If you were to develop an advanced course in agility what would you do?
Business agility* is proving to be a significant competitive advantage. Companies that are advanced in their adoption of business agility report 60% higher revenue than the rest of organizations surveyed and “Eight out of ten organizations have committed to adopting it.” While the practical adoption of these new ways of working is accelerating, what are current and future business leaders being taught in our universities? Will business agility remain something one can only learn outside of universities through corporate learning, development, and experience?
For the fifth time I was given the privilege of creating a university course ex nihilo. Well, we really never create something from nothing, but it can feel that way when you are given the latitude to design anything you want on a topic–all the while your 15-week course start date is looming. While I have developed and delivered corporate workshops and university courses in the fundamentals of agile teams and scaling agile, the principles and patterns for an entire enterprise’s agile culture, leadership, and operations are still just emerging. If team agile is basic agility, and the next level of abstraction is agile delivery at scale, possibly the highest level of abstraction is enabling an entire organization to adopt modern, human-centric ways of working that fit our complex world. How might I create a graduate-level course for career professionals that would help build up their capability to lead in a modern agile organization?
Searching for an Agile “Meta-Framework”
One of the companies that has made substantial progress in transforming to new ways of working is Microsoft especially through the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, a journey they shared with me as part of a study I helped conduct and recently published more on. As Nadella says, it is not “as much about any particular strategy or anything,
Nadella suggests a company can only stay relevant if it can acknowledge and continuously adapt to the realties of the changing world. But where do we go to find a source for this meta framework? Indeed fifteen years of research with 13 global companies found “All of our research participants agreed that there is a problem is defining large-scale agile.” Yet a meta- framework is exactly what is needed to orient organizations and their leaders.
Agile Frameworks are Not Meta-Frameworks
Team agile approaches such as Scrum, or team-of-team approaches such as Scrum@Scale and SAFe and all their variations are considered frameworks. But these cannot serve as a meta-framework. Indeed one of the chief lessons learned this past decade has been from all the bad outcomes attempting to force-fit an agile framework into a change management process just like another traditional business process improvement program. “Fitting a ‘one size fits all’ large-scale agile framework within an existing organisational structure is challenging,” research finds. The name “dark agile” has even emerged to define this challenge.
I regularly speak to my fellow consultants about times we have been invited in to help reset a failed transformation, including some that were previously touted as successes in publications such as Harvard Business Review. Jon Smart has gone on to call this Antipattern #1, the Capital T Agile Transformation: “A capital A, capital T Agile Transformation, from an employee’s perspective, implies involuntary, mandatory change being done to you, whether you like it or not. The capital T denotes that you must change;the capital A denotes exactly how you’ll change. This provokes fear and resistance for many reasons, including the fear for your survival, which in turn leads to less rational thought as the primitive brain takes over.” As I suggested in Non-Violent Agile, The Microsoft Way.
To convey concepts of a meta-framework I have previously relied on Steve Denning’s excellent 2010 The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century for his work abstracting the principles of Scrum delivery to a leadership mindset. A lot has been learned since that writing. In leading end-to-end business transformations and consulting for global companies, I have learned there are substantial impediments and complexity to business agility.
The authors begin with the simple, single goal for any organization, to create value, its very reason for existence. Surrounding the value purpose are four essential elements they name “better, [value] sooner, safer, happier” or abbreviated at BVSSH. Jon Smart admitted they considered their book to be suitable for graduate level educators. Fortunately for me they agreed to support my effort to develop an advanced agile course based on SSH.
The meta-framework of BVSSH is seen in the subtitle of the book “Antipatterns and Patterns for Business Agility”. Antipatterns and patterns are principles that emerge and can be derived after many specific experiences. Notice the agile nature of these, that they emerge. This approach to understanding business agility is rooted in what is actually experienced and why business operators and consultants like myself can so easily relate to this meta-framework. These are not a set of pre-determined ivory-tower principles that then get imposed. The WashU students also found this approach compelling since they were able to quickly identify patterns and antipatterns in their own organizations. We have all experienced the truth in patterns such as with organizational change to “invite over inflict” or how to “optimize for end-end flow” versus the antipattern of “local optimization”.
The objective for my course is to equip learners to contribute and lead with the design or improvement of an organization’s ways of working. Since this is an advanced agility course I established prerequisites, either taking my agile foundations course or equivalent work experience. These eight course learning objectives (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy shown in bold) reflect this more advance level:
- Relate principles of business agility to your organizations ways of working.
- Analyze an organization’s business agility to identify the current state, capabilities, and change trajectory for their ways of working.
- Differentiate a traditional work mindset to an agile mindset.
- Influence work personnel for the benefits of aligning to agile ways of work.
- Illustrate business agility patterns and anti-patterns. Explain a “win-win-win” model for a virtuous cycle of work.
- Generalize teams-of-teams scaled agile delivery frameworks and principles.
- Formulate business agility enterprise change and transformation practices.
- Design improved ways of working to demonstrate synthesis of all course content.
Course Participant Highlights
The course featured two highlights. In the middle of the course we took four classes to deliver the BVSSH workshop which is normally provided for corporate training. This is a co-led experience and I am very grateful for Marcus Ward to have joined me those weeks as the co-trainer. This segment became one of the course participant’s highest rated elements. The students reported especially appreciating interacting with the multiple perspectives and varied background Marcus and I both brought.
The second highlight was the course field work capstone project with an external client. No leader in business agility is developed by book-learning alone. In order to meet the course learning objectives and learn to identify and apply the BVSSH patterns and antipatterns students need to interact with business agility in the wild. For this field work we had the amazing privilege to partner with one of the largest banks in the US. Over several weeks the WashU students examined a 40 team unit through survey analysis, event observations, team and management interviews. Out of this they developed a range of recommendations for consideration to enhance the bank’s transformation backlog. The course “final” was the client readout of their findings and recommendations. The presentation was also recorded at the request of the client so they might circulate it among their staff. The project was a tremendous win for both the WashU students and the client. The client reported shortly after they had “already started passing it around and having conversations. It’s truly going to help us improve some of our agility mentality here at the bank. What an amazing class and great way to set students up for future success.” As far as I know (please let me know otherwise) this was the first partnership between a university graduate agility course and a Fortune 500 organization on their agile journey.
Organizations are hiring graduate students, including MBAs, in numbers higher than ever. How will we help develop all the business agility leaders our organizations require? One way is to provide the theory and application of a business agility meta-framework like this course at WashU.