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Article: Q&A on the Book Enterprise Agility

MMS Founder

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Key Takeaways

  • It is enterprise level agility which enables the organization to leverage change for creating competitive advantage.
  • Merely scaling the adoption of Agile methodologies in delivery teams is not adequate to enhance the agility of the enterprise.
  • Understanding Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and modelling the enterprise based on principles of CAS is one of the first and fundamental steps towards greater agility.
  • The potential opportunities presented by emerging technologies are open to all, and the organizations that have the capabilities to quickly identify this potential, and harness it effectively, will emerge as winners in the marketplace.
  • Businesses that are modelled to optimize on predictability and certainty will struggle to deliver value to their stakeholders in an environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).

The book Enterprise Agility by Sunil Mundra, principal consultant at ThoughtWorks, aims to make you think about organizations as living systems that thrive on fast paced change. It’s intended for leaders, managers, and coaches, who want to improve the agility of their organization and develop the personal traits that enable change.

InfoQ readers can download a sample chapter using the above link.

InfoQ interviewed Mundra about the difference between agility and agile, and how “being agile” differs from “doing agile”, treating enterprises as living systems, personal traits of leaders that enable and support agility, technology-related enablers of agility, how to shift from maximizing shareholder value to becoming a purpose-based organization, and making change happen in organizations. It is enterprise level agility which enables the organization to leverage change for creating competitive advantage.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Mundra: I am passionate about sharing my knowledge, and this, along with my conviction that enterprises must be treated as living systems for having greater agility, are the primary drivers for me to write the book. There is sporadic literature available on treating the organizations as CAS, but I felt that I could take that narrative further by linking CAS modelling to enhancing enterprise agility.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Mundra: This book is intended for any person who has influence in an enterprise which is aiming to improve its agility. The more the influence, the greater the value which the person will be able to derive from this week.

Specifically, the following roles associated with such an enterprise will benefit the most:

  • “C” level leadership and senior executives
  • Function heads
  • Delivery managers
  • People function managers
  • Project management office
  • Enterprise and leadership coaches
  • Organization development and change consultants

Having said this, I also believe the book can be an enabler for conversations between people who have an interest in enterprise agility.

InfoQ: What’s the difference between agility and agile?

Mundra: Agile is essentially a set of four values as stated in the Agile Manifesto and 12 principles, supported by underlying methodologies, with the primary focus on improving effectiveness of software delivery.

Agility, on the other hand, is an attribute which can be applied to an enterprise. In the context of the enterprise, it is the ability of the enterprise to not only deal with fast paced change in the external environment, but also leverage change to create competitive advantage. It comprises a set of underlying capabilities. In my view, the capabilities of sensing the environment, and responding and adapting to it are the minimum capabilities which enable an enterprise to have agility. Additional capabilities which can enhance agility include innovativeness, flexibility and resilience. Each enterprise must strive to have the capabilities which are relevant for its context.

Merely scaling the adoption of Agile methodologies in delivery teams is not adequate to enhance the agility of the enterprise.

InfoQ: How does “being agile” differ from “doing agile”?

Mundra: I believe Agile is an adjective and not a noun, and my hypothesis is that those who created the Agile Manifesto and the 12 principles meant Agile to be treated as an adjective. However, unfortunately, in my view, Agile became mostly about ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’. I think ‘doing Agile’ is about implementing processes and practices specified in the methodologies like Scrum and XP, whereas ‘being Agile’ is about having the Agile mindset and the associated behaviours.

There is absolutely nothing wrong per se with ‘doing Agile’. The Agile practices and processes bring in benefits through collaboration, visibility and transparency. But these benefits can be sustained only if the team is ‘being Agile’, i.e. has the right mindset and exhibits related behaviours. The problem is that many organizations believe that they have achieved agility merely by ‘doing Agile’. However, my experience is that whatever benefits accrue from ‘doing’ Agile can be sustained only if teams and the organization get to a state of ‘being’ Agile.

InfoQ: Why should we treat enterprises as living systems? What’s the benefit?

Mundra: All natural and socio-economic systems are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), i.e. living systems. And this includes enterprises as well. As Linda Rising has so aptly said in the foreword, “I’m a complex adaptive system. So are you. Every organization we have ever been a part of, including our families, are also complex adaptive systems.”

For decades, as organizations have grown in size, they have been modelled to optimize predictability, certainty and efficiency. This was perhaps apt in an era when organizations were largely manufacturing oriented, where the primary constraint was capacity, and where the external environment was largely stable. People were mandated to strictly adhere to processes, and managers were to do the thinking and direct the subordinates. Change is heavily controlled and failures are punished, which discourages experimentation. The organization, though comprising of people who have life, becomes lifeless like a machine and the leaders become happy with the ‘illusion of certainty’.

If an organization needs the ability to not only survive but also thrive on fast paced change, it needs to have the primary capabilities of sensing, adapting and responding to the changing business environment. A machine by definition is lifeless and therefore cannot have the capabilities to sense, adapt and respond. Hence it is necessary to infuse life into organizations by modelling them using the principles of CAS, so that they can embrace change.

InfoQ: What are the personal traits of leaders that enable and support agility?

Mundra: Leaders have a disproportionately high influence on the level of agility of an enterprise. Leaders need to have the Agile mindset and reflect that in their behaviours. This is important not only for influencing enterprise level outcomes, but also because they are seen as role models by everyone in the organization. Moreover, leaders need to work closely with people across the enterprise to bring out the best in them. In a VUCA environment, leaders must themselves demonstrate agility if they are to adapt to change and also enable people across the enterprise to do so.

Personal traits have a huge influence on the level of leaders’ agility. For mental agility, leaders need to be able to expand their mental models, for people agility they need a high level of emotional intelligence, and for change agility leaders must have creativity, courage and resilience. Besides these traits self-awareness, a passion for learning and being aware of one’s cognitive biases are crucial for leaders to become enablers of agility.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to develop these traits?

Mundra: Leaders need to realize that the traditional leadership style based on directing and controlling is a major impediment to agility. To enhance and sustain agility across the enterprise, leaders need to guide, facilitate, enable and mentor people and teams. Recognizing the need for this shift and a strong intrinsic desire to learn and change are fundamental towards developing the personal traits which are enablers for agility. Self awareness, reflection, seeking feedback and having a coach/mentor can go a long way in developing the desired personal traits.

InfoQ: What are the technology-related enablers of agility?

Mundra: The fundamental enabler of agility with respect to technology is changing the mindset towards technology, i.e. stop treating it as a support function and a cost center, and treat it as a source of competitive advantage. Technology needs to be at the core of the organization’s strategies, in order to enable the enterprise to leverage the fast-changing environment to create and enhance competitive advantage.The potential opportunities presented by emerging technologies are open to all, and the organizations that have the capabilities to quickly identify this potential, and harness it effectively, will emerge as winners in the marketplace.

In order to create these capabilities, the technology function must have an evolutionary architecture, a platform to grow and support the business’ critical applications, and adopt engineering practices including Test Driven Development, Continuous Integration and DevOps. These will enable the enterprise to have a technology function which can respond to change quickly and leverage it without compromising on stability and quality.

InfoQ: How can we make a shift from maximizing shareholder value to becoming a purpose-based organization?

Mundra: Organizations being part of a larger ecosystem are closely connected with multiple types of entities, prominent among them being Customers, Vendors/Suppliers and Shareholders. If the purpose of the organization is primarily geared to taking care of the interests of just one entity, that outcome may be at the cost of compromising the interests of other entities connected with the organization.

Organizations need to recognize that they need to create a win-win relationship with all their stakeholders, and that catering to the interest of stakeholder groups should be based on “and” and not “or”. E.g. happy employees lead to delighted customers, which leads to maximizing shareholder wealth.

The purpose of an organization defines the essence of its existence. Hence, organizations need to have a purpose which is broad and inclusive. Unless the purpose resonates well with the primary stakeholder groups, the engagement of the stakeholders with the organization will not be meaningful.

An organization having its primary purpose of maximizing shareholder wealth must take the shareholders in confidence and re-define the purpose. Not doing so can put the survival of the organization at risk. Moreover shareholders may need to be educated through empirical evidence that enterprises which are wealth creators in today’s era have a broad and inclusive purpose.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to effectively translate their purpose into action?

Mundra: For actions to contribute towards meeting the purpose of the organization, people across the organization must be able to see a clear link between the work they perform and how it contributes towards the purpose of the organization. For this to happen, the strategies of the organization must be aligned to the purpose, and the initiatives which teams work on must be linked to strategies. Getting feedback on the effectiveness of the initiatives, and acting on it quickly to refine the strategies and initiatives to ensure their alignment with the purpose is critical for sustaining the effectiveness of the organization towards fulfilling the purpose.

It is of course imperative that the people in the organization feel connected to the purpose.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for making change happen in organizations?

Mundra: Enterprises being Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), change should be enabled and facilitated rather than being directed and managed, considering the emergent behaviours and outcomes. People across the organization must get an opportunity to be heard in defining the ‘why’ of the change, and should be empowered to discover and drive the ‘how’ of the change.

The question ‘what’s in it for me?’ must be answered for all who are influencing and/or being influenced by the change. People must have access to forums where they can express their fears and concerns, and these must be addressed through continuous direct and indirect communication by the leaders.

Leaders must become role models for change. It is often observed that leaders expect other people to change while they continue with their old mindset and behaviours. This is a guaranteed recipe for disaster for any change to sustain.

About the Author

Sunil Mundra is a principal consultant at ThoughtWorks with decades of experience consulting, working with some of the world’s largest enterprises. He has helped organizations tackle their most urgent business challenges and has worked with senior executives to shape and execute their roadmap for change.

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