Can we be Agile without exploring our fundamental beliefs and those underlying our environment? What beliefs and mental frameworks are there when considering Agility today?
These are questions that I have been asking myself regularly for several years whenever I read articles or books or pay attention to my own mental models and their evolution over time.
I define “mental models” as the conscious and unconscious structures that allow us to interpret the world around us and give meaning to our experience. It’s all the elements that allow me to create my reality through my interpretation of my own experience.
So, our mental models and beliefs are fundamental components of our identity, of our way of thinking and behaving. And as a human being, it is expressed more specifically by the totality of the relationships we have with one another, directly and indirectly, as well as with our environment.
For a long time, I had neither knowledge nor consciousness of their existence, simply because I learned history, geography or software development rather than how a human being functions. I thought and I acted, that’s all.
In recent years, I have had the chance to meet and receive the support of many people who have helped me discover these aspects of my humanity. I was first able to increase my awareness of what is behind what I think: how and why do I think what I think?
This first allowed me to identify many fundamental beliefs and models from which I derive the meaning that I give to my experience. This learning process, which has gradually become conscious, has allowed me to be in contact with sometimes very fine nuances, to dare to examine and accept the parts of myself for which I did not take responsibility, and finally to understand how much all this influences the way I understand, interpret and act in relation to and within my environment.
In the context of Agility, one of the ways to become aware of these patterns and beliefs within my job has been—and remains—for me to explore the judgments I make about what I perceive in the world of Agility.
I’ve chosen to group together under the term “Agility” not only the concrete manifestations of the Agile manifesto with the various approaches claiming to be Agile, but also movements such as “the liberated company” (a concept popularized by Isaac Getz’s book, Liberté et Cie) or “The Teal Enterprise” (a concept highlighted in the recent book, Reinventing Organizations, by Frédéric Laloux).
For a long time, I understood Agility as something we can do or be. I have often thought that such a person, team, or company was Agile or was “just doing” Agility. I gave credit to those who are (to be) Agile. I was interested in those who behaved or thought in a certain way, in alignment with my own thinking, and I denigrated those who, in my eyes, persisted in not understanding that Agility is the solution and that it can only be applied in a very particular (if not rigid!) way, by being Agile (not only by using practices described as Agile).
Polarity Management is an example of a tool (among many others) that allowed me to gradually learn to navigate more flexibly, and in perpetual motion between poles that I perceived as opposed and fixed. I learned to recognize both the value and the disadvantages of both sides of the coin.
Over the years, I have gradually taught myself to consider things as more nuanced, to accept the complex, dynamic and contextual nature of the world around me.
Yet I am still (and perhaps more than before) sensitive and deeply touched (often it manifests through a mixture of anger and sadness) to read or hear about certain interpretations or uses of Agility, which today appear to me as narrow, rigid and simplified (if not simplistic) ways of interacting with the collective and the environment.
When I gather and analyze the reasons companies want to have more freedom or transition toward Agility, I often hear in the background beliefs that are deeply rooted in our current world that constantly seeks greater profitability. Humans are then one of the cogs in a machine that must be made more efficient.
Even when the fulfillment of human beings is put in the foreground, it is often accompanied by an expected effect of obtaining greater returns for the organization. I have noticed that many “happiness at work” initiatives sound to me as a way of “inflicting happiness,” or forcing people to feel a happiness that seems constructed.
I recognize that a pleasant work environment, greater autonomy and the ability to make decisions are much more positive compared to enslaving environments. Using Agility to deliver more or faster (or both) is actually a good reason and probably a fitting approach. But must it be limited to that?
What part of you is being expressed when you convey with certainty that a Daily Scrum must be done standing up or that the Product Owner should not be part of it? Are you a Teal enterprise because you are applying some of the practices listed in the Reinventing Organizations wiki (www.reinventingorganizationswiki.com)?
Which part of me speaks when I ask these questions? It is the one that is no longer satisfied with what I feel; the one that now interprets as a refutation the complexity of the world around me. You can feel that there is judgment in my expression; I take it as a sign that I have not yet discovered what is behind all this and that I do not accept certain traits of my personality that are connected to it. And that’s OK!
For me, this personal journey brings about the loss many of the certainties that allowed me to support my identity. It is deeply destabilizing at times, and to this day I do not know how it will evolve. It’s a kind of leap into the unknown, but it is so rewarding and liberating.
Am I happier? Yes, without a doubt, because I feel a greater acceptance of what is. Is it painful? Yes, for me, often and intensely. And it is no longer incompatible with happiness; it is an integral part of it.
I no longer want to inflict happiness, Agility or freedom. I want to invite each of you to be curious and reconsider at every moment what pushes you, motivates you, leads you to think what you think and to act as you act.
Thus, Agility could become, by including it, the acquired capacity to identify and use, in a conscious and dynamic way, our mental models and beliefs. Said differently, it boils down to explicitly deciding to approach a situation (personal or organizational) with certain selected beliefs and acting cohesively with them, while making them explicit (to yourself and to others). This includes being curious about others’ thinking patterns and reconsidering certain misconceptions.
Being Agile then becomes a practice of connecting with others and your environment, while remaining conscious in the now of the models that influence you. This enables the choice to consider, in a given situation, certain models over others, both explicitly and dynamically.
To apply to ourselves what we hope for the greatest number of people, we have been exploring, over the past few months, a practice that we now call Participatory Agility.* It aims at enabling us to develop this ability to be in more autonomous, authentic and complete relationships.