One of the biggest criticisms of agile methodology is that it is very difficult to transfer from a project team environment to teams engaged in “business as usual” (BAU). In the latter, there is no definable end to the process. Instead of experimenting and making continuous improvements, in pursuit of frequently changing priorities, stable team environments seek to optimise and achieve consistency in workflow and other processes against long-term, relatively stable goals and priorities. Members of BAU teams may take part in a cross-team project using agile principles, or a sub-group within the team may take an agile approach to specific improvement projects. However, trying to run a BAU team as if it were a project team is like asking a marathon runner to fence. Performance for the former comes from consistent pace in pursuit of a fixed goal; for the latter, it comes from constantly adapting how they respond to new and evolving challenges.
So how can BAU teams make effective use of agile thinking? The answer is BEAU – Business Evolving As Usual. The starting point for this approach is that the team recognises that it must evolve in tune with and at least as fast as its environment (and particularly its stakeholders and influencers) require it to. The purpose of the team provides a relatively fixed point that indicates a required general direction of travel. A BEAU team works on the principle that it will have to make frequent changes to the actual course, to take into account perturbations, changes in wind direction and other predictable or unpredictable events. Periodic recalibrations create the impetus for these course changes and these must be frequent enough to permit rapid, relatively small corrections but not so frequent that members find it impossible to plan.
The annual strategy binge so beloved of many organisations is far too long a cycle to achieve this balance. Like the mother bear’s porridge, quarterly cycles seem to be “just right”, not least because they integrate seamlessly with cycles of appraisal, as we will explore below.
Key components of a BEAU team approach include:
- Integration of individual and team development plans. Critical questions here are:
- What new or improved skills, knowledge and capabilities does our purpose demand of us?
- What skills, knowledge and capabilities can we reasonable evolve over the next period?
- What areas of process can and should we improve?
- What aspects of relationships and collaboration can we improve within the team?
- What can we do to enhance relationships and interactions with our stakeholders and influencers?
2. What accountabilities and responsibilities do we need to clarify in order to fully support each other?
Employee-led appraisal and performance management. One of the problems with traditional performance appraisals is that there is little credible evidence that they actually improve performance. On the contrary, even positive appraisals can be demotivating. A much more effective approach shifts the control and ownership of the appraisal process from the manager to the employee, roughly on a six-week cycle. (So twice every quarter.)
The process begins with the employee asking each of his or her team colleagues and some stakeholders outside the team what the employee has done to support them in delivering their part of the team purpose; and what more they would have liked him or her to have done. Based on this data, the employee creates a performance and learning plan, which details what they aim to achieve over the next six-week period. The manager – and, if appropriate, other team members – coach them and provide constructive challenge.
At the end of the six-week period, the employee seeks colleague feedback once more, with the additional focus of how well they met their performance and learning targets and what they have learned as a result of their successes and failures. At the quarterly review session, the team members seek and offer each other help. They also identify recurring patterns preventing improvements and determine how to address these in the next quarterly cycle.
3. PERILL reviews. It’s not surprising that the questions underpinning the development planning process above parallel the six elements of the PERILL complex, adaptive systems model. At least twice a year, the BEAU team reviews what happened when the whole team was performing at its best; and when this was not the case. Key questions here include:
- What has changed (or is changing) in the wider systems, of which we are a part?
- How does this affect our ability to deliver against our purpose?
- How can we calibrate or actual pace of evolution against the pace the system needs of us?
- If we are changing at an appropriate speed, is it in the right direction?
- Who are we listening to most? And who should we be listening to?
4. Experimentation as a performance indicator. Experimentation is the bridge between performance focus and learning focus. Quarterly reviews and PERILL reviews generate areas of focus, linked to the question “How can we faster and/or more surely along our direction of travel?” From these areas of focus spin out multiple opportunities for experiments at individual, sub-group and team level. The team agrees which of these it has sufficient capacity, resources and energy for, building them into the personal and team development plans. Subsequent reviews decide whether to continue, develop or drop each experiment, capturing learning for the next cycle. The key here is that experimenting and learning from failure are built into business as usual, rather than seen as an additional task; and that the team can self-evaluate on the level, scope, quality and quantity of its innovation.
5. The leader as curator. A major challenge for designated leaders is to keep out of the way, supporting each of these processes but not attempting to control them. As curator, the leader ensures the team has the resources it needs and protects its boundaries – limiting interference from outside that might sap team energy or divert its attention from value-creation. Part of this shift involves letting go of their role as sole coach to members of the team and instead facilitating co-coaching and a coaching style of conversation in team meetings.
These five key principles are different in many aspects to project-based agile methodology, but they are far better adapted to the needs of mainstream teams in organisations. Like agile teams, however, BEAU teams require significant support to learn these new ways of working. Effective team coaching from accredited team coaches can be part of the solution. But the biggest impact comes from step-by-step experimentation, gradually learning how to apply the principles until they become ingrained in the team culture.
© David Clutterbuck, 2020