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How to be agile in times of change

Understanding the concepts of complexity is key responding to change in digitalization and to be agile.

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Maintaining social distance and catching up with friends is not exactly as great as it was before the pandemic. Having a drink or a coffee at the end of a hard day while sitting several meters apart on a rainy day in a park is not as great as it sounds. But it is nice to actually see a good friend in person again. It’s just so much better to meet with someone not just through the screen of my laptop.

The digitization allowed us – or at least many of us – to work remotely. Many friends of mine are in home office since February of 2020. Some of them actually never have to go into the office ever again. Digitization and collaboration allowed them to adapt a complete remote and virtual style of working though. Some teams made remarkable progress and could even increase their productivity. But what is digitization and digitalization really about?

Teamwork makes the dream work

Something that came to light during this pandemic is that collaboration and workflow is key to success. While there are many professions in which individual performance is key (such as performing as an artist or musician) big complicated projects can only be accomplished by a team effort. Working constantly together towards a common goal to deliver a service or develop a product that is valued by the customer. To say it with Jeff Sutherlands words in his book Scrum

“Careful alignment, unity of purpose, and clarity of Goal”. 

No one would disagree, but many fail to understand its importance. So let’s break it down.

Understanding complexity

Something that I always was suspicious about but only completely understood a few months ago when I came across the Cynefin Framework are different domains of problems in decision making: 

  • Simple domain: cause and effect are obvious to the observer. Best practices work best
  • Complicated domain: There is more uncertainty in the relation between cause and effect making it perfect for subject matter experts who can make predictions
  • Complex domain: nothing is certain. Cause and effect are only visible in hindsight
  • Chaotic domain: There is a complete absent of rules or they change regularly. There no value in understanding and learning from the cause and effect relationship

Cynefin Framework

Erwin van Der Koog explains it in his remarkable blogpost Understanding Complexity with games: 

  • Tic Tac Toe or Connect Four for example are simple games: only a few very basic rules exist. You don’t need a strategy to play it but best practice helps – like where you start or how to react. Cause and effect are obvious.
  • Chess, or the Japanese game of Shogi are both strategic games. Chess has 1043 possible variations of the game (that’s a 10 with forty-three zeros!). These games are best played by experts who can anticipate the next moves and develop a strategy to react for each of them. Those are games of the complicated domain. Determination of cause and effect is complicated and involve experience and prediction.
  • Poker on the other hand is a game of learning about the opponent. Cause and effect are only obvious in hindsight when the cards are revealed to the table. The stronger hand will not necessarily be the winner. Poker can’t be played with best practices as they are likely to fail for a new opponent. 
  • the last domain is Chaos. It is best described by infinite games – games where no rules exist or where rules are constantly changing. With known and unknown players and where it is the objective to stay in the game (great book: Simon Sinek’s  The Infinite Game). Wars, for example, or the business world in general are chaotic infinite games. Or as Erwin van Der Koog describes it: Playing with children – You just go with the flow.

Stacey matrix of decision making in simple, complicated, complex and chaotic problem domains

 
 Are you being disrupted?

There is another domain however: Disorder. Disorder is the result when decision making does not adapt to a new problem domain. When you fail to understand and to adapt to uncertainty but rather hold on to best practices and strategies that once worked. Why are so many businesses behaving like dinosaurs? Unable to adapt to a changing environment, slowly fading in significance. Unable to make an impact and to build on past accomplishments. Perhaps, once in a different world those companies might have been disruptors themselves – rendering other business models obsolete. 

Disruption always occurs when someone or something gets into your decision making cycle causing disorder. When you are failing to make sound and informed decisions effectively. One of the main reasons why traditional companies fail to adapt is most likely due to digitalization.

What is causing failure to adapt?

Understanding the domains of complexity is probably at its root of (m)any problem(s). It all comes down to how one is understanding uncertainty and is able to find ways and strategies to react. Once you take a look at the Stacey Matrix it all becomes obvious. In the simple domain all was predictable. It’s like digging a hole. You know how to do that. You’ve done it many times before. This time it’s no difference. Best practices are working – at least for a while. 

There is nothing more constant than change.

Heraclitus 535 BC

Technological shifts, customer expectation becomes unknown. Now things aren’t simple anymore. They become quite complicated, and even complex quickly. I work in a highly regulated industry – in life science. You can expect rules, regulation and guidelines to change often. This is making developing of products and services more complicated. Technological, compliance and safety matters are the domain of specialists and experts.  At the same time technology shifts. Digital products are connected to actual physical devices making them cyber-physical. Those systems are able to deliver a new type of service or develop new business models. Now things aren’t even complicated anymore – they become complex. Failing to understand this shift of domain and reacting to it rather quickly and effectively is at the root of disorder. 

Uncertainty in change

People are resistant to change because change always brings uncertainty. But I personally think that people are also resistant to change because they have had really bad experiences in the past. It requires not only an understanding of the scope of the problem but also a transformation of leadership. Julian Wild  who supported me with the preparation of a keynote made it clear: 

Delivering value quickly is what agility is all about. But becoming agile means ‘being agile’: it is a mindset, not a method.

In the next articles will look at two very important principles of agility: The value stream and the retrospect and show examples how to implement a smart way of working. Stay tuned and sign-up for our newsletter.

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