The Sweet Perils of Agile Design
I am sitting on my porch in our cooperative micro-village, an hour north of Berlin on the Oder river, trying to keep the July morning sun out of my computer screen and the bugs out of my coffee. The sprouting weeds in the garden remind me of how quickly emergence can get messy. The peach trees, drastically trimmed in the fall and now back with focused strength, remind me, how cutting back can facilitate growth within a system. The bugs continue to annoy me. When I turn to the left I look onto my neighbor Jörg’s place. It looks different today, something has changed in the layout of the terraces, somehow the wooden constructions that structure life in the guest house he and his wife run within these old stone stable walls have been reconfigured. I can’t quite make out what it is, and I have stopped to keep track. Jörg is the one who made me think of the term “Preliminary Order”. His style of building is textbook agile. Where others ponder and plan for months until they finally find a design that seems perfect, he builds quickly and rebuilds even quicker. And where others again do this by continuously muddling though in provisional arrangements, every single interim solution in Jörg’s construction process is so close to refined, it could be final. Jörg is, what we may call a proud subject of Agility.
I am not a builder. I can renovate and fix things if they are broken, but I would not know where to start with a more complex construction. I can see a bunch of interesting parallels to organization development though. Interior architecture is one of the many instructive metaphors for organization design. You design a sensible layout of spaces and, if you like it or not, the users will appropriate that space. If you don’t build a kitchen on the second floor, soon you will find a water-cooker in the upstairs living room. If there is no accessible door to the back yard, a window will soon become a surrogate entry and exit point – with the soiled carpet below that window illustrating the suboptimal nature of this solution. Messy rooms say just as much about their inhabitants as they do about the functionality of the shelving. Informal structures (in other words: organizational behavior) compensate for flaws in formal ones. Obviously they also need to be compatible, or at least communicate on some level to form a healthy whole. If this communication is not played out as a struggle but as a feedback dialogue, in which the formal structures are continuously adapted, we are closing in on agile design and preliminary order.
Agile Design is rapidly gaining attention, both, in the field of project and process development. The basic idea of the agile approach is to apply iterative mini-cycles of design, implementation and evaluation rather than walking through a „waterfall“ sequence of the respective stages as in traditional planning process.
What does it take?
Here are some ingredients of the Preliminary Order approach for Organisation Development
- 80:20 Mindset: According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of the deliverable of a task tends to be produced with 20% of the effort. It is the final polish that usually takes up the bulk of energy. Forget the final polish and invest that energy in further design cycles. Most of all, this takes a mindset that accepts near-perfect solutions.
- Structural Hypothesis: Treat every solution as a hypothesis to test. Don’t get attached to your solutions and make sure the users don’t get overly attached to them either. Keep the ground soft. As my change management professor Charles Geany liked to note: Change catches up with change.
- Anchor Platforms: When reconfiguring, don’t throw all the balls in the air at the same time. Continuous improvement works best if you can work from stable platforms. Constant change and improvement can be exciting, but it can also be stressful for people who like routines. Make sure to move back into the comfort zone every now and then to be able to integrate the stretch of development.
- Keep Learning: Continuously collect feedback while the system is running. Tune in to user behavior as it compliments or compensates the formal structures. Are people using the door or the window? What are the deviances between the formal and the informal reality?
- Agile Materials: Use materials that are of good quality but simple, flexible and not overly expensive. Build in a way that you can recycle these materials. Always have a stack of the core materials around. I am still thinking about what that could mean for organization development…
So, how does it work in practice?
In late 2015 we were hired to facilitate a development process within the German General Secretariat of one of the grand old welfare associations. A central division of the Secretariat was to be restructured from five units grouped around various target groups (children & youth, elderly, disabled etc) to three teams clustered around specific functions (finance, project & program management and research & innovation). While the headlines for the three new teams were set at the top management level, the functions, internal structure and interfaces were to be developed. The task seemed dubious at first: initiate a participative process to make sense of a solution that has already been fixed (“Here’s the answer, go and find the question”). But something told us, there were many more open ends in this equation than met the eye – and obviously the insights of the team members were vital to make them meet up in a sensible way.
Consequently, we framed the new unit headlines as inspirational markers of the playing field. As there was no experience in the organization with functional clusters we decided that a Preliminary Order approach would be suitable – start with a sensible draft solution, then continuously monitor and refine the system along the way. Other than in most our OD work, we accepted the time pressure and let it work for us to aid the early release of a structural design – knowing that the result was far from perfect. We deliberately left some parts of the structures open for later design cycles. Not surprisingly, problems showed up quickly and dissatisfaction stirred.
We advocated to go through another complete development cycle. Our most noble task along that route was to help the management team feel ok with what at first seemed like failure to them. The second cycle started with observing the evolving workflow patterns and monitoring bugs and grey areas within the new system. These challenges were mapped and addressed in the redesign. Nothing was taken for granted and still, not everything was revised. Three months later, after another phase of “trying on” the new system, we added a third design cycle to refine the system even further. New needs had surfaced, fixed had uncovered new problems, and again Charles Geany rang in my ears: Change catches up with change. The result was a system that was pretty close to perfect – no one involved would have been able to design it from the outset.
To be honest, the last paragraph is fiction -it’s how I would have liked to see it happen. In reality our process didn’t quite play out the agile way: We soon realized how hard it was to sell the Preliminary Order approach to our client. They did not want to experiment with preliminary solutions. The Top Management wanted things to be well-defined quickly and return to stable routines as soon as possible. Staff were equally unenthused: The prospect of throwing the cards up in the air by changing their working routines along with their team and office constellations every few months, seemed less than desirable to most. If Jörg is a proud subject of Agility, these guys were about to become disturbed objects of Agility. It wasn’t going to happen. So we abandoned the Agile leitmotiv. The bugs were patched, the dissatisfaction was eased and the boat went on and keeps on going with an ok but far from perfect design.
In the aftermath I wonder how we could have played it differently….
Of course, there is a price tag
Agility adds stress. In 1998 Richard Sennet wrote: „Flexibility in the working environment has made it difficult to the individual to make long term commitments and to shape a ‚narrative‘ or ‚history‘ for its future. Disorientation andfragmentation of coherent objectives for the individual is the consequence“
Since the publishing of his book, the number of sick leaves due to psychological illnesses in western organisations has tripled. The highest attributions are fast pace coupled with high workloads and multitasking. Reorganisations make for …
Sennett refers to an interesting definition of flexibilty as the quality a tree has, bending in the wind but also bending back to its normal form when the wind has subsided. This raises the question if there are limits to bendig back, if the . While the counterargument is equally valid (humans are genetically programed to live nomadic. Change is inherent in human culture and adaptation to changing environmental conditions is our strongest trait).
Agility is not to be confused with improvisation. Actually, agile development may be much farther from improvisation than from classic planning approaches. As a violinist disenchanted with the rigid frameworks of classical music I spent a good part of my musical life on Jam Sessions and Jazz Improvisation. In improvisation, design and implementation happen simultaneously. Inspiration, sensing, and (re)acting are intertwined in a moment of open awareness and communication. The nature of this communication is emergent. It cannot be predicted solely from looking what the players bring to the table. The groove happens or doesn’t happen. When it happens, it is a collective innovation that feels magic.
While agility does not presuppose any particular position on the continuum of design and emergence, agile development is quite a controlled affair. It certainly is about finding a groove in the communication between internal and external dynamics, but it lacks the curiosity for what Otto Scharmer calls the “Blank Canvas”. Agile Development has a plan, even if this plan is played out incrementally – it incorporates reflection, but this reflection has a clear purpose of defining the next step, the better feature, the revised order. Sometimes I wonder how compatible Agility really is with a commitment to emergent orders.
The concept of “Organic Agile” promises some answers here.