Many teams struggle with a fundamental conundrum: how do you get disciplined execution along with innovative, creative solutions? It often seems that any efforts to improve one-dimension causes losses on the other one. Disciplined execution stymies innovation; by its very nature, innovation and creativity are undisciplined.
Agile teams are now a core requirement for sustainable competitive advantage. A challenge that I often encounter in older organizations with many silos is the tension caused by seemingly opposing goals across teams. A recent example was a conflict between a sales team and a business team. The sales team had aggressive revenue targets and was driving to close deals by using ‘creative’ sales solutions. In parallel, the business team was demanding adherence to strict approval processes to ensure that operating profit targets were met. The result was a painful process of the two teams continually sparring over incomplete information, slow response times, and each pushing their own agenda. The irony is that both teams were equally incentivized to close deals.
At the turn of the century, a significant breakthrough emerged from the Tech industry in Silicon Valley that enabled software development teams to achieve both disciplined execution and continuous innovation: the agile method. Over the last decade, these practices have been field-tested and proven in thousands of organizations around the world.
Agile Teams – Looking Beyond R&D
In the world of R&D, the agile method of software development addresses a problem that many organizations face: how to develop new products faster, with higher quality, while at the same time accommodating changing requirements. Rather than delivering a project after a long development period, agile development practices provide a way for cross-disciplinary teams to deliver new products incrementally and iteratively.
Building agile teams starts with establishing a set of simple processes and norms that teams agree to follow, and by doing so, learn as they improve based on continuous feedback and peer coaching.
Agile teams then work on iterations, or ‘‘sprints,’’ during which they regularly meet to review progress, discuss insights, and decide on which goals they want to achieve next. Teams outside of R&D that share the same challenges of delivering results faster, with higher quality, while at the same time accommodating changing requirements with creative solutions, can benefit from the same basic agile processes.
Rapid innovation and execution have become a strategic imperative… In the example of a go-to-market team working on a new deal for a complex industrial solution, the prospective customer’s buying cycle usually determines the timing of the deal elements, but the deal team controls the speed, quality, and creativity that drives each sprint. Done properly, the first sprint typically brings together all the data needed to understand the prospect’s expectations, develop a preliminary configuration and solution, and qualify the prospect based upon comparing expectations versus what the solution delivers. This is equivalent to the definition and requirements phase of new product development. And, like a new product development process, getting things right at this first sprint sets the stage for future success. By working in iterations, and rapidly adjusting the proposed solution to meet the customers’ expectations, teams minimize the risk of going too far down the wrong path or wasting resources on the wrong prospective customer or product.
Agile for Every Team
In the middle years of the 20th century, manufacturing dominated the industrial landscape. Organizations recruited for life-long employment, gave employees rotational assignments to support their development, and groomed them years in advance to take on more responsibility. Hierarchy and optimizing organizational silos was the point: rules-based and internally consistent so that companies could reliably meet long-term plans.
By the latter part of the century, business conditions began to rapidly evolve with the Internet, globalization, and the rise of China leading the way. The nature of teamwork has rapidly evolved over the last 25 years. The decline of organizational hierarchy, and the rise of global, cross-cultural work, have multiplied the challenges of building and leading teams.
Today, it is rapid innovation and execution that has become a strategic imperative for most companies. Top-down planning models are giving way to agile-team methods that are better suited for adapting in the near term, such as design thinking, rapid prototyping, iterative feedback, team-based decisions, and task-centered sprints. Agility is now a core requirement for sustainable competitive advantage – and at times survival.
There are three key practices that can be learned from Silicon Valley software companies in emulating their agile ‘sprint’ processes:
Alignment. Ensure that teams are aligned internally and across other dependent teams on their purpose, norms, and goals.
Feedback. Ensure that teams and their leaders receive continuous feedback on how effectively they are supporting the goals of the team and each other.
Coaching. There is a significant, positive effect of peer coaching on team outcomes. Team leaders should encourage peer coaching, particularly around alignment, use of feedback, and continuous improvement.
Agile is Attitude
Disciplined execution and continuous innovation are the hallmarks of an agile team. In many organizations, a lot of habits must change to make the move to agile, team-based work. Many people’s identities are hardwired into information systems, job titles, and hierarchies that encourage them to resist the idea of shared leadership and empowering teams. The most enduring people issues include replacing judging with coaching and shifting the focus of management from individuals and organizational silos to teams. The latter is particularly difficult because team dynamics can be a mystery to those who are still struggling to understand how to coach individuals.
Disciplined execution and continuous innovation are the hallmarks of an agile team. Their success is driven more by people’s behaviors and habits than rules and processes. Establishing a solid team foundation that includes clarity of purpose and healthy norms, ensuring continuous feedback, and encouraging regular coaching to develop strong, trusting team relationships will go a long way to creating the habits that lead to more effective, agile teams.