The first highway, or limited access road, was built on Long Island, New York and completed in 1911. The intention was to reduce the travel time between to given points. As time passed, mass-production systems allowed more and more people to buy cars at affordable prices and as a result, demand for more roads and highways rose significantly. As a solution, engineers expanded the width of highways with the intention of increasing the throughput of traffic. Little did they know that their solution would turn into an even bigger problem. Instead of trying to decongest 2-3 lane highways, we are now deadlocked with behemoth problems of 10 lane highways to solve.

Organizations go through comparable transformations. Increasing demand for their products and services push them to react in a fashion similar to expanding the highways. The default behaviour for most organizations is to increase their work force, relying on profit margins to determine if they can hire more people. After all, for many organizations, a growing workforce is synonymous with success. That is; the bigger the organisation the bigger the success..

Unfortunately, organizations (like highway engineers) failed to foresee the plenitude of problems that lie ahead of a growing staff count. With the increase of people comes increased interactions. Increased interactions equate to more control points, more control points means more processes and so on. Organizations then opt for control through new processes, regulations and standards, thus adding complexity to the structure and operating model as they each need to be controlled or supervised.

Organizational Agility adoption has failed at a spectacular rate and continues to do so. Why? Agile methodologies, presented as saviours to organizational sluggishness, are too often integrated with a complete disregard for structure, size and complexity of the organization. Introducing Agile values, principles and practices into a bloated organization is like trying to introduce a new route through a maze of congested highways. It just doesn’t work.

Like many other business methodologies, Agility has been sold as a remedy to organizational belatedness and inertia. There is a direct correlation between the size and complexity of organizations and the successful application of Agile methodologies. Many startups and medium sized companies have been highly successful in applying Agile methodologies simply because their structure allows them to do it.

Many Agile firms, groups and people have attempted to find solutions to successfully scale Agile methodologies for organizations, all with mitigated results. This begs to ask the question: Should Agile methodologies adapt to organizations or should organizations adapt to Agile methodologies? I believe the answer lies a little in between both and a little beyond as well…

Organizational adaptation is often seen as either a leadership or cultural shift. While these shifts need to happen within organizations, they have at best produced questionable results within organizations adopting Agility.

Organizations need to question the suitability of their structure for adopting Agile methodologies. No matter how good the process, methodology or practice, it will only be as effective as the organizational maze allows it to be. In other words, a Ferrari will only be as fast as the effectiveness of the road it rides on. A congested highway is slow regardless of how fast a car is.

Agility adoption in large organizations can be **aided** when preceded by SOSO (Simplified Operational and Structural Organizations). What are the characteristics that define SOSO?

  • The ratio of people delivering business value versus the rest of the staff (doers vs enablers) is 8 to 1 or greater.
  • The number of levels from the CEO down to the bottom is less than or equal to 4.
  • Each business domain or unit can deliver an end-to-end product or service without handoffs to other domains or units.
  • Every employee is empowered and encouraged to ‘stop the chain’ to correct and improve the chain or process.
  • Continuous improvement is rigorously applied and practised in all areas.

Obviously, this in itself can require important changes or even be impossible to apply as is, Before launching a complete reorganization, consider the following factors:

  • The nature of the industry;
  • The culture of the people and the organization;
  • The leadership’s support;
  • The purpose of Agility adoption.

Beyond that, we also need to consider that a continuous improvement mindset needs to be carefully developed, curated and adopted at an organizational level. Should Agile organizations not encourage continuous improvement, efficiency and simplicity over growing complexity through increased workforce and processes?

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marc-andré langlais

Marc-André is an Agile coach at Epicoaching, member of Pyxis network. He helps build self-organizing teams who evolve in a stimulating and relational environment. Contact him to find out how he can contribute to the success of your teams.

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