Agility is on everyone’s lips. And rightly so. As is now repeated almost everywhere like a prayer wheel: the world is changing ever faster. The change becomes a constant. And dealing with this constant change inevitably leads companies to the concept of agility. In the broader sense, agility means that organizations are capable of adapting flexibly and proactively to permanent dynamics or anticipating adaptation. The hype surrounding this buzzword is therefore justified, even if it can get tired. For example, I am frustrated by the hysteria about agility, especially the equation of agility with agile methods such as scrum or design thinking. Of course, these approaches are great and they make a big contribution to making employees and, in a certain way, organisations more agile. But it needs more than that to make the company as a whole agile. That’s why I am all the more pleased about the article of Häusling/Kahl/Römer (2016), who have tried to think holistically about agility.
Six design dimensions for holistic transformation
In their report, Häusling et al. describe six design dimensions which, in my opinion, allow a rather comprehensive view of the design of agility: processes, structure, strategy, leadership, HR and culture. By understanding the field of design of culture as an anchoring element, the authors also indicate the important differentiation between surface and depth structure that I have already described elsewhere (Krapf 2016a). The basic approach, which authors call the „transformer model“, therefore seems promising to me. It detaches itself from the common Scrum perversion without neglecting this effective approach in the considerations. Rather, the model with its six design dimensions provides a goal-oriented orientation for transformation projects. It is in the nature of a report from advisory practice that the proposed interventions are still too little concrete and context-specific. In my opinion, therefore, it is not so much the individual proposals for measures that deserve to be appreciated, but rather the basic structure of the model, which can serve as a reference framework for the holistic consideration of the design of agility.
Reference frame „Transformer model“ still needs critical reflection
As much as I support the six design dimensions of Häusling et al., I still have something to do with the target images proclaimed therein. I am not referring to the individual measures in the report, which I agree with almost everywhere. Rather, what bothers me most is the dichotomous distinction between traditional and agile companies, as it does not seem to me to be realistic or purposeful for translation into organisational practice. In other words: Häusling et al. spill the child with the bathwater when formulating the target images of an agile organization. I will try to explain my reservations in more detail below.
Process: From waterfall to iteration
In most cases, iterative process design makes sense in project work. And in the long term, when or if all routine work is carried out by machines through the digital transformation (Krapf 2016b), Häusling et al. could even prove right in its extreme position. But until then I am still a little sceptical whether iterative methods are adequate everywhere.
Structure: From pyramid to network
Here, too, I agree with the basic network approach, but I have doubts about the viability and practicability of a pure network structure – especially in larger organisations. A core requirement of agility lies in the dynamic stability of the system, which seems to me to be insufficiently guaranteed by a pure network organization. Therefore, I find the approaches of Kotter (2014) or Nonaka/Takeuchi (1997) interesting, which both call for a similar combination of traditional structures with project-based networks. Employees are generally organized in classic line functions to perform routine tasks. At the same time, a network structure ensures that interdisciplinary teams can be put together flexibly for projects. The combination of these two structures seems to me to guarantee dynamic stability.
Strategy: From inside-out to outside-in
I think it makes sense to focus on customer benefit and is already being pushed forward by the customer experience initiatives of many companies. In my opinion, however, the pure focus on the outside-in perspective is too absolute, because it takes too little account of the context of the organization. The pure market orientation neglects the fact that the strategy should also be compatible with the „essence“ of the company. Or in the words of Peter Drucker, the father of the management:“Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast“. Thus it becomes evident that the „inside-out“ perspective does not become obsolete even for agile organizations, but can ensure the coherence of strategy and organizational culture.
Leadership: From top-down to bottom-up
Here the exaggeration of the design dimension „structure“ manifests itself. The reversal of the pyramid from top-down and bottom-up is laudable in the idea, as it can promote self-organization and make employees responsible. However, just as a pure network organization seems impractical, a pure bottom-up leadership cannot be beyond all doubt. I like better the differentiated approach of Nonaka/Takeuchi (1997), who proclaimed a „middle-up-down“ leadership in the context of their dual structure approach of „hypertext organization“ (see above). In doing so, they focused on the team in order to combine the advantages of classical and agile leadership and thus ensure dynamic stability.
HR: From Administrator to Catalyst
In principle, I like the proclaimed role change of HR. Of course, it has to be mentioned critically here too that no HR department will be able to discontinue administrative activities (in the near future). Nevertheless, the understanding of the catalyst’s role is, in my opinion, an adequate one. In this respect, the task of the old role model seems less delicate to me. Rather, I lack a clear systemic perspective in the view of Häusling et al. Organizations can only be developed if their systemic complexity is taken into account. HR has an important role to play in this, since the employees are the starting point for this complexity. In other words: If HR does not think systemically, who does?
Culture: From security to trust
As already mentioned, I commend the realization that culture is a prerequisite for the „deep anchoring“ (Häusling/Kahl/Römer 2016) of the other five dimensions. This points out the important distinction between surface and depth structure (Krapf, 2016a). However, the authors‘ reduction of the culture of agility to trust as a contrast to security does not go far enough. Of course, the aspects mentioned in the article such as dialogue, fault tolerance or trust are important for ensuring an adequate culture of agility. However, the development of such a culture is considerably more complex and my attempt in an earlier essay (Krapf, 2016a) is only scratching the surface of this exciting topic, which I would like to deepen further in the future.
Conclusion: The „transformer model“ as a structure whose contents have to be adjusted
A closer look at the model of Häusling et al. shows that its structure can be very useful to consider the most important aspects of agility design. However, the contents to be found there must be adjusted and adapted to the respective organisational context. I also see an urgent need, particularly in the sixth dimension of the (agility) culture, for the complexity of matter to be taken up and taken into account in the design. Here, as already mentioned in another blog post (Krapf 2016c) and also suggested by Häusling et al., the concepts of the learning organization can serve. Despite this depth of reflection within the individual dimensions, which is still too low for me, I am glad about the structure that the authors present in their report. I hope it helps to think agility in companies more holistically and thus to get away from Scrum fixation.
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