Why agile excellence is not a question of methods and tools, but of the mindset.

Many of today’s companies follow a hierarchical organizational model that strictly separates tasks and departments from one another and arranges them in a pyramidal system: purchasing, development, controlling, HR, etc. This organizational design has produced a control mechanism that consists of two directions:The instruction flows top-down and the teams are controlled from bottom to top via reports and tracking. 

This model has proven itself for decades but is now undergoing a radical change across the board. More and more companies are introducing agile ways of working for a variety of reasons, although most of them initially only see the tip of the iceberg. Agile has become a trend. A trend that everyone believes to understand, but which only a few have fathomed out. And this is exactly where the problem is.

As so often, people only scratch the surface and in fact agile work is often equated with the introduction of dailies, KanBan boards, and sprints. So changing the processes, roles and tools and succumbs often leads to the misconception that agile working concepts have been implemented overnight. The Agile Manifesto already says that this cannot be it: Individuals and interactions OVER processes and tools. Methods and tools are certainly a large part of agilization, but simply using tools and methods does not make you agile per se – and this is the reason why agile work is often already  doomed from the beginning or is regarded as “buzzword”.

Tasks are still distributed horizontally and neither the mindset of the employees nor of the hierarchies has changed so far. And this is exactly the point.

But what does agile being mean?

Agile Being does not only result from techniques and methods, but rather from principles and values, such as transparency, high personal responsibility, commitment and trust.

It’s about culture and mindset. It’s about…

  • the transparency to show open capacities or how far you have got during a sprint – or not.
  • to take responsibility and the intrinsic motivation to work through topics or to take them up by your own initiative, without the assignment being made beforehand by a hierarchy.
  • Committing yourself to a task without any ifs and buts.
  • the trust in your employees on the management side that the way in which the issues are tackled is the right one. 
  • the trust in the team’s collective expertise without delivering a weekly report to the management level. 
  • The courage to be open and to really understand that incremental work is there to make mistakes (early). There is no point in living old practices and role models without adapting them to the new value stream.  
  • A new way of thinking, away from power and positions towards ambitions.

Successful leadership in VUCA world demands new leadership concepts. Decision-making competencies have to be shifted downwards and the stronger separation of professional and social leadership has to be enforced. The manager now acts rather as a coach, defines requirements and framework conditions and thus specifies a clear purpose, towards which the team can orient itself. However, the team itself will develop the way to achieve the goals and they can derive their actions from the purpose. 

It is important that the management level also understands that micro management has to be avoided and that they have to set an example of personal change in order to be able to implement sustainable agile transition. All in all, empathy, openness, intuition and the courage to be flexible are the prerequisites necessary to achieve real agile excellence.

All that glitters is not gold – at least if you limit yourself to agile methods and tools. In order to experience real agility, you have to dig deeper and constantly reflect and question yourself and your actions. An agile mindset cannot be established by force, but requires constant awareness of your own values and procedures. Only if this is understood, a self-organized, learning system can be eventually be developed. 

Martin Zöltsch

Expert in Task Force Management

Michaela Golz

Expert in Organisationsentwicklung

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