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The six biases that hold back traditional companies from embracing agile.

Read ahead:

  • The six biases >
  • AGILE IS ONLY FOR SOFTWARE >
  • CHANGE IS NEVER A GOOD THING >
  • EVERYTHING IS WORKING – WHY CHANGE? >
  • ONLY LEADERSHIP SHOULD HAVE CONTROL >
  • REVIEWS SHOULD ONLY BE ANNUAL >
  • TENURE VS TALENT >

Download the report at end of article


“Organisations are successful because they have effectively brought the right people together to deliver value which is appreciated by customers. This success comes through hard work and clever thinking.”

Steve Walton, Principal, Australia.

The movement to an Agile Operating Model challenges the belief that the established way of working and behaving is still the most effective way forward.   It’s a belief that is mostly shared amongst established, large, long-standing traditional companies.    

So why do some of our more traditional organisations have these antiquated beliefs?    Let’s dig a bit deeper into what we understand hold companies back. 

In this article we will lay out six biases that potentially hold an organisation back from implementing an Agile operating model initiative.  

The six biases
  1. AGILE IS ONLY FOR SOFTWARE
  2. CHANGE IS NEVER A GOOD THING
  3. EVERYTHING IS WORKING – WHY CHANGE?
  4. ONLY LEADERSHIP SHOULD HAVE CONTROL
  5. REVIEWS SHOULD ONLY BE ANNUAL
  6. TENURE VS TALENT
BIAS NUMBER 1 :  AGILE IS ONLY FOR SOFTWARE

This bias is an old one.   We’ve written before on Agile busting out of the IT industry.  Agile has been implemented in non-tech development industries for years, decades.  However, this bias still lingers.    

Jeffrey von Drehnen is a senior consultant in Sydney.   He’s heard leaders say,  “Agile is not for me. Agile is what tech kids do, Agile is for software. Agile can’t work for my business.”   In many cases like Jeffrey’s examples, there is little understanding of how Agile methodologies are actually applied in a day to day sense. 

“Agile means never delivering a finished, quality product or service,” is another expression Jeffrey hears.

All this comes back to this number one bias of Agile is only for software. Ask yourself this:

Does your organisation or division have a ‘customer’?  Be it internal or external facing.

Does your organisation have roadmaps, timelines, budgets, pain points, all of which you wish could be improved for better ROI?

Agile is a mindset

Agile is now fully entrenched across different functions and industries, including human resources, marketing, mergers and acquisitions, retail, media, heavy industry – you name it.  The list goes on.  The key consideration for the ill-informed is to understand that agile is a mindset.  Agile is not the end goal, but a fundamental change in mindset.  A change in the way ideation, decisions and projects are run and delivered within an organisation. And a fundamental change in the way you think about those things.

From planning, reviews, metrics and collaboration.   Applying a new mindset, and the aligned methodology to that approach, can be used in nearly all environments where you are servicing, creating and delivering a product to a customer.     

BIAS NUMBER 2: CHANGE IS NEVER A GOOD THING

We are all creatures of habit, and there are many reasons why people might be biased against implementing an agile operating model and changing their ways of working.   

Brooke Pannell, a consultant in our US team explains, “Leaders might be wary of failure, they might not think their organisation is capable of such an undertaking, or they might see adopting a different operating model as a reflection of their own shortcomings as a leader instead of an opportunity for growth.”

In very large organisations, leaders are often more comfortable with predictability, keeping the status quo.    It’s understandable when you are dealing with tens of millions or billions of dollars.   When you have the board, or shareholders to answer to.     The key to allaying those fears is to provide the solid understanding that agile will lead to measurable improved ROI.    For this type of leader, starting small with pilot teams can allow them to establish proof points and the blueprint of how it can work.

Shannon Gilliam, a consultant in the US says, “The fear for their own role or job is part of this.  Leaders can be uncomfortable with how their role would need to change in order to support an agile operating model.”

Having to embrace new mindsets, behaviours and skillsets is challenging for a lot of people and learning to lead from a support position is not what a lot of high-level executives are ready to embrace.

BIAS NUMBER 3: EVERYTHING IS WORKING – WHY CHANGE?

“A common barrier to successful transformation, whether just contemplating a change or actually implementing new ways of working, is actually an organisation’s current success,” says Chris MacLeod, senior consultant in Sydney. 

The ability to innovate has an inverse relationship to the need for change. When times are good, the appetite for change is minimal but when dealing with market disruption, the capacity for innovation is often limited by a lack of resources.   “The idea is to seek change BEFORE you need to,” says Chris.   

This of course has never been seen more accurately than in 2020 when the need for change during the global pandemic was most pronounced.

In his book, Eating The Big Fish, Adam Morgan, talks about challenger brands.  These are brands who are often hungrier for success, they want to take over the market leader, and therefore innovate more readily than… well the ‘Big Fish’.      Market leaders are by their nature often the older, established organisation.  They are market leaders, and everything is working well.   So why change?  If the market leaders shifted their mindset to that of a challenger brand,  they would find new fresh ideas before they knew they needed them.    And before the real challenger brands or businesses ‘eat them’.   Being ready to innovate often and quickly will ultimately keep them ahead of the pack, and this is best done by changing behaviours.

So how do you shift a large organisation’s mindset?  Team by team. One way is by implementing Agile pilot teams, then scaling as measurable successful outcomes increase and confidence grows.

BIAS NUMBER 4 : ONLY LEADERSHIP SHOULD HAVE CONTROL

“Command and control is the only way to get work done right while reducing risk,” is the example that Nikhil Josh, a consultant in our Toronto office has heard from reluctant leaders.   

Shannon says, “Leadership has been viewed as a means of control for many organisations and the idea that individuals at the lowest levels can not only succeed when they are self-organising but can deliver higher value and impact is almost inconceivable.”

One of the great strengths of Agile (and one of the original 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto) centres around self-organising teams.    Teams that have the autonomy and motivation for decision making will take more ownership of the final result.   The final result ends up being a better customer product and faster delivery. 

You can read more about the fundamental principle of self-organising teams in Agile here.

BIAS NUMBER 5: REVIEWS SHOULD ONLY BE ANNUAL

It’s still hard to understand why some organisations will only review their goals annually.  We’ve seen with the COVID-19 crisis, that those organisations were forced to pivot their strategies regardless.  It was tough for them, and many failed as a result of not having the ability to change quickly.  They weren’t ready.

Much of that had to do with the fact they weren’t nimble organisations which were reflecting on their goals more regularly, nor operating with an agile approach to test and learn.      

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) originated at Intel as a goal management tool, but really hit its straps when implemented at Google in the late 1990’s.  

The main benefit of OKR’s for your goal management, is the shift from outputs to outcomes.   It’s not annual (it’s usually quarterly), it’s transparent, it’s focused and strategically aligned to company goals.  Which means that organisations are prioritising every 90 days to focus on what is important so that they deliver the highest value.

The sooner traditional organisations leave the bias for the annual goal review behind the better they will be prepared for the future.

BIAS NUMBER 6: TENURE IS MORE VALUED THAN TALENT

“Organisations that conflate tenure with talent often hinder themselves in the process of achieving their strategic objectives,” says Patrick Fitzgerald, senior consultant in our US team.

Agile is predicated upon the premise that fostering autonomy amongst teams will engender the most successful outcomes over time. Agile organisations look to leverage the skills and capabilities of all team members, regardless of level or tenure. Legacy organisations with a focus on hierarchy, tenure, and centralisation of decision-making agency invariably squelch the collective ingenuity and innovation of their teams.   

The six biases that hold back companies from Agile – report

Thank you go the following for contributions to this article:
Patrick Fitzgerald – Senior Consultant, USA
Shannon Gilliam – Consultant, USA
Nikhil Josh – Consultant, Canada
Benny Ko – Senior Consultant, Australia
Chris Macleod – Senior Consultant, Australia
Brooke Pannell – Consultant, USA
Laura Scott – Project Lead, Australia
Jeffrey von Drehnen – Senior Consultant, Australia
Steve Walton – Principal, Australia


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