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The “Agile C-Suite” and The Critical Role It Plays in an Organization’s Path to Agility

By Richard Dolman | May 20, 2020 |  Agile,  Agile Transformation,  Business Agility,  Leadership

The recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “The Agile C-Suite1 and Forbes article “Agile Isn’t New: What’s New Is The C-Suite Embracing It” have prompted some good discussion around the Agile Velocity virtual water cooler. 

While there is general agreement with most of what was published in these two articles, enough to elicit the ubiquitous ‘thumbs-up’ 👍, there’s a fair level of “Yes, and…”  

As a coach, having worked with countless organizations and executives over the years, from fortune 100 level to start-ups, I’ve reflected on all of the patterns I’ve seen displayed by C-suite level leaders and what differentiates those that have helped create sustainable agility versus those that don’t.  

With that in mind, I started to dig into these articles and relate to how we’re addressing organizational leadership with Path to Agility®. This post focuses on the HBR article–I’ll address the related Forbes article in a separate follow up post. 

HBR article setup

Before digging in, it’s worth noting that this article is based on an unnamed company and its CEO, ‘Brian Johnson’. So, there are many clarifying questions I’d like to ask in order to have better context for evaluating the efficacy of the points being made, but I’ll press on with full awareness that there are underlying assumptions that might be false. 

Balance from the Top

I wholeheartedly agree with the need to “create balance from the top” as a central tenet of leadership engagement. However, the case being made in this article is that “Agile is primarily for innovation”. This is common misrepresentation and limits the C-suite’s thinking and ability to fully embrace agility. Agile is about being adaptive and creating the conditions (mindsets, capabilities, environments, etc.) that allow us to respond to change. If you include Lean thinking in the definition of “Agile”, we can include seeking continuous improvement anywhere in the organization.  

So, an alternate definition for creating balance at the top might be to gain an understanding of complexity, by applying the Cynefin Framework2 or a Volatility – Uncertainty – Complexity – Ambiguity (VUCA) filter, as the foundation for decision making to enable agility wherever it is needed.

Balancing the Agile Enterprise 

I appreciate the concept of the “business operating system” and balancing the agile enterprise. I like the visual tool and the overall concept acknowledging that there is a spectrum of “static” to “chaotic” for various “components” of the enterprise, along with an indicator of where an “ideal agile balance point” might be–where the organization is today and the balancing direction needed to close the gap.

An excerpt of the model –  

Excerpt of the model

This is, of course, all very subjective, but it may be a valuable tool to help tune decisions and prioritize areas of need.   

The so-called “ideal” balancing point is not known, it’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested and validated. It’s also relative to what is known today versus what will be known in the future. So, there is a need to keep probing for where you are and where you think you’re going. 

The authors explain that in order to find the optimal balance, “the agile leadership team typically begins by creating new metrics to help determine how agile the company is, how agile it should be, whether it is moving in the right direction at the right speed, and which constraints are impeding progress.”

I may just be splitting hairs here, but in my experience, we don’t look to C-suite level leadership to create new metrics. Instead, we expect them to articulate clear objectives and a strategy that provides a mechanism to measure and communicate progress toward the transformation goals.  

The first steps in the Path to Agility framework involve working with C-suite and senior leadership to define and align on their Compelling Purpose (why the organization should change).  Aligning on and prioritizing critical Business Outcomes will guide the overall strategic vision for the Agile transformation.   

Then, we typically see the creation of meaningful metrics and the assimilation of empirical data at the System and Team levels, with the front-line managers and teams that are closest to the work and the data. Top-down definition of metrics often comes with a ton of anti-patterns that can undercut the organization’s ability to measure progress. 

The Agile Leadership Team

In describing the Agile Leadership Team (ALT), the article states that, “Typically, the agile leadership team includes part or all of a company’s executive committee. At a minimum, it consists of the CEO and the heads of finance, human resources, technology, operations, and marketing—the individuals most critical to the components of the operating system.” 

Yes, and there are often multiple conversations to be had in order to get the right mix of leaders and influencers on an ALT. For starters, whether or not it’s feasible to include the CEO and all other C-suite level leaders likely depends on the organization’s size and complexity. In most organizations, it can be very difficult to get C-level executives to commit to the level of engagement being suggested–although I do applaud the intent behind it and agree we should strive for it.  

The formation of an Agile Leadership Team (ALT) is a central component to the Path to Agility framework. The ALT is a powerful guiding coalition that has the ability to drive change throughout the organization. This is founded on John Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change3Step # 2: Build a Guiding Coalition has been proven over and over as a central element to creating sustainable change. A common pattern we encourage when dealing with large scale organizational transformations is to have a Guiding Coalition (GC) for the enterprise transformation and an ALT within each portfolio group.

Even in smaller organizations, where multiple portfolios may not be an issue but C-suite bandwidth is still a challenge, forming both an ALT and a GC in parallel is an adaptation that I’ve seen be highly successful. The ALT is composed of key leaders, as high level as possible, but is not limited to the C-suite. ALT members may be at any level of leadership and have the ability to influence and drive change. However, there may be larger organization-wide impediments or changes that do need C-level ownership. The GC is made up of the most senior leaders that are needed to deal with the highest-level, most complex changes. The GC may not be a standing agile team, but are effectively on-call to deal with challenges that the ALT members need help resolving and are ultimately responsible for ensuring alignment of Business Outcomes and Strategic Vision.

Key Points worth Elaborating  

“To create a truly agile enterprise, C-suite must embrace agile principles.”

Yes, and one can argue that Agile is simply a set of values and principles, so by embracing Agile principles, you’re “being” agile. When I’m working with leaders, one of the questions we begin with is “What is Agile?”. My basic definition is “Agile is a set of values and principles, focused on teamwork, value for the customer, and adaptiveness, that provide a mindset for decision making.” So, it is important to get grounded on principles.   

Unfortunately, this has become a bit of a cliché. One can embrace a principle, without really having to change anything. In principle, I believe in exercise and a healthy diet. In practice, I may avoid working out and go for an extra scoop of ice cream. Leaders need to go beyond just embracing principles–they need to also model the behaviors and mindsets they expect from the rest of the organization.   

“Rather than predict the unpredictable, agile leaders build rapid feedback loops.”

Absolutely yes, and aside from setting and articulating the Vision and Purpose, the ALT’s primary role is to nurture and amplify feedback loops. This helps build an organization-wide mindset around inspect & adapt and continuous learning. When done effectively, everyone starts to feel confident that they have a voice and are in the loop, which helps support a culture of shared, collective ownership.   

The article properly points out that “An agile environment has a way of challenging leaders” with a certain style or mindset, like an old-school style ‘command and control’ leader. The article goes on to say, “Agile, in short, requires humility from leaders.”  

A resounding yes!, and this is where it gets messy… change is hard. Changing one’s mindset, after years of success and validation that “Doing things my way is what got me into this position”, is very long and non-linear evolution. Humility is a central characteristic of “post-heroic” leadership, which shows up as openness to change and a willingness to rethink basic assumptions.    

The article concludes with – “Agile teams often cite leadership and culture as the greatest barriers to the successful scaling of agile. But most leaders aren’t fighting agile. They simply haven’t understood how it applies to their roles or how to perform those roles in ways that enhance agility.” 

Yes, and this is supported by the annual “State of Agile” survey conducted by Collabnet/VersionOne – 

Excerpt from Collabnet-V1 Annual Survey data

And while I agree that most may not be fighting agile, many are likely fighting change itself, overtly or not. It’s a natural human response when faced with a threat to your norms, expertise, or status. Resistance to Change is ranked on-par with culture and leadership.  

Bill Joiner’s Leadership Agility4 model suggests that only 10% of leaders have mastered the level of agility needed for consistent effectiveness. That’s the post-heroic level mentioned above. The vast majority of leaders are stuck at the “Expert” level which limits their thinking and behavior to more tactical orientation along with a lot of “I/Me” focus. For these leaders the approaches and tactics suggested in this HBR article may be reasonable–give C-suite executives specific responsibilities and tactics in order to personally embrace agility. But the question remains whether that will be sustainable and yield significant change if leaders don’t also evolve their leadership styles and fundamental ways of thinking to align with and support agility.  

Summary 

The journey toward organizational agility can be long and challenging. Our experience and research has shown that the vast majority of organizations who take on an Agile transformation will either experience “superficial agility” which usually results in resorting to old, ineffective behaviors, or see “pocket agility”, where some things may improve, but falls well short of the true organizational improvements needed to be more resilient. I think that is due, in large part, to the inability of leadership to personally embrace agility and at the same time create the conditions for the rest of the organization to do so.  

We are able to address this with the Path to Agility, in a couple of ways.

We’ve designed the model in two primary dimensions: 

5 Stages of organizational change Align, Learn, Predict, Accelerate, and Adapt.  

In our experience, these are the typical stages that an organization needs to transition through in order to achieve a sustainable Agile transformation. Each stage provides a point of reference and context for change. 

As I mentioned above, change is hard and it takes time, but there also needs to be a sense of urgency. Leaders need to establish a delicate balance of urgency and patience–understanding where you are along the path and knowing what and how to respond given your relative stage is crucial.  

3 Levels for development and improvement of Agile Capabilities – Organization, System, and Team.      

The Organization level is where Leadership develops a modern mindset, increases visibility throughout the organization, creates alignment around vision, goals, and measured success for sustainable organizational change. C-suite leadership is ultimately responsible for ensuring outcomes and capabilities are being realized across the organization and by truly embracing an agile mindset and modeling those behaviors the rest of the organization will follow.   

Path to Agility Agile outcomes at the organizational, system, and team level

   

For each level and stage, there are a set of Outcomes and Capabilities that have been mapped and validated based on proven patterns through our collective experience leading Agile transformations. These components of the Path to Agility provide a framework and roadmap for leaders to improve transformation consistency, quality, and results.

We help leaders, C-Suite or otherwise, get started on their path by establishing an understanding of the advantages of an outcomes-based approach and taking responsibility for them: 

  • Compelling Purpose – the reason(s) why the organization should change. Creating a sense of urgency, defining and communicating a guiding vision, and setting clear objectives for everyone.    
  • Business Outcomes – alignment and prioritization of the core need(s) for the business. This, by definition, means we’re engaging executives from across the organization, not just within IT.   
  • Rollout Strategy – establishing an ALT and a transformation roadmap, taking into account new organizational structure demands, key risks, and incremental rollout.  This also involves engaging key stakeholders and designing the mechanisms to measure progress, then empowering action at the System and Team levels.   

Path to Agility organization level Agile outcomes and capabilitiesThis framework provides leaders and organizations with clarity and confidence as they take on the challenging work needed for organizational agility.

Closing Questions 

If you’re a C-suite or senior-level executive leader –  

  • What are the keys to your ability to internalize and model agility? 
  • What are the primary impediments to embracing or sustaining agility?
  • How can you create the environment where change is enabled? 
  • Do you have a support system, a peer, a mentor, or a coach?  

If you’re a front-line Manager or Coach –  

  • How do you get C-suite level leadership to go beyond simply ‘supporting’ agility to actually being the embodiment of it for the whole organization to see and follow?  
  • What are some obvious impediments to this that we’ve seen and/or solved?   
  • If you put yourself in the shoes of a C-suite Executive, what ideas can you take action on?  

Reach out if you’d like to discuss or debate any of the ideas or perspectives shared in this article.

To learn more about Path to Agility, go to www.pathtoagility.com or contact us at info@pathtoagility.com 

Acknowledgments: 

  1. Darrell K. Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez Bain & Co. – HBR article May-June 2020 (https://hbr.org/2020/05/the-agile-c-suite
  2. Dave Snowden – Cynefin Framework (http://cognitive-edge.com/videos/cynefin-framework-introduction/)
  3. John Kotter – 8 Steps for Organizational Change (https://www.kotterinc.com/8-steps-process-for-leading-change/)
  4. Bill Joiner – Leadership Agility (https://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Agility-Mastery-Anticipating-Initiating/dp/0787979139
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