Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Agile Enterprise - Part 3 - Frequent rotations

"The only way that has ever been discovered to have a lot of people cooperate together voluntarily is through the free market. And that's why it's so essential to preserving individual freedom."
Milton Friedman

This series started with a different title ("The Commanding Heights of the Enterprise") and this final part made me rethink the title as  "The Agile Enterprise".

As a quick summary, part 1 of the series covered the notion of teams self-organized around goals set by customers. Part 2 covered the need for an information market that supported people in the formation of these self-organized teams.

This chapter covers a challenge surfaced in the previous installments of the series: alignment of rotation choices with project boundaries.

Whereas a person and the prospective team may agree that the rotation of that person into the team is mutually beneficial, it is often the case that the dates in the contract between that person and his current team cannot be reconciled with the starting date in the new team.

Every opportunity has its time...

In traditional organizations, transitions require careful planning and a fair amount of negotiation around availability and alignment of dates between the parties, to the point where these kind of reassignments end up becoming relatively rare.

Rare events have a way of picking people's interest and there is no shortage of stories about employees who made unconventional decisions, or were forced by external events, to radically change their job responsibilities. Assembly line workers becoming quality assurance champions, HR managers becoming sales force supervisors, and many others.

Whereas the collective message positively reinforces the need for people to be open to change, statistics can often lose to the power of an individual case study. The isolated stories cannot help one realize the average scope and frequency  of transformation that can be absorbed in a hierarchical organization before posing a logistical nightmare.

…but not all the time
The inspiring story of a construction supervisor becoming a supply chain analyst over the span of 2 years may be an excellent morale booster for someone feeling stuck in a hapless assignment, but does not mean an HR director will welcome all construction supervisors in the company to attempt the same leap in the following day, nor be able to cope with half of the organization applying for similar job transfers within 6 months.

It is worth noting the job rotation technique employed by many companies, where new employees are moved across different positions in order to understand the various aspects of the business.

Job rotation is a positive tool in its own right, but also has a well-known set of drawbacks, chiefly amongst them that it is meant as a training process perceived as a cost-center. That is also the reason why company-orchestrated job rotation tends to cover only the first few years, or even months, of one's career.

A wartime culture...

Tension hardens steel and pressure stiffens concrete, much in the same way tension and pressure make organizations more brittle. People familiar with a given task can execute it faster and with better quality over time, which is welcomed by a command and control structure reminiscent of desperate wartime needs.

In the two world wars, specially in WWII, efficient pipelines, repetitive action and sheer numbers were a key factor in winning the conflict. Helped by the threat of survival, these work force arrangements were also a key driver of highly structured organizations, underpinning a rebirth of manual labor that would make Frederick Mayor proud. Even as knowledge work subsequently came out if its forced intermission, the management practices that served the world for over many decades of conflict are largely still in effect.

In the past two decades, an ever changing business landscape and the subsequent need for adaptability are the new driving forces tearing through that post-war model. When company areas are compartmentalized, as postulated in part 1, the compartments are inherently misaligned with market needs, with collaboration and teaming becoming the difference between success and a product inadequate for its target market.

In that scenario, constant rotation of people across different teams achieves several key benefits for a organization aspiring to business agility:
  • Trust: People more familiar with each other know what to expect in a critical situation.
  • Awareness: People who understand the reality in different areas of the organization can better support the efforts in the organization and innovate in areas where there are efficiencies of scale or synergy of skills.
  • Skill seeding: Strengths in one area can be actively implemented in different areas. High-productivity techniques, ranging from technology to product management, can be shared, tested, approved or discarded more frequently.
...needs a war

Increased trust amongst people in different parts of the company and awareness of their contributions to the business foster a shared culture and prevents the formation of silos.

Back in 2006, I attended a session in Hursley where a panel of senior executives discussed the future of the software industry. In the discussion, one of the biggest impediments for progress in larger companies ended up being the lack of trust amongst internal divisions, on how difficult it was to marshal skills and resources towards initiatives that would obviously benefit the company if all parts could trust each other.

One of the panelists went as a far as stating that in some cases it was easier to partner with external companies, even competitors, because at least they could put contracts in place and make progress under the duress of potential lawsuits.

After the long exposition, I introduce another Commanding Height of the Enterprise:

Organizations must have internal policies that orchestrate orderly and frequent flows of employees across the company as an integral part of everyone's career plans.
Note the distinction between "orchestrate" versus "require" in the previous paragraph, which embodies the entire theme behind this series, where the alignment of personal responsibility, context, and personal interest are the key drivers of business results.

Unlike job rotation, the requirement for rotation in the modern enterprise is a necessity of personal progress within the company rather than a necessity of the company to expedite comprehensive training of selected employees.

Employees have in their best interest to rotate frequently as a means of growing their awareness of the business, which in turn improves their ability to enlist for areas where they can contribute the most; and also to establish their reputation, in order to facilitate their acceptance in prospective teams.

 Agility is a discipline

In order to solve the challenge presented in the first half of this article, I must introduce the notion of Agile practice.

For those not familiar with Agile practice, and in a nutshell that will utterly infuriate Agile advocates, the overall concept is based on intervals of time called “sprints” where work is delivered in “stories” prioritized by the product customers. Teams are organized in small groups (less than 10 people, ideally 4 or 5) , which in many cases follow a procedural variant known as “Scrum”, named after the the designation for the pre-play huddle seen at rugby matches.

The Scrum team gathers everyday in a stand up meeting where each person briefly describes what he has done since the last meeting, what he commits to do before the next meeting and whether he has any blockers preventing him from achieving that goal. The outcome of each sprint is expected to be ready for deployment if the customer so chooses.

Sprint duration may vary, but should be long enough to contain the smallest amount of meaningful work for a customer, and short enough that the team does not lose momentum or focus with fewer opportunities to get customer feedback sessions at the end of each sprint. In the software industry, as an example, duration typically ranges from 2 to 6 weeks.

Agile practice started in the software development world, which was once aptly described as a service industry that operated under the illusion of being a manufacturing industry. The notion of incrementally delivering the final “product” is a better fit for the artisan methods used for software development and customer requirements that swing in lock-step with changes in the customer business priorities.

Larger undertakings require far more resources than a an Agile cell can support, which requires a hierarchical arrangement of teams. There is sufficient material and experiences supporting this kind of arrangement. I particularly like the work of Scott Ambler summarized in “Agility@Scale”.

The Scrum Alliance also offers a balanced set of resources covering the application of Agile in different industries, ranging from direct creation of a finished product all the way to the C-level management team. Within those resources, there is a must read by Alexandre Magno, titled “An Executive Scrum Team” (http://www.scrumalliance.org/resources/1833).

Fluid allocation of resources

Agile execution enables efficient rotation of people across projects, by defining project boundaries in sprints rather than relatively indefinite intervals of time. In the classic model of execution, where people are assigned to organizations rather than projects, one of the major challenges to get people to self-organize around goals is to secure a release date where the loss of personnel by the ceding organization does not cripple its execution, but at the same time does not prohibitively overshoot the project start date in the receiving organization. In the traditional enterprise, that perfect window may happen a handful of times in someone´s entire career.

In the modern enterprise postulated in the “Commanding Heights” series, healthy initiatives require a handful of transfer opportunities every year, so that all parties involved in a transfer, from initiative stakeholders to the employees enlisting to participate in these initiatives, have more flexibility in trying out new formations. There are still leadership positions for which rotation cannot be executed as frequently, but Agile practice also introduces the notions of Epics (longer series of like-themed stories) , so that certain people will still enlist into projects for longer stints than others (e.g. a project manager, a release lead, or an assembly line engineer) .
In closing

The future of the modern enterprise hinges on the following main points:
  • Self-organization of a work force familiar with the role of their products and services in the world, and with an acute awareness of benefits and consequences of their decisions for their customers and for their own careers.

  • Free(er) flow of information as a way of connecting people and teams: Absent legal limitations – security regulations and privacy laws come to mind - free agents in a micro-market workforce must be able to freely share information about their work with other free agents, so that teams are aware of talent they can utilize and people are aware of initiatives where they can fit.

  • Agility: All knowledge-based work in the enterprise must be executed within the principles of Agile practice, supplying frequent transition points for the free agents to align around market initiatives as they unfold.
The next articles of the series will be shorter and explore specific aspects of these main points. The first topics will cover trust management and transition steps from a traditional to a modern enterprise.

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