Organisational agility is a “Team of Teams” sport

I am constantly thinking of and reminded of the nature of organisations and how we seek to achieve our higher purpose through these groupings and structures. I see time and again so called “agile transformations” focus on creating agility for the team but neglecting the broader organisation. If you want to achieve your organisation’s overall strategic purpose and do so in a way in which you can shift and adapt to changing conditions, you need to do so in the context of the entire organisation, not with a focus on just a few teams.

As organisations grow, so too does their complexity. An organisation is a living organism filled with people which doesn’t necessarily respond in linear ways. This isn’t a weakness, it can actually let you respond to changes in your market, regulatory or other environmental factors in a way that can be very sensitive to changes in need. Thus it can be a great strength if harnessed correctly.

This is problematic because to deliver things of strategic importance often requires more than just one team. It requires the cooperative effort of various teams across the organisation. One team often doesn’t have all of the skills required to achieve these things alone – they need help from others in the organisation. Thus the ability of an organisation to quickly and effectively deliver on strategy often depends more on the connections between the teams and their alignment to purpose than it does on the capability of any one team. Moreover, if you need to make changes as you learn and respond to the environment, you need to do this in an efficient and effective network – which means that you need to have the appropriate values and practices aligned to support this.

I find where a great many “agile transformations” fail at this, it is because they are focused on creating “team” agility. Continual focus on high performing teams is actually a local optimisation – it doesn’t take into account how outcomes are delivered across the organisation. As organisations go through this, they often do maturity assessments based solely on team agility. This pushes the responsibility for creating an agile organisation down to people who don’t have much influence or control over how the overall organism behaves. These leaves a group of key leaders and managers out of the agility equation, which is a valuable part of your overall organisational network. These folks have connections and influence into the greater organisation and a great deal more responsibility and focus should be made at this level to enable agility.

If you’re experiencing things such as :

  • Blocking / waiting on other teams – especially if these blockages and waits have considerable delays or impacts
  • Disconnected work completion amongst teams – where one team finishes it’s work for an overall capability weeks / months before the others
  • Lack of transparency of the upcoming pipeline – for example, if a regulatory requirement needs to be filled and teams aren’t aware of it until it’s too late or requires expediting
  • Long lead times for delivery of strategic / larger capabilities
  • Rework – a little rework is often unavoidable in knowledge work (traded for overall lead time) – it’s where this is frequent or has large time or other impacts that it becomes problematic
  • Lack of alignment – is there a common purpose, or are people working at cross purposes?

it’s likely that you have a very team oriented approach and are not focused on the overall agility of the organisation.

To start to make the change to this higher level optimisation or maturity, you’ll need to make sure you’re focused on the right things. It doesn’t necessarily mean that absolutely everything needs to follow this high level path – it may be ok for certain tactical needs to be focused at a team level. It’s knowing which is which and how to take the appropriate path that is important. Starting on this path means that you’ll need to move from team agility to overall organisational agility. It’s less about the health of the team and more about the health of the network. Do you have the right connections? Are there enough of these? Do we need to streamline some connections? How do we get people of different disciplines to come together for an overall purpose?

This journey isn’t simple and it’s not a short term one – it will impact the culture of the organisation at a profound level. Indeed, if you want the right outcomes, you’ll need to focus on the culture of the organisation and the practices that bring these about. If you want to learn more about this, I would suggest you check out the Kanban Maturity Model and how it can help bring this about.

I’m also reminded of this when re-reading the book “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex world“. In this example it was clear that focusing on a “top down” & “linear” style of leadership was not going to get the job done. In an organisation re-imagined along the lines of their overall purpose and how they can enable this through various levels creating a “living organism” of the organisation, which dramatically changed their ability to respond to a fast changing environment.

The bottom line is that if you focus on “Team agility” or a “High performing team” you won’t get the overall outcomes you are looking for. Organisations that perform in this way will eventually go the way of the dodo and won’t be able to survive against more agile and responsive competitors. Please consider how you’re optimising your organisation and whether you’re getting the right results from your “agile transformation”.