All teams need to be Agile

2022-04-05 Ron Eringa

More and more organizations are embracing Agile ways of working to deal with a high degree of complexity and change. In this way they can quickly respond to customer needs and optimize the value they create for them.

Such a change into a more Agile organization often starts with a single experiment where a few enthusiastic team members try out Scrum. Once the organization sees the benefits of this new way of working, they wonder how to scale these benefits to the entire organization. A question that I get more than once lately is how the organization would look like, when it would be 100% Agile. Would there still be a hierarchy? Is it entirely based on teams? …and if so,

Do all teams need to be Agile then?

The most common approach

In order to answer this question we first need to look at how most organizations approach their ‘Agile transformation’. In the visuals below I have made a summary of the most common change approach we encounter.

After a first succesfull experiment the organization change is intiated from the executive level (with input from the first experiment).

The change is explained and shared with the next level of management who is often made responsible for the execution of the change. In some cases this meets resistance and a redesign of the change is needed.

After fixing the initial resistance and agreement, change is rolled out to the next layer of management. Chances are big that at this level even more resistance and issues might appear, since it involves more people and opinions. Such a step might take a lot of effort, especially in a big corporate environment.

Before the change has reached the lower levels of the organization there is often a lot of resistance. This top-down approach has a big risk of slowing down since most of the required knowledge for such a successful change is where the work is done: at the lowest levels. This often leads to a situation where only part of the organization benefits from the advantages of the agile approach. Also, a large part of the organization hasn’t really changed, because the chain of decision making is still organized in similar ways than before..

The more natural approach

The change approach that has proven more successful in our own experience is the one below. It describes an integral approach, executed one valuechain at a time. By starting with a single value chain and equipping it with all necessary leadership, structure and help self-management can grow incrementally. The empirical experience this first team gains can be transferred to a second team, the second team again learns and hands it to a third and so on…

This approach can be compared to how the cells in a living organism gradually become a bigger organ with a specific function.

The first integral team contains every discipline to create an end to end product or service. It might involve people from HR, operations, marketing, sales and other parts of the organization to deliver end to end value in a sustainable way. Chances are big that there are new rules, boundary conditions to be successful. Once success is reached the organization starts exploring where to repeat the initiative.

Other teams follow in the footsteps of the first. Each team gets enough space to experiment with new ways of working. Gradually, a new and more flat organization structure appear, where the central leadership team acts in a similar Agile way. Such a situation is in desperate need of a cell-membrane that seperates this new agile cell from the rest of the organization, in order to avoid conflicts.

Only changes\structures that benefit every team in the new cell will be implemented at the core. All others stay local. As soon as there are sufficient teams that are mature enough to self-sustain their situation the old organization can gradually be dismantled. In our new book The Professional Agile Leader we explain that organizations can continue for a long time with two different operating models, one agile and one traditional, coexisting side-by-side. But they cannot maintain these two models forever; they are incompatible and diametrically opposed. They create and demand opposing cultures and eventually, one culture or the other will win out.

In larger organizations there are often more cells or value chains that are supported by a central leadership team. With a similar cell-structure they collaborate in a larger organism. Very often, there are also other supporting teams (with specific knowledge like marketing, sales or other disciplines) that work in an agile way and provide the value chains with required knowledge and coaching.

Do all teams need to be Agile?

After exploring the traditional and more natural way of building agile organizations based on self-managed teams, we can answer the question with a solid YES. From our experience we truly believe that there is no part of the organization that will not benefit from self-managing teams. The more important question perhaps is how urgent the need to kill old structures and behaviours are and how resilient we are to pursue the true promise of an Agile organization: creativity, fast decision making and real value creation.

If you would like to learn more about improving organization agility, our new book, The Professional Agile Leader dives in deeper and is available for pre-order now.

Ron Eringa

Ron’s mission is to create organizations where people love to work and create value to the world. As trainer for, writer and frequent speaker he is enthusiastic about leadership development. Ron has helped many organizations to develop learning journeys for their Agile Professionals. Founder of Agile Leadership School.

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