Too many fluffy agile bunnies

by Carl Weller on 04/07/2017 10:00

Too many fluffy agile bunnies

This article is republished from my original 'Too many fluffy agile bunnies' post in LinkedIn.

After having Frederick Laloux's "Reinventing Organisations" on my iPad for about 2 years I finally read it. It took me two attempts (there's a story there) and it left me with mixed feelings.

I know this book and the concept of teal organisations has a big following in the Agile community, and that some of what I'm going to say in this post will upset folks a bit, but here goes.

By about 60% in I stopped reading the book because it was getting repetitive and I kinda got the message. To be honest I only picked it up again because I wanted to write this post and to do so I needed to be fair to the author and read the whole book!

The tl;dr summary is that, as society has evolved, so too have types of organisations and these evolutionary stages have been assigned colours (red, amber, orange, green, teal). Obviously teal is most highly evolved and thus very groovy.

As I was reading the book two main streams of thought came to mind:

The stories were all about owner/managers or CEOs with solid board backing

All of the organisations covered in the book had revolutionary new management practices that were either introduced by the founder or CEO. I talked to Michael Sahota about this when I did CAL 1 training with him, we didn't get to a resolution as it was in a bit of a break and then the class moved on.

My basic thinking was that, as an Agile Coach, Teal Guru or whatever, your ability to help with this sort of transition or transformation is automatically going to be limited to your ability to influence the head of the company.

There were no cases of a grass-roots or "stealth" adoption mentioned in Reinventing Organisations (you'll see why later).

The book followed your typical "case study" format

As I was reading it I got echoes of "In Search of Excellence", "Good to Great" and stuff the industry has been churning out for decades. This is well busted in Phil Rosezweig's "The Halo Effect". He calls it "…the Delusion of Connecting the Winning Dots".

I found myself thinking that its fine to list all of these very successful companies who have "highly evolved" CEOs and, it seems independently, created organisations that all fall under the umbrella concept of "evolutionary teal". Reading Laloux, you'd think all you'd have to do is follow this prescription and riches would simply land at your feet, you'd dominate your industry, blah blah blah.

But, even better, you don’t have to feel guilty about being successful – because huge success is a by-product of doing the right thing. How beautiful a picture is that?

I'm a skeptic, and more than a little achievement-orange, so I found myself thinking "Where is the discussion of the failed teal organisations? Or the successful amber and orange organisations?". For example, Amazon seems to be eating the world, yet has a reputation as a pretty hard-core place to work (either on the shop floor or in management). Laloux would call it a hard-out achievement orange organisation.

To truly examine the issue, you have to present all of the evidence. that which supports your story and that which shows other views. At this point I decided I wanted to write this post, even if I caught some flak for it.

So then, right at the end of the book, Laloux redeems himself

If you skip to chapter 3.1 (starting on page 237) you find the following:

There are two necessary pre-conditions that are "make or break", namely:

  • Top leadership (founder or CEO) must share the teal paradigm Owners must also share the teal paradigm.
  • One of the case studies in Reinventing Organisations 'regressed' in stressful circumstances because the owners weren't really teal, they were just enjoying the good times.

Only 5% of people globally have reached the teal paradigm. You can't force someone to change paradigms. They need to get there on their own, and many people simply don’t (many people are in amber, which is the dominant paradigm of government, or orange, supposedly the space of the private sector).

He made some further observations:

  • You shouldn't waste your energy trying to make part of a non-teal organisation teal
  • There is no evidence of this sort of grass-roots approach being successful over any significant time period. The organisation fights back (more here later in this article)
  • Vertical transformations (i.e. from orange to green or teal) are a "lost battle", you're better off to try making an orange organisation a healthier orange-coloured organisation (horizontal transformation)
  • The role of a CEO in a teal organisation is to "hold the space" (i.e. shelter others in the organisation from calls to revert back to amber or orange when things get tough).

Well-regarded Agile trainer Michael Sahota has a similar view about Agile transformation generally – the "…leader is the limit for growth" and that organisational behaviour follows leadership behaviour and structure. In other words, wishing for a true grass-roots transformation of an entire organisation is only possible under the same pre-conditions as Laloux's teal – the CEO has to "get it".

Sahota also talks about the need to create "adaptors" in order to survive in a non-Agile environment. So, to paint a picture:

  • There might be a team within an organisation, or even perhaps a whole IT shop, that has a leader who "gets it" and they shelter the team from the inhospitable organisation, allowing them to remain Agile
  • The team may have to pay "corporate taxes" (i.e. participate in annual planning, provide status reports, Gantt charts, etc.)
  • If those taxes are not paid, inevitably high amounts of '"friction" occurs at the edges – the organisational antibodies spring into action

This is an eminently more sensible position than the #NoEstimates or #NoProjects crowd.

So why is any of this even an issue? Can't people just get along?

I don't know how many of you remember Ben Elton's book "Stark" (about some rich guys who find out the world is dying and secretly build a spaceship to escape). In there is a tongue-in-cheek line that the greatest tragedy of the modern age was the appropriation of environmentalist thought by cardigan-wearing hippies. They weren't the right people to drive mainstream acceptance (at least not in the '80s when Stark was written).

In the same vein, some teal advocates are radicalising segments of the Agile community and making it harder to introduce agility to mainstream clients (who are amber and orange).

Has anyone stopped to think that the main reason SAFe is doing so well is because it’s a flavour of Agile "medicine" that the patient doesn't want to spit out before they have even tasted it?

Let's not even get into the discussion about whether or not it's even Agile at all. For most of our clients its Agile enough.

Despite demonstrably higher success rates for Agile projects, agility is still largely something practiced by some, but not all, people in the IT industry. There are some prominent mainstream management thinkers advocating change (i.e. Steve Denning, Gary Hamel), but largely organisations are run on traditional, bureaucratic lines. Deterministic planning and control is the favoured approach.

There's a solid engineering basis to Agile, which often gets less air-time than the "fluffy bunny" aspects. Take a look at early work by Sutherland and Schwaber:

If we are serious about doing good in the world, then perhaps we should try to talk the language of the people we want to help, or at the very least avoid alienating them. Not every business is a Google or a Netflix, but every business can be helped by a fact-based discussion of how to improve things within their context.

As part of researching this article I also found I'm not the only one who doesn't "get it"

Image: bunny rabbit in costume, by Ryan McGuire, used under creative commons CC0 1.0.

Carl Weller is a Principal Consultant specialising in Project Management and Agile Leadership, based in our Wellington office.


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