Agile is the Solution to a Critical Gap

March 13, 2013

The American Management Association (AMA) published a 2012 Critical Skills Survey that states, according to the U.S. executives polled, that the American workforce is average – at best – at the “four Cs” of Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity. The view of these executives is that the American workforce needs to excel at these four Cs in order for businesses to grow in the 21st century.

I don’t disagree that those are critical skills. However, there is a gap between what these executives are saying and what is happening on the ground. Tony Schwartz summed up this general sentiment in his book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working:
“The all-too-common dynamic in today’s workplace is parent-child. Most employers tell employees when to come to work, when to leave, and how they’re expected to work when they’re at the office. Treated like children, many employees unconsciously adopt the role to which they’ve been consigned. Feeling disempowered and vulnerable, they lose the will and confidence to take real initiative or to think independently. Doing what they’re expected to do often becomes more important than doing what make most sense, what’s most efficient, or even what might create the highest value.“
In other words, the executives in the AMA survey may be saying one thing, but they aren’t walking the walk; at least not in a majority of the companies out there. The behavior of most executives sends a strong message that they want people to “do as they are told.” Period.

This disconnect is supported by the latest State of Agile Development Survey published by VersionOne. It’s worth taking a look at some of the problems agile adoptions are experiencing because agile makes things transparent and exposes weaknesses. The current VersionOne survey cites that the leading cause of failed agile projects is that the company philosophy or culture at odds with core agile values. And the top barrier to further agile adoptions is the ability to change organizational culture.

Since agile adoptions are facing cultural challenges at the organizational level, we clearly have conflicting values at play. Organizational culture reflects an attitude and approach to work – a particular belief – in “the way we do things in order to succeed.” And today many organizations are run as plan-driven, command-and-control cultures, with the emphasis on control.

An agile approach, on the other hand, values the collaborative efforts of multi-disciplinary teams in crafting creative solutions to complex problems. Teams that will need develop and apply critical thinking skills to aide in crafting an effective solution. Finally, as part of the “agile package,” face-to-face communication is definitely valued, and I can make the case that clear, succulent, written communication is valued as well because User Stories and other agile documentation should be lightweight in nature.

So we have a situation where being agile supports everything that the executives surveyed by the American Management Association say that they want, but aren’t getting enough of. And yet agile adoptions are challenged because organizations aren’t being run in ways that actually support being agile.

So where is the problem? According to VersionOne, the least knowledgeable people when it comes to agile are executives. In fairness, executives are trying to get things done. It’s just that a shift is needed, one that requires education in order for everyone to fully understand what it takes (nothing is for free) along with the benefits that are possible in transforming to agile. I covered how agile is a cultural change in some recent posts, culminating in a post titled, A Cultural Recipe for Agile Organizations.

I firmly believe that people doing the work want to be more involved and engaged in their work, to participate in ways that will develop the four Cs. We have the solution; we just need to implement it. It’s been called other things and there have been variations on a common theme of empowerment and moving greater authority, autonomy and decision-making closer to the people performing the work, but today it is best known as agile.