At least once a week, we stand in front of a room of executives, leaders, managers and practitioners and ask the question, “How many of you work in an Agile way?” Without fail, 99% of the hands in the room go up. The other 1%, the honest ones, raise their hand halfway and wave it side to side indicating that they are “sort of” Agile. Why “sort of”? Because in most cases organizations are implementing Agile, the process. While these teams are going through the motions that Agile recipes dictate, they rarely see any increased value from this. Instead, we work with leaders and teams to help them increase their agility. Agility is an organization’s ability to react, in real-time, to new information, product insights, market changes and competitive threats. We believe the only way to do that is to build a Sense & Respond organization.
We cover many dimensions of a Sense & Respond organization in our book with the same name. In this article we wanted to highlight the most important dimensions of this type of organization and call out how each of these dimensions increases the agility of our organizations.[We’ve highlighted a few important tools we teach people to use to achieve these goals. Stay tuned for news about trainings we’ll be offering to the PMI community on how to use these tools.]
In a web-driven world where customers—both B2C and B2B—have overwhelming power, it continues to surprise us how many organizations still don’t put their customers first. Many companies never talk to their customers, instead making assumptions based on previous experience and hoping (yes, hoping) that everything will continue the way it always has. A Sense & Respond organization recognizes the customer as the ultimate authority on value. As our friend and consultant David Bland likes to say, “You can decide what a minimum product is but the customer decides if it’s viable.” In fact, the product has no value at all if customers don’t use it. We therefore teach the companies we work with to understand their customers deeply, to create empathy maps and proto-personas and to build a continuous cadence of conversation with them. These conversations allows your organization to “sense” how well you’re delivering value. And it’s this continuous customer-centric insight that allows your planning and decision-making to begin to be truly agile.
I once had a ski instructor say to me, “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” Even if we work for large, established successful organizations, we cannot rest on our laurels. The pace of change today is too rapid. This means we must create an organization that values and rewards continuous learning. Organizations must sense through every channel available whether their products and services actually serve customers well. We work with our clients to build research plans, create interview guides and build bridges to frontline departments like sales, customer service (call centers) and retail employees. We balance this learning with quantitative data to ensure that we’ve got a 360 degree view of what our customers are doing and, just as important, why they’re doing it.
Evidence-Based Decision Making
Sensing is worthless if we don’t respond. It’s our responses, their frequency and our ability to adapt them quickly that drives the agility of our organizations. Responses, while often guided by gut instinct and experience, should always be based in evidence. The insight you collect when sensing is that evidence. It provides the foundation for your teams to make the best possible decision they can at every moment and reduces the risk of those decisions failing to improve the situation. One technique we often teach is framing a decision as an experiment. Instead of making a big, potentially risky change to how a system, service or company works, we launch a small, low-risk version of it. And then we wait (not too long) to see how user behavior shifts due to this change. If the change we see meets our expectations and desired outcomes, we scale the change and optimize it. If not, we roll it back, begin the sensing process again to understand why it didn’t work, and try again. These short Sense & Respond loops are the muscle that organizations need to build if they want to increase their agility.
Organizational agility thrives when it’s rewarded. When teams we work with struggle to implement the Sense & Respond way of working we find there is often a conflict between what the team is being asked to do and what the team is being paid to do. The techniques that enable continuous learning and customer-centricity can be taught to product development and other types of teams with success (we do this on a weekly basis). But teams will not put these tools to use if that is not what the organizational culture values and rewards. In these situations we end up with the folks mentioned at the beginning of this article, the “sort of” folks.
When we work with leadership teams, one of the things we stress is that while the processes, vocabulary, tools and techniques that support organizational agility are important to fund, train and promote, their full potential won’t be realized if we don’t change how we incentivize these cross-functional Sense & Respond teams.
The Dimensions of Agility
These are just a few ways that we’ve seen organizations begin to increase their agility. Rather than simply implementing Agile recipes, they think more broadly about how to put their customers front and center and enable their teams to continuously learn from these customers. What have you seen work well to drive agility? What techniques do you use? Share them with us in the comments.
Join us on Nov 8 for our first Sense & Respond webinar with PMI. Details and sign up options can be found here.