— May 18, 2019
When organizations begin their journey toward agility, they think the business outcomes will become instantaneous. They expect the initial decision to lead to immediate success.
Moving towards agile from a more traditional way of working changes so many things about how we work. It changes who we interact with, and has us moving from building others solutions to becoming problem solvers. We’re creating solutions in a more integrated way, moving from predict and control to build?—?measure?—?learn?—?sense?—?respond. Agile teams need to learn new skills?—?both in domain knowledge and critical new ‘soft’ skills. Agile is a new game with new rules.
Tomorrow’s agility requires today’s patience to learn a new way of working.
Learning new skills takes time
Think back to when you first learned a new game, new skill, new exercise, how to play an instrument, draw, paint, etc. How long did it take you to become competent, let alone great? What if you just started to learn how to paint and I expected you to paint a work of art in a week? Or even to finish the painting in a week? If you just learned to golf are you going to join the PGA tour in a month? Even if you are already a fantastic athlete, are the new skills needed for golf transferable?
As the people in an organization learn how to move toward a more iterative way of working, they need to feel safe while they stumble and learn. Any group of motivated people inherently feels the need to deliver. They have personal and professional pride in wanting to succeed. They all want to make the organization successful. While learning a new way of delivering value incrementally, teams may be frustrated that it initially takes longer than they want to achieve the outcomes being asked of them. If the fear of not meeting a specific target is layered on top of this by leadership it creates a feeling of anxiety. Most often, this anxiety will lead to people resorting back to old and comfortable ways of working to achieve outputs, rather than outcomes.
The problem is: the old way of working is not sustainable. Even if they hit the output targets in the short term, it will quickly digress and you will be right back where you started?—?working in silos of specialization. This feels more comfortable for each person to do their own special part to get more output more easily. These outputs will give you diminishing outcomes. Then what do you do? Start over?
Keep all eyes on the prize: learning
Don’t get me wrong, teams need targets. Targets unify, align and give people something to aim for. These targets need to be outcomes. Focusing on outcomes gives everyone shared ownership to ensure we are delivering the ‘right’ thing and not simply happy with only delivering. Targets are usually not the problem?—?the negative way leadership acts to not making these targets is the problem.
When teams do not feel safe they feel they cannot miss the targets. Anxiety switches on survival mode, not growth mode. For growth to happen, you need to fail and learn from it. For failure to happen, you need safety. Instead of putting pressure on the team to work harder and faster?—?ask the question: Given what you just learned, how can we as leaders better support you to do your best work?
Get actively engaged as leaders by creating an organizational backlog of what will best enable teams to go from Idea -> Customer -> Validated Learning -> Iteration as quickly as possible. Leadership has a responsibility to align their work to those same targets.
Without applying learning through iteration, agility is limited to delivery.
In order to promote safety, learning has to be a first-class citizen. We need to create learning targets to compliment performance targets. What have we learned from doing? How fast have we turned the results of experiments into actions to improve both how and what we deliver?
Performance targets are good. Performance targets give us insight into how we are doing. Learning gives us insight into what and where we can experiment to improve.
Performance + Learning targets = unstoppable growth organizations.
I would like to leave you with 3 things:
- Ensure your performance targets are outcomes that reflect the learning curve the teams are experiencing while they learn how to work cross-functionally, collaboratively, and iteratively.
- Create an organizational backlog that contains organizational impediments the teams are uncovering while they are changing the way they work. Leadership needs to take active ownership and responsibility for the organizational backlog to enable the teams to achieve their performance and learning targets.
- Learning must be a first-class citizen. Establish a way to measure the learnings found, experiments run based on those learnings, and how those experiments resulted in hitting performance targets. Have targets on these learning initiatives.
Every keystroke is precious so I will end here.
Lead how you would like to be led.
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