How to strengthen autonomy and customer focus

Want to improve the operating style and outcomes in your workplace? Instead of picking on the problems (problem people, problem processes) ask yourself: “how are things done when people coordinate well around here?” Get curious about the way people get things done together, especially when they coordinate well.

When you do, you may discover a lot in common with agile approach.

The need to collaborate more effectively on software development drove the evolution of agile frameworks. In the turbulent business environments of our time, agile methodologies bring a new style of coordination that is, in many ways, in sharp contrast to the prevalent ways of thinking about managing a business.

Software development is just one domain of the complex and creative knowledge work that so many of us are engaged in. Whether it’s applied for good or ill, this type of work is transforming our civilization. We have seen several aspects of agile approaches being productively applied to other domains, including healthcare, capital intensive industries and public sector management.

Applying aspects of agile

Steve Denning, writing in Forbes and elsewhere, notes that “current management practices represent a set of economic, social and political problems of the first order, which cannot be resolved by a single fix”. He has generalized agile principles and methods and recommends shifting the style of coordination from hierarchical and bureaucratic to what he calls the Dynamic Linking, where:

  1. Work is done in short cycles
  2. Management sets priorities in terms of the goals of work in the cycle, based on what is known about what might delight the client
  3. Decisions about how the work is to be carried out to achieve those goals are largely the responsibility of those doing the work
  4. Progress is measured (to the extent possible) by direct client feedback at the end of each cycle.

Cultivating sensibilities in simulations

In our work developing leadership and teamwork competencies, we coach people as they perform together, using online role-play games (RPGs) as an immersive simulation environment where they get lots of practice and have the freedom to learn from their mistakes in a relatively low-risk way.

Our RPG-based methods incorporate all the elements on Denning’s list: (1) short project cycles; (2) we set the project goals based on learner’s development needs (3) they decide how to go about achieving their objectives; and (4) during and immediately after the project, they receive direct feedback from both the “customer” and from their peers.

Interestingly, participants reflect to us that the game scenarios strongly remind them of many situations they encounter at work: totally different content, but exactly the same dynamics. The coaching in the game environment seems to translate to new awareness skill in the real world too. People report new opportunities to respond differently and have conversations for coordinating more effectively. In both group meetings and one-to-ones they report achieving more autonomy in carrying out their work and a stronger focus on satisfying customers.

So what do you notice? Could these four aspects of agile apply where you work?