We need to encourage habits of flexibility, of continuous learning, and of acceptance of change as normal and as opportunity - for institutions as well as for individuals."
- Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles, 1993
- Kent Beck, subtitle of his book Extreme Programming Explained 1st Edition, 2000
Menlo Innovations is the most agile organization in the world"
- Linda Rising, coauthor of Fearless Change, 2004
What exactly is agility? It is NOT tools, practices, certifications, or rhetoric.
Agility is comprised of habits of flexibility, of continuous learning, and embracing change.
The central question for organizations: can we achieve these goals systematically?
So many organizations are pursuing “agile” for “agile’s sake.” A different mindset is required: organizations should pursue agility for the results that agility produces.
Let’s consider the challenges organizations face:
- Markets and customer needs shift away from current offerings
- New competitors emerge with new, compelling offerings
- New technologies, if adopted, enable new business models or lower costs
- Workforces are slow to adapt to these new changes
- Companies are improperly organized to allow adaptation
- Economic changes force reorganizations when change is least affordable
- High-growth economic periods require an impossible level of HR adaptation
- When a need for change is high, swaths of the organization dig in and ossify
- Large scale change initiatives produce “here we go again” conformance
- The majority of the workforce is disengaged
- There is no time for building systems of continuous learning
My hypothesis for this article:
True organizational agility produces the flexibility and ability to embrace change that enables companies and teams to adapt when faced with any or all of these challenges.
From my personal experience, companies that pursue “agile” seldom achieve the results required to adapt to any of these challenges. And this is often after years of trying every flavor of agile initiative out there. These companies become change-initiative-weary and typically just go through the motions to feign support for the change.
One of the most painful and ineffective corporate processes (right up there with mergers and acquisitions) is the dreaded corporate reorganization. Typically, these “once every few years” events come too late for the economic and competitive stressors that spawned the planning in the first place. It is typically wrong and short-sighted. It is poorly communicated. It further disengages the workforce and weakens the very foundations that it was supposed to reinforce and strengthen.
- You could reorganize the company or division every week without fanfare or complaint?
- You could load balance the current workload to avoid overtime?
- You could meet the needs of all customers and internal stakeholders with current staff?
- You could easily onboard new talent with ease?
- Continuous learning occurred without a training department, budget, or initiative?
- This could all be done without hierarchical authority?
- The process for doing this took less than two hours each week to plan, execute and communicate?
- The process itself energizes the team?
- Clients participated in this process?
This is what we have achieved at Menlo Innovations.
There are three internal systems that foster this organizational agility:
- Paired work.
- Weekly resource planning.
- Pricing creativity.
Underlying these systems are ways of working that support them:
- Visual management.
- Hyper transparency.
- HR processes that align with these outcomes.
The full explanation of our culture, our values, and the underlying practices that support them are well documented in several books:
What I’d like to offer in this article is a peek into a process we affectionately call “Resource Planning”. This process is carried out weekly by our team on Thursday afternoons for about 60 to 90 minutes.
In this hour-long session, we consider the following:
- What are all our active projects?
- What is the current state of all our active projects?
- What are client expectations for our external projects?
- What are Menlo’s needs for internal projects?
- What are the contractual parameters for each external project?
- Who is available each day? Who has taken time off?
- Who has been on which projects recently and therefore has knowledge?
- Who needs to learn new things?
- Who are good teachers?
- Who is ready to step up into leadership?
- What roles are needed at this stage?
- How many people are needed on this project for the workload?
- Who’s ready for a change? (Of project, technology, or customer situation?)
A simple, clear unambiguous artifact records the results of the conversation.
This week’s schedule is sent out as a PDF as very simple spreadsheet, where each column in the spreadsheet represents a Menlonian, and the rows under each name represent the morning and afternoon of Monday through Friday. Each box defines who you are paired with (yes, the pairs switch at least every five days), and which project you are on. The schedule is sent out on Friday afternoon so that everyone knows about their next week’s assignments. This simple, yet powerful clarity removes a tremendous amount of ambiguity from each Menlonian's plate.
This weekly reorganization, combined with the pairing, is the basis for our agility. Everyone knows that they may move from one project to another, one technology to another and always one pair partner to another. This fosters a growth mindset in every Menlonian.
One of the most difficult HR tasks, the onboarding of new people, is trivialized in a system like this. We don’t have to worry how someone is going to “come up to speed” or whether they will “hit the ground running.” They immediately get a pair partner who knows to teach through the ears and fingertips of the new employee. Which means we are not afraid to hire new people, even fresh college graduates, or people relatively new to the industry. It contributes to the cognitive diversity of our team because we are not dependent on them having specific technical knowledge about a tech stack, a set of tools, or industry or domain experience. We simply expect them to come ready to learn new things.
This practice also avoids the need for overtime because if we need more done, we can add more people and increase the speed of a project. We find Brooks’ Law to be a quaint reminder of an industry mis-organized.
This is what agility looks like. The business benefits are tremendous, particularly in a rapidly changing world.
If you’d like to learn more, consider attending one of our upcoming free public tours and ask questions about the parts of this you don’t understand or believe is possible. We are more than willing to answer hard questions.