on the organization or culture. For example, while in one company it is important to make processes as efficient as possible (i.e., have clarity), in another company the focus is more on interpersonal collaboration (i.e., social safety). This allows you to define the necessary action items and implement them together with your management team. Nevertheless, there is one limitation: Whether the employees actually want to act on their own responsibility and whether they understand what you expect of them is another matter.

Assumption 2: Teams organize themselves.

In companies set up according to agile criteria, I notice more short-term perspectives. The need to exchange information quickly and frequently, to loosen plans and to align cooperation with current needs may indeed increase the responsiveness (agility) of a system. But I wonder if this phenomenon is not also due to a lack of clarity and certainty. In my view, one indication of this is the dominant focus on working WITH rather than ON the system. In the almost endless, operational consultation meetings (and the resulting unavailability of employees), current problems determine the content - even in meetings that would be intended for more far-sighted planning. Here, there is a clear lack of (psychological) security to consistently set topics that do not merely reduce pain points. This short-termism makes people confused. And it encourages navel-gazing - that is, a focus on one’s own, team-specific needs. But the core of effective cooperation in a company lies not only within the team itself (inter-team cooperation), but especially between the teams (intra-team cooperation). The question of how best to cooperate with other teams often remains unanswered. The navel-gazing limits the interest in the performance of other teams or in the exchange of experiences with them. Therefore, a comprehensive self-organization only emerges halfway.

One possible way out: Have all teams create a catalog, for example, about responsibilities, delivery items, about internal team management, or about the most pressing questions and problems. Compile an overall overview, share it with all teams, then invite them to a short workshop. Choose a setup that creates the necessary connections between employees from different teams so that experiences can be shared, commonalities identified, or even problems solved. This in turn is an investment in clarity and security, and thus in personal responsibility and self-organization.

Assumption 3: Purpose is sufficient as a guide.

Even if everyone is clamoring for Purpose and considers themselves competent not only to understand it but also to comment on it, you as a manager should examine this Purpose very closely for level-appropriate connecting points. Even if it seems that the era of super-complicated strategies has ended with the Purpose, my experience is different. Employees need translation aids, stirrup bridges into everyday life. No matter what you call your guiding stars and fill them with content, they have to be understood.

In this respect, little has changed for leaders from my point of view. As I already describe in my book (Chapter 1: “Tell - How to move employees with your purpose”), stories are very suitable for conveying content in a way that is appropriate for the addressees. To do this, you can draw on different narrative structures. What has changed, however, is the amount of time available until you are understood. It has become significantly shorter. So you have to become even simpler, talk about it even more frequently and record their perspectives together with employees. Do you still find the time?

Another challenge I see is the view of Purpose. Many (especially younger employees) think that Purpose simply exists and doesn’t change. They seldom realize that it is precisely their efforts that help to support Purpose and anchor it in the organization. In this respect, the limited personal responsibility and the halfway effective self-organization are of little help, as the Purpose could act as a signpost on its own.

One possible way out: Make yourself a signpost - and do so with clear announcements! Say what you expect and want to achieve for what reason and how this can be used to achieve an overriding goal. Make it clear what you will tolerate and what you will not tolerate on the way there. Provide clarity and convey certainty. Even if you cannot know or foresee everything yourself. A decision is always better than none (even if none is of course also one - at least according to Sartre). This way, everyone knows where they stand and they can take their own position: Either go along with your announcement or put forward arguments on how to reach the goal more elegantly, for example. This is how you create a purpose-like effect: integration & engagement!

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