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Agile is not a process, it’s a culture

When the massive transformation project we were working on had started to slip, the senior leadership decided to bring in the big guns. A large global consulting firm, who will remain nameless, sent across one of their top consultants to get things back on track.

The task was large, we were way over budget and time. The challenges were many, stakeholders had lost confidence and we couldn’t deliver on timelines. Despite this, the plan was simple. We just needed to be more Agile.

This was the first time I’d come across the ‘A’ word outside of sport and I wasn’t really sure what it meant. In my young naivety, I asked what it meant to be Agile. The explanation was underwhelming. It seemed in this case Agile meant we would meant every four hours in a ‘war room’ to discuss progress. In between meetings, we would do far more work than any of us had ever been able to accomplish. We’d manage this effectively because we’d be using the consultants ‘strawman’ in a ‘test and learn’ methodology.

Despite being more confused than ever, it was intoxicating to hear that this process and structure might get it all back on track. Sadly, it didn’t.

After a week of the whole team working past midnight, the consultants got the green light to bring in more of their team. A number of super intelligent, post-graduate robots entered the building. Fuelled on red bull and pizza, they worked with us into the early hours of each day until we finally got the outcomes needed. From the outside, Agile had saved us. From the trenches, I can tell you it was sheer horsepower. Blood, sweat and caffeine had made it all work. This was a pig with lipstick.

I’d been wary of the use of the word Agile ever since.

However, now more than ever, I believe that being able to respond quickly, work collaboratively and make key decisions with confidence and speed is a must for high performing teams. You can’t survive unless you are ready to move quickly.

In my work today with hundreds of leaders and high performing teams, I’ve come to find that the physical elements and processes that many people fascinate about when they want to be Agile are mostly useless. Well, that’s is a bit harsh. They are not useless, they do help. But they aren’t all that is needed. They are the body of the car, but it doesn’t move without an engine.

The engine is culture. See people drive performance. Not technology, not strategy, not processes nor systems. People are the engine of every business. And culture is the invisible force that binds us, shapes us and empowers us to be the best engine we can be.

Even the core values of Agile like: ‘people over process’ and ‘collaboration over contracts’ sounds like it’s in the right direction, but what we are forgetting are the essential pieces of culture. The unwritten rules of how we feel about each other, how we decide how we interact with each other and these need to be seeded into everything we do.

If we want to be agile we need to develop three core principles: Trust, Understanding and Curiosity.

I believe that Agility is created through the combination of Trust and Understanding.

Trust: Do others really have my back? Do I really have theirs? Are their interests genuine? Do they care about me? Can I rely on them? Do they see me as a partner in this greater endeavour?

Without trust, things slow down. Sceptics rule and distrust breeds caution. When trust is low, people pull back from decisions and question motives. The world is too complex to move quickly. Trust unlocks raw speed.

Understanding: Do I really understand what I do? Do I understand what they do? Do I know how these things work together to help our greater outcome? Do I know why we need to do what we do?

Without understanding, we make decisions that are only in our context. We rush into action without considering or understanding the consequences on others. We hit our individual targets but negatively impact the greater system. Understanding helps us all see the big picture.

Together, a culture with a rich sense of trust and a fostering of mutual understanding can make the right decisions with the confidence of their peers and the clarity of their purpose.

If you want to move faster, don’t look for an army of consultants in nice suits, look at the ways your people interact and how you can build trust and understanding to become faster.

And if you need some help, reach out!

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