The Chief Learning Officer’s Survival Guide: Part Four

Building Agile Teams


In our last post we said we would talk about how to build agile teams. One of the leading factors that results in Canadian businesses failing, and US ones as well for that matter, is the “weight” of innovation. Simply put, innovation occupies too much of our cognitive space and capacity when it begins. Business is not able to adapt because the commands from one brain have to then be processed in another brain for things to move forward. Every step has sub steps and these begin as simple procedures and plans, but they blossom into complex, tiring efforts. They stall most of the time.

Frederick Allen writes in Forbes that innovations tend to fail because they cannot survive in a given ecosystem. He cites Rod Adner’s book “The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation”, where it is argued that each innovation team and space has its own ecosystem. What I call “weight” of innovation is what Adner calls ecosystem. His analogy is more helpful. Mine reflects the sheer emotional exhaustion, the human factor which creates an ecosystem failure. The view stated here is that agile teams fail because the pervading atmosphere in those businesses is stale, angry, competitive, selfish, uninspired, workaday and basically dead.

It is curious how death can co-exist with life. You can have an apparently vibrant, dynamic, busy organization that repeats the same day over and over again. It’s like the comment about “teaching experience”. The applicant says they have taught for 30 years. Did this mean they repeated the same lessons 30 times? It is all very groundhog day, à la Bill Murray.

In the words of the Zen poet Basho, being alive when dead is different than dead while alive. The conditions Adner discusses, where failed ecosystems (failed team design, communication, capacity, assets, planning, support, vision, allocating time) exist are what Basho would call being Dead While Alive. There is a heart rate but nothing is really going on. This is significant and we must address this state because it is responsible for over 80% of all medical errors, according to Beata Pawlowska, Director of the Center for Faculty Development in Medicine at the University of Toronto. Doctors who go into “routine mode” fail to detect variations in patient needs; they are “tunelling” which is the terminology used in video game play. Tunelling results in the inability to respond to the case in front of you. Instead, you respond to the averaging of your prior experience. Like a driver in a fast moving car, you don’t see the scenery, you just focus on the destination. Your mind does not “wander”, but rather it “gets fixated on prior experience”.

Tunelling is also what we call “default processing node” function in fMRI studies. The only way to stop tunelling is to deactivate these nodes and only gamification appears to be able to do that. Now, not everything that we do to deactivate default mode (tunelling, Dead While Alive) is gamified per se, it is how we activate the ventral striatum at the same time that determines a shift. So what we do when we want to activate a “Dead While Alive” team is to slow everything down to a crawl. Paradoxically, when we do that, we speed up the rate of change. Yes, it’s all rather Zen.

But how does this occur? When a manager demands that a group of employees form an agile team, they are going to have the team follow a short timeline. It should be no more than 2 weeks to bring to a working plan. They are next going to execute with 2 more weeks. It should be rolled out within 4. Now that sounds ambitious and will not, of course, apply to manufacturing of new goods or facilities. It will mean that the funding is in place and the plans are finished and you are all ready to move on it as soon as the infrastructure you selected is ready for operation.

This demands slowing down. You get a quote that it will cost X to do Y. You never accept that quote. You slow down, you break down that quote, you see how it is composed. Most of these are based on what has come before, not on what you need to spend right now. Deconstruction of procedure is the key. You must die, to be reborn.

Let us amplify this last statement to see what Basho meant when he said we could be Alive While Dead. In one’s admonition, someone who has died has no goal for themselves, only a sense of honour to serve others. Since one is already dead, one’s own life has no meaning because it no longer exists. However, others still live and if we now act to further their happiness and best intents, we are acting honourably and genuinely. This comes from Samurai culture, where you knew often, that day, that you faced great odds and were probably going to die. Let’s take it one step further. You know where were going to die, period. So effectively, you were already dead. Now the question was to know how to conduct one’s self when dead. Japanese philosophy accepts paradox and varying definitions of death. Business needs to as well. Basho would admonish us to “let old ideas die, do not bring them with you”.

Agile teams do not rely on existing procedure. They invent their own. They are time-driven, because time is the dream-killer. All business ecosystems integrate with time and time determines their flow. Too little time is the adage that holds back agility, forces us to be Dead While Alive. When we free up our way of seeing problems and reinvent our tactics, we create time. Time is manufactured by people. The construct refers to a physical reality, which of course, is complicated enough, if you ask Stephen Hawking. But let us take this right back home.

We say we have no time because we view things in a certain way, in a form of exclusivity. Things that occupy space do not let another object share that location. Stay with me here. The problem in innovation is simple, we use a metaphor of “load, weight, space” to talk about time. We say we cannot do something because there is no time. We fail to deconstruct time. What really needs to happen to change? Can we simply deal with some things later and fear their outcome less? Can we embrace uncertainty and let it guide us into new behaviours? Time does not occupy space. Space occupies time in this view of the world.

Greenhalgh and Robert et al completed a systematic review of innovation failure in 2004 from which they develop a series of models to understand Adner’s ecosystem. Nothing particularly different has come since that time:

Their methodology to complete the meta study of this type of ecosystem is depicted below:

Clearly this is a sweeping study which provides a basis for agility in development. Returning to the first figure, “Making it Happen” is different from “Letting it Happen” across these nearly 500 studies. As it relates to our discussion, to get an old engine up to speed to do something faster, dissemination replaces emergence. Re-engineering replaces knowledge construction. In short, again, we let go of any preconceptions we have, we re-engineer them and manage them forward rather than let them go through the typical phases paperwork, reports, planning and creating production cycles. All of these are heavy, bulky, slow and ponderous. They kill initiative. If your team cannot finish the job in 2 weeks, your organization is centralized in formal procedure. It is, in a word, the Walking Dead.

In the next post we will look at how to compose agile teams. Not everyone that works with you is suitable for agility. Some are just not cut for creativity and it will take too long to nurture that with coaching. You have to hire and then identify fast innovators. You need more Living Dead.

Until our next post, keep on looking up!