Can Agile Make Wherever You Work a Better Place?

Nov 22, 2021

The Great Resignation continues to gather steam as people in their millions re-evaluate their relationship with work. But not everyone has the luxury or the bandwidth to quit, at least not right now. And there is no guarantee that a new job won’t be as much of a soul-destroying destination as your old one. Instead, let’s explore how an idea from the world of agile might make wherever you’re working a better place.

While talent is consistently listed as a major pre-occupation for CEOs and other corporate leaders, their people are definitely not feeling the love. What are these leaders so concerned about their people actually doing? According to Deloitte, “Four out of five CEOs (80%) have increased flexibility around work. A majority of CEOs say they have also increased emphasis on corporate purpose (68%); focus on DEI (68%); emphasis on well-being and mental health (65%); and attention to culture (58%). Exactly half have given more emphasis to ESG (environmental, social, and governance), half have increased pay, and just more than a quarter have distributed one-time retention bonuses.”

Here’s the problem. None of those things address the fundamental issues that cause employees to feel burned out, cynical, and disengaged, or perhaps to have a Johnny Paycheck moment. And most of us aren’t CEO’s, anyway. So what do we know about making the whatever-comes-next workplace better?

Smart people studying this stuff

Let’s start with my Friday Fireside Chat with Peter Cappelli of Wharton, featuring the ideas in his terrific book The Future of the Office. What I particularly appreciated about his book and our conversation is that he lays out what we know from past research and the choices we should be making proactively, not just sleepwalking into whatever random arrangements people at the top think is appropriate. His primary encouragement? Let people in individual work groups figure out what’s best for themselves rather than imposing some across-the-board policy.

Interestingly, as the Economist has recently concluded, executives are a lot more keen to be back in the office than the rank and file, and not just by a little, but a lot. Maybe it’s the perks – as they point out, nobody gets a bigger tile on a Zoom screen. Or maybe they believe people really do need to be together to get important stuff done. Or maybe its just what they themselves are used to. But the gaping divide between the workforce and management suggests that the office means something different to you depending on where you are in the pecking order.

Jennifer Moss, author of the best-selling book The Burnout Epidemic, walks us through the organizational factors that make people feel burned out in another Friday Fireside Chat. No amount of yoga, meditation, or better attention to one’s diet is going to overcome the effects of the core factors that lead to burnout. These are:

1. Excessive workload

2. A lack of control over one’s work

3. A lack of reward and recognition

4. Poor relationships

5. A lack of fairness

6. A mismatch between the organization’s values and our own

You can listen to a great explainer on this from one of the leading researchers to do the original work on this phenomenon, Christina Maslach. She points out that you can identify burnout at work by a high frequency of exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of feeling professionally effective, and that we have a great moment now to rethink the workplace.

Then, just last week I had the opportunity to chat with Liz Wiseman about the opposite of burned out people – the high impact players who thrive in the face of messy problems, unclear roles, unforeseen obstacles, moving targets, and unrelenting demands. Our conversation reminded me very much of the groundbreaking work of Carol Dweck on building a growth mindset, in which setbacks are not a signal to give up, but rather an indication that with more effort, one could make progress in an area. Indeed, her work was credited by Satya Nadella at Microsoft as pivotal in going from a company of “know it alls” to a company of “learn it alls.”

And all of this is not new or purely pandemic related. My good friend Jeffrey Pfeffer and I spoke about his deeply researched and thoughtful 2018 book Dying for a Paycheck. He pointed out, long before the pandemic, that modern management practices were literally killing people. As he says, we’ve done a lot with workplace physical safety, but not a great deal for psychological good health. The book is a clarion call for social change in the workplace.

All is clearly not well in the modern office.

But most of us aren’t in a position to make the kinds of structural changes that would reduce the sources of burnout, change the nature of their work to be more positive, and add a dimension of joyfulness and fun to their working day.

Thank goodness, therefore for Bain and Company partner Darrell Rigby’s terrific article, “Bureaucracy can Drain Your Company’s Energy. Agile can Restore It.” In it, he draws on the “agility” movement to suggest ways in which work can be redesigned in a distributed, bottoms up way.

A brief overview of agile

A nice way to start understanding the concept of agile and how it differs from bureaucracy is to watch this short fun video that my colleague Steve Denning put together from 2011. Essentially, agile is about removing the typical bureaucratic procedures that are used to control people. Instead, what you’re trying to create is what entrepreneur Michael Sikorsky calls a “permissionless” structure.

As he describes it, “A permissionless org pushes decision-making out to the farthest edges of your organization, capitalizing on the scale of ideas you already have. It empowers the people removed from the C-suite to make decisions and seek new opportunities to improve the business – without requiring approval. Said another way, it means, “Follow the talent.” It empowers your team to run experiments in the firm, and creates an environment of innovation where your team decides the where and how of projects and mandates. In an era of more and more silicon staff, the opportunities for your team to flourish are endless. “

Agile originally got its start with the recognition that the process for developing large, complex software programs, commonly called the “Waterfall method”, often led to disaster. It consisted of sequential steps, such as gathering user requirements, followed by programming, followed by user acceptance testing, and then the system going “live.” The trouble begins right at the start, because big hairy IT programs have as much uncertainty in them as any other kind of big new thing.

As the New York Times reported, the essence of agile lies in breaking big complex problems down to smaller tasks that can be completed and evaluated as you go. It’s consistent with discovery driven planning, in which the idea is that you manage through a series of learning-oriented checkpoints rather than plan a venture all at once. Letting something take a long time to evolve can bury the evidence that it isn’t working until way down the road, increasing the cost and risk at stake.

Agile principles were codified in 2001 by a group of 17 software practitioners. Their “manifesto” was laid out as part of the following four principles:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Working software over comprehensive documentation

  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Responding to change over following a plan

But surely, you’d need permission to start working this way, right? Rigby argues no. As he puts it, “agile innovation teams work better than current approaches, and agile principles hold that making immediate progress beats waiting for perfect solutions before starting out.”

What can you do from wherever you are?

As Rigby suggests, we need to get away from the typical way an organizational change is launched, which is to get the CEO to buy in before doing anything, usually with the consequence that nothing gets done. As he says, “Agile innovation is different. It is less like a plea for CEO support and more like a declaration of independence. Senior executives are welcome to join the movement, and they certainly can strengthen it. But agilists aren’t inclined to wait for them. They know that agile successes will increase executive motivation faster than pleading or making the business case ever could.”

Rigby then describes what he did personally to bring the concepts in the manifesto to life, as follows:

  • Work in ways that make humans happy and successful. When I feel stressed, I will express sincere appreciation for the work of at least one person.

  • Break large tasks into small steps and test solutions with working models. When challenged by an opinion different from mine, I will ask, “How could we test that?”

  • Simplify and sequence activities to focus on the most valuable customer benefits. When asked to do work with little or no value to customers, I will explain what I need to do instead.

  • Welcome and celebrate learning. When my predictions or opinions are wrong, I will laugh about them with others and change course.

So how might you start something like this yourself?

1. First, identify a problem that you might work on. The ideal problem is one that, if solved, could create big impact, but which can be tackled in manageable pieces.

For instance, as Ram Charan and Geri Willigan describe in their book Rethinking Competitive AdvantageFidelity Personal Investing didn’t have a particularly pressing business problem. They realized, however, that born-digital companies were moving quickly to offer superior experiences to customers, rather than the traditional focus on the products offered. This spurred what eventually became a radically different way of working, with small intact teams, coordinated through technology.

A great thought starter for picking your problem is to work through a customer’s consumption chain. As the name implies, a consumption chain represents every experience a customer goes through that has to do with buying something from you. You can start learning about this on your own – no permission needed!

Think through what happens – beginning with how customers become aware they have an issue, to searching for a solution to selecting a provider, to contracting and signing up and so forth. Believe me, if your organization is like most, there are going to be any number of places where the chain breaks down. If you could figure out how to fix such a problem, it’s a powerful way to add value and maybe get a little credit, too.

Here’s an example of a small innovation that made a big impact. I recently had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and dreaded what I was sure was going to be a lengthy, unpleasant experience. I went to the first desk. The employee checked to see that I did indeed have the necessary identification, then asked if I had a cell phone, which I did. “Great, he said,” “you don’t need to wait here, we’ll text you when we’re ready for you.” I was stunned. Then I looked around. No lines. No grumpy people not being served. The people behind the desks seemed happier. What a great innovation in customer service – and I bet it came from someone right at what I call the “edges” of the organization.

2. Next, identify a few like-minded souls in your organization that are frustrated with how work is currently getting done and might be willing to engage with you on creating a more agile process. What you are looking for is a complete team that can produce specific deliverables for the customer in short time spans that the agile people call “sprints.” You want to carve out time so that the team is focused on one objective at a time, which can be completed and measured.

3. Get started with whatever resources your team can put together. A side benefit is that this will often allow you to make connection across your organization. Some more great workplace hacks are on Gary Hamel’s Humanocracy web site.

Back to burnout

Rigby’s recommendation that you can begin to bring agile to life in a bottom-up way has big implications for tackling phenomena like burnout. Recall the main drivers:

1. Excessive workload

2. A lack of control over one’s work

3. A lack of reward and recognition

4. Poor relationships

5. A lack of fairness

6. A mismatch between the organization’s values and our own

Agile has a potential role to play in addressing all of these. Much of the excessive workload in traditional organizations consists of coordination and communication. By using technology and short cycles to manage work, the non-value added work can be reduced and people can use their talents for what they are truly motivated to work on. Agile by definition gives control of the work to the team, reducing the stress that comes from having no sense of agency. Rewards and recognition happen within the team but are also supported because the agile process produces results in short bursts, a natural way of creating the conditions for regular feedback. Better relationships and a sense of fairness are both encouraged by the transparency of the agile process, and any values mismatches can be rooted out fairly quickly as the teams do their work.

A small group of us (Rigby included) have been convening regularly to figure out why, although we know agile works really well, it isn’t widespread in mainstream companies (although it is often the way work gets done in born-digital companies). Perhaps the Great Resignation will prove a catalyst to working this way more broadly.

By Rita McGrath Group