Creating the Right Environment for People to be Agile

It’s no secret that change management has been ‘tipped on its head’ when it comes to agile project delivery. For large organisations encumbered by siloed structures, bureaucratic processes and complex legacy systems, they are increasingly finding it hard to respond quickly to changing business requirements using traditional ‘waterfall’ delivery approaches. So, how do we change the way we change to be faster, better, cheaper? How does one make change lean, lean, lean? But ultimately, how do we get our people living and breathing agile? Recently published, Deloitte’s Agile Change Lessons from the front line point of view describes five key principles for driving change in agile environments. But, what underpins this?

Organisations are increasingly expecting people to embrace continuous change as a reality via digitally enabled channels. However, the premise by which these companies operate to support their people first needs to evolve for this to be sustainable.

This year’s Agile Australia Conference 2015 saw a big emphasis on the people elements of agile – hot topics included leadership, culture, learning, targets, rewards… But it was only when I brought all of these together that I was able to articulate a key takeaway: organisations need to create the right environment to become truly agile – a seemingly simple statement. This means thinking about five core elements:

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  1. First and foremost, good leaders create the right environment for people to be great

It’s no secret that the success of any program hinges on senior executive ownership, support and their ability to cascade messaging down to all layers of an organisation. What’s also trending in Agile is the movement from leader-led change to intent-based leadership. Leadership should be viewed as a set of behaviours, not only a role. As such, leaders should empower passionate individuals to lead from all levels within the organisation.

  1. Successful companies build agile, curiosity and learning into their culture

Agile requires cultural change, not just technology. Every person up and down the chain should be versed in the language of agile, and be guided by a single framework and approach for doing so. Pilots enable you to slice off a sliver of the business, fundamentally transform this small group’s way of working, demonstrate benefits and then scale. Starting lots of little ‘spot fires’ such as this around the organisation will attract others, and draw them in to the movement.

  1. Model the organisation design to foster collaboration and increase autonomy

Wise companies will proactively consider what they can learn from organisation models being created within digital-native companies. Removal of silos and hierarchy, with the blending of roles can help to create autonomous teams. When structures cannot be changed, alternatives such as creating ‘guilds’ – voluntary communities of like-minded people that come together to discuss topics of interest – can help create pockets of agile evangelists.

  1. Aim for commitment, not compliance

The ‘spot fires’ mentioned in the point on culture, are also a way of winning hearts when it comes to targets and incentives. Leaders should strive for voluntary participation over mandated participation, so that it becomes every individual’s idea and prerogative to operate in this new way. Key to this is addressing the genuine needs of people – get to the heart of the noble purpose so people are motivated intrinsically.

  1. Celebrate failures, no matter how big or small

Only in an environment where people feel safe to play with ideas, and where they are recognised and rewarded for being agile will it occur. Something as simple as buying ‘failure cupcakes’ at the end of a sprint can help set in motion this new paradigm. Building elements of gamification, playfulness and fun into team challenges and goals can also help drive creativity, innovation and agility.

In summary, to make an organisation truly agile, companies need to focus on the five building blocks of an effective environment: leadership, culture, organisation design, targets and incentives, and celebrating outcomes. Get these right, and the rest will follow.


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