Adaptability and Collaboration for Sustainable Business Growth

The four simple axioms in the “The Manifesto for Agile Software Development” express the core values for getting work done efficiently. In the last chapter excerpt of Agile Innovation we looked at individuals and interactions as well how to create a rapid working prototype. Today we’ll continue discussing the next elements: collaboration and carrying out change in a corporate setting.

The essential role of every business is that it must serve the needs of its customers. Because Agile Innovation focuses on learning from customers’ direct experiences in an iterative development process, there is a similar shift from contract negotiation to customer collaboration, which is the third element of the Agile manifesto.

The imperative is to establish productive and collaborative relationships with individual customers (for consumer markets) and organizational customers (for business-to-business markets), because doing so enables us to learn in depth about their values, motivations, behaviors, and attitudes, all of which will help us understand how to achieve success in the broader market.

Some will tell you that the best way to discover the future is to co-create with your customers, and we think they’re right. This is the core message of the Fourth-Generation R&D approach pioneered by William L. Miller in his work at Intel and Steelcase and documented in his book of the same name. Bill’s insights have been quite enduring and very influential in the global R&D community for the past 20 years.

So how does Bill tell us that can we collaborate in a deep and meaningful way? Part of the challenge is that the word collaboration is often used as a synonym for three other words that also start with c: communication, coordination, and cooperation¹.

Some clarification of the different meanings of these words may help:

  • Communication is about messages, sharing information from one person or group with another person or group.
  • Coordination is about organizing activities so that people can work together effectively.
  • Cooperation means working together for a shared purpose.

Collaboration among large groups is essential to success

Collaboration is different from each of these because it means creating something new, which means that it’s inherently more complex. The act of creating, when it involves more than one person, certainly requires effective communication, good coordination, and gracious cooperation and, in fact, integrates all of these at a high level of sophistication.

In both social and economic terms, effective collaboration is essential for creating value, and at the highest level the emergence of civilization occurs only as a result of collaboration, because what is civilization but the result of effective collaboration? People form tribes, villages, teams, and corporations to accomplish things that individuals alone cannot do.

Establishing a new corporation, for example, requires tremendous creativity across many types of activities, including legal, organizational, and financial dimensions, as well as an endless stream of design decisions about product, service, brand, etc. Extensive collaboration is the norm for these activities.

To increase the likelihood of reaching your goals, assemble a team of more innovative minds.

Indeed, research at MIT has shown that large teams are often the most successful. MIT educator Bill Aulet tells us, “There are many misconceptions about what entrepreneurship is and what is required to be an entrepreneur. The first myth is that individuals start companies. While the entrepreneur as a lone hero is a common narrative, a close reading of the research tells a different story. Teams start companies. Importantly, a bigger team actually adds to the odds of success. More founders = better odds of success.”². To increase the likelihood of reaching your goals, assemble a team of more innovative minds.

However, as organizations grow, the focus tends to shift from the intense collaboration and inherently creative acts of the early days toward more narrowly defined functions in narrow disciplines, or silos, where the goal is attaining and then sustaining a stable state. As we will discuss later in this chapter, the current pace of change makes this approach essentially suicidal, because the attitude that underlies a quest for stability is often anti-innovation and thus, self-destructively, anti-adaptation.

A significant element that gives power to the Agile Software methodology lies in the ways that it nurtures effective collaboration through invoking both the spirit and the effective practice of creative work. In addition, the focus on customer interaction is inherently productive, adaptive, and collaborative because interacting with customers is the fastest way to learn about their attitudes, needs, and behaviors, and also how these are changing. This is therefore a most efficient way to learn how an organization needs to adapt.

Furthermore, many specific practices that fall within Agile Methodology are, in fact, techniques explicitly intended to foster collaboration, and to overcome the barriers to collaboration that emerge in all human activities. With conflicting needs and goals, it is hardly surprising that collaboration is not always easy.

A humorous quote from Adam Kahane describes South Africa before the end of apartheid and illustrates the difficulty of collaboration quite nicely. “Faced with our country’s overwhelming problems we have only two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option would be for all of us to get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve our problems for us. The miraculous option would be for us to talk and work together and to find a way forward together.”³

As you know, South Africans did indeed learn how to work together, and they did end apartheid without the much-anticipated civil war, leading to the presidency of Nelson Mandela and a transformed nation. Kahane describes all of this quite eloquently in his book Transformative Scenario Planning, and he talks at length about the process of dialog that contributed to possibility of genuine collaboration.

This has informed our work to a considerable extent, and among the techniques that we will explore in coming chapters are the scrum, the sprint, the use of visual information display, and standup meetings that all support a uniquely effective teaming environment, virtual collaboration, facilitation, and personal growth, all of which are intended to subtly and not so subtly evoke behaviors that are conducive to effective collaboration. At its best, work organized according to these methods, many pioneered by Agile innovators, becomes fun, and great results are created, each participant learns and grows through the process, and the organization adapts, all at once. Everyone wins and prospers.

Adapt or die

In work where there is inherent uncertainty (i.e., innovation), slavish adherence to a plan is not a success strategy.

The fourth axiom reminds us that companies that thrive in today’s turbulent economy do so because their processes and the mind-set of their leaders are proactively oriented to managing change. This axiom reflects this need, stating that “responding to change over following a plan” is the preferred way of working. This directly addresses the need for adaptation, both with regard to projects and throughout the organization as a whole.

Given that the accelerating rate of change is one of the most pressing external forces that is affecting every organization, behaviors based on conforming to the plan may therefore be obsolete well before they even have time to occur. This doesn’t mean that planning has no utility, but it does mean that in work where there is inherent uncertainty (i.e., innovation), slavish adherence to a plan is not a success strategy.

The challenge

So, those are the four axioms in the Agile Software and Agile Innovation contexts. Taken together, they compose a simple, concise, and powerful framework that has broad application, and as you consider the insights that Agile offers, remember that it was invented specifically to overcome a brutally dysfunctional situation, one in which talented people saw their heroic efforts squandered in massive and excruciating failures. This happened because many corporate leaders believed that the need for structure, control, and process was more important than the exercise of talent, discovery, and thoughtful adaptation.

The lessons learned bear repeating:

The instinct to control is likely to be, in a world of increasing uncertainty, self-defeating.

Former GE CEO Jack Welsh expresses this very well: “The old organization was built on control, but the world has changed. The world is moving at such a pace that control has become a limitation. It slows you down. You’ve got to balance freedom with some control, but you’ve got to have more freedom than you ever dreamed of.”⁴

In summary, Agile demonstrates that the way to achieve success is through the cleverly organized efforts of individuals in effective interactions, by producing immediate value instead of writing lengthy explanations of what you might be able to produce on some glorious day in the distant future, through intimate knowledge of and commitment to meeting genuine customer requirements, and as the result of a dynamic learning process. The Agile movement is thus a social construct, one that recognizes that collaboration among large groups is essential to success.

Although the Agile movement has built momentum since these axioms were first articulated in 2001, the economy has continued to evolve such that today it’s no longer just individual companies that face huge challenges. Instead, in industry after industry the rate of change requires reconsidering the structure and operations of entire sectors.

For example, between 2001 and 2011, nearly all the players in the airline industry leveraged the bankruptcy code to restructure the entire industry by dumping liabilities, changing their operating models, and finding new sources of revenue. Similarly, the U.S. auto industry transformed during the depths of the 2008 recession. Telecom has fundamentally changed during the last decade, as have retail, manufacturing, and health care, and now the energy sector is in upheaval as well. In the end, no industry, and no company, will be spared from massive disruption.

Hence, this brings us to the critical challenge: Can your organization learn to transform itself into a sustainable market leader?

Yes, it can. The principles described here, and in the following chapters, are intended to help you achieve such a transformation.

By Langdon Morris,

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity by Langdon Morris, Moses Ma, and Po Chi Wu. Copyright (c) 2014 by Innovation Labs LLC. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

Questions to Reflect Upon

  • What are the unshakable beliefs in your industry that you’d 
like to shake up?
  • If you were CEO for one day, which three things would you change?
  • If you could work on only one project for a year to transform your business, what would it be and why?
  • What suffers more breakdowns at your organization: products, processes, or people? Honestly, how can you fix this?
  • Which parts of your job would you like to kill or eliminate?
  • What would your dream testimonial from a customer say?
  • What can your company offer for free that no one else does?
  • How can your company’s services be turned into physical products? How can your company’s products be turned into services?
  • If you could hire five more people, what unconventional skills would they have and why?
  • Where are my blind spots?
  • How do I know if my idea is good?
  • How can I create a safe space for innovation at my company?
  • How do I inspire innovation throughout my organization?

 

Agile InnovationArticle series

Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity

Part 1: What is the story of Agile Innovation?
Part 2: Starting at Sprint Zero: A better way to innovate
Part 3: The Secret Sauce of Innovation
Part 4: Becoming Agile Rapidly and Painlessly
→ Part 5: Adaptability and Collaboration for Sustainable Business Growth
Part 6: Transforming How We Work
Part 7: Translating Unseen Needs into Innovations
Part 8: The Eight Cs of Transformational Change

About the author:


Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.

References:

  1. Miller, William L., and Langdon Morris. Fourth Generation R&D: Managing Knowledge, Technology, and Innovation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.
  2. Aulet, Bill. Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup. 
Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  3. Kahane, Adam. Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change 
the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012.
  4. Tichy, Noel M., and Stratford Sherman. Control Your Destiny or Someone Else 
Will. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1993.
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