Everyday, agile changers face the same challenge : how to create a system with shared responsibility and collective decisions when there’s a hierarchical organization in place ?
In 2005 I travelled to Cape Town, South Africa. I was impressed by one particular event faced by this 400 years old country. The apartheid was ended by white people. Exclusive owners of the voting right, they voted a new constitution to share that right with everyone, no matter their skin color (note : they were more than one step leading to this, refer to wikipedia if interested).
13 years after the events, I was amazed when visiting Cap Town at how much a country with such a heavy burden was able to move forward so fast. They already had gay mariage.
Last month Alexandre Boutin told me another related experience he had when coaching a Korean company. His attempt to promote collective creativity was stuck. He was informed after a few hours that what he promoted was in contradiction with local manners : you don’t challenge in public someone else’s idea. A brainstorm, based on that precise principle, was impossible. After this social trait had been made explicit, they worked a way to circumvent this social convention in brainstorms.
But who did explain this cultural trait to him? The big boss. Who proposed and allowed criticizing ideas inside the group? The big boss.
The power in place allowed another distribution of power. It was peaceful and with immediate effect.
For change makers like me, there’s a lesson here. To change an organisation, the most efficient course of action is to have the current one doing it. So work through the system, not apart from it, not against it.
This led me to a few recipe when spreading agile in a hierarchical organization (with a tendency for command and control) :
Look for the person with a crown
Working from the ground level, doing more agile rituals, more « let’s prove them … », more « let’s have them understand that … », that’s not working. If you want your agile zone to spread, go up the power ladder and start where the power lies.
(How up the ladder ? enough to rule the whole organizational zone you want your new organization to reside in)
Deal with local lords
Unless you have a feature-oriented organization like Spotify, an efficient agile team usually unite skills from different divisions (business, IT, etc.). There’s as many managers to convince. Learn to sell them the change, let them deal with their current restraining forces (local power, budgets as a social status, etc), mobilize them.
Usually, these guys will introduce you the queen is she’s hard to talk to.
but all this requires to
Respect them, learn their etiquette
Understand their constraints, their social codes, their decision ecosystem, what subject triggers their interest. Just ask them, if you respect them some will teach you, even offer their help. They will tell you what is needed for this change to happen.
Is that encouraging the current system ? I don’t think so. Going along with the rules is not giving up. It just means you need to respect the system in place if you ambition to change it.