For the past decade or so, I've been working with large organisations, pushing them to become more agile. It used to be a real uphill struggle to sell agile software projects to large organisations. Slowly but surely the tide has been turning, and today, at least some form of agile is standard in any organisation that's serious about software. Agile has won.
Unfortunately, this can only be said about software, though. Principles underpinning agile are still not widely adopted in large organisations. Not even after they've been proven over and over again to produce better results for innovation and complex projects. This leads to a clear tension between agile software teams and the remaining parts of organisations. To make matters worse, this prevents many organisations from innovating and changing much faster than they do today.
So, what's hampering agility? Let’s have a look at some of the key issues.
Being risk averse
Large organisations focus too often on just preserving and optimising what they already have. This leads to avoiding failure at all costs, which in turn results in the avoidance of risk. By its very nature, Agile requires that you accept the fact that you can't plan for everything or even know all relevant factors in a given project.
Hierarchy with strict silos
Even an agile organisation can benefit from some hierarchy. In my experience, flat or pure network structures are not optimal for larger organisations. That said, agility requires cross-functional teams that can take ownership of a project. This requires breaking silos by combining a network and hierarchy in the official company structure.
The need for control manifests itself in bureaucracy. This can lead to a greatly diminished efficiency with complicated and slow approval processes. Agility requires empowering teams by trusting them to do the right thing even with relaxed bureaucracy.
Resistance to change
The old business world is largely built for a static environment. Employment laws, labour unions and large organisations all alike have created a setup whose only purpose is to block or slow down change. In a world that changes more and more rapidly, change is the only constant.
Employee vs. employer
Again, this comes from the traditional idea that corporations are evil-minded entities who just try to maximise the shareholder value, and workers are just a necessary, albeit unwelcome, part of the equation. When the corporation focuses on balancing internal power relations instead of working together to satisfy the customer, it's difficult to come up with radical innovations quickly.
Lack of ownership
This may be the sum of everything mentioned above. When a team working to make the customer satisfied doesn't want to, or can't, take full ownership of their work, the results are unlikely to be brilliant.
An agile shift in large organisations is an invaluable part of their activity although the agile principles are still not widely introduced among the corporations. Risk aversion, bureaucracy, resistance to change and other factors are often the things that hamper agility, but they are all obstacles that can be overcome. The thing is to find the right partner that will help in making the shift by offering a more hands-on approach – learning by doing things together.