The Flywheel of Organizational Agility: Enablement Teams

The Challenge

When I ask people if agile principles and methods have helped their teams with delivery and execution, most of them are quick to acknowledge that they have. These same people, however, often go on to describe the challenges they’ve faced in scaling agile or in their enterprise transformation. They share various organizational impediments that slow teams down and stand in the way of true, lasting change. In response, I ask the following question, “Do you have a team across the organization that is focused on addressing these challenges?” Most of the time the answer is ‘No’ — in fact, most people seem surprised by the very concept. Yet enablement teams could be the most important component for sustained success and true organizational agility.

The Flywheel Effect

In one of my favorite business books, Good to Great1, author Jim Collins talks about the slow, steady nature of lasting change by comparing it to an egg. He says that when chicken hatches, it appears to happen instantaneously. Yet in reality it is the culminating event of a long-term effort:

While the outside world was ignoring this seemingly dormant egg, the chicken within was evolving, growing, developing & changing. From the chicken’s point of view, the moment of breakthrough, of cracking the egg, was simply one more step in a long chain of steps that had led to that moment. Granted, it was a big step—but it was hardly the radical transformation that it looked like from the outside.

Collins goes on to say that creating this kind of breakthrough within the confines of a large company is akin to moving an enormous flywheel, “a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It’s about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons.”

Your job, Collins writes, is to generate enough momentum to get that flywheel moving as fast possible. To move something that huge, however, will require tremendous effort. And even as you push as hard as you can, you are unlikely to see a great deal of movement at first. But if you keep pushing steadily, little by little, the wheel will begin to turn, faster and faster, until “at some point, you can’t say exactly when—you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing. This is the Flywheel Effect. It’s what it feels like when you’re inside a company that makes the transition from good to great.”

Establishing a Guiding Coalition

So how can you get the flywheel that is your company to really start moving and gaining momentum? It takes more than just creating some pilot agile teams and hoping that the rest of the organization will follow along. You need more than just a grassroots effort and lip service from management. Organizational agility requires a concerted effort and an informed plan of action.

In Leading Change2, John Kotter introduces a series of steps to introduce organizational change. One of those early steps is to establish a “guiding coalition”. Kotter says that no one person can generate enough momentum to overcome the status quo singlehandedly. Instead, Kotter says, “putting together the right coalition of people to lead a change initiative is critical to its success. That coalition must have the right composition, a significant level of trust, and a shared objective“.

Kotter warns against creating committees that have little authority and minimal credibility. He says that in today’s business environment, where decisions must be made quickly and often with some degree of uncertainty, it “is clear that teams of leaders and managers, acting in concert, are the only effective entities that can make productive decisions under these circumstances.”

Who should be part of this team?

Kotter describes the ideal composition and qualities of a guiding coalition, such as an enablement team:

In putting together a Guiding Coalition, the team as a whole should reflect:

  • Position Power: Enough key players should be on board so that those left out cannot block progress.
  • Expertise: All relevant points of view should be represented so that informed intelligent decisions can be made.
  • Credibility: The group should be seen and respected by those in the firm so that other employees will take the group’s pronouncements seriously.
  • Leadership: The group should have enough proven leaders to be able to drive the change process.

It is important to provide a balanced mix of managers and leaders in this group, Kotter writes. If you have good managers but poor leaders you are likely to produce plans but not a vision. The result will vastly under-communicate the need for change and it will control rather than empower people.

A true enablement team is cross-departmental, not just a collection of representatives from the development part of the organization. It will take all levels and parts of the organization working together to represent the managers and leaders needed to turn that flywheel. Just like we see the value of putting together dedicated cross-functional teams to deliver value to customers, we need this team to represent a slice of the organization in order to deliver value to the enterprise.

Additionally, the team must meet frequently to get to know each other and build trust among the enablement team members themselves. These activities are crucial for turning a group of individuals into a high-performing team.

What does this team do?

While every organization will have their own unique needs for an enablement team, I tend to find responsibilities and actions for this team around four areas:

  1. Evangelism around agile. Share stories, celebrate wins and early failures, and enable others to try. Help propel the agile transition by providing catalytic leadership in creating environments of change.
  2. Communication of progress. Rollout plans across teams, progress of teams, organizational changes and updates to the enablement backlog should be communicated across the organization.
  3. Escalation of issues outside the team’s control. Listen to the teams to determine what’s working and what’s not. Ask how the enablement team can help improve the agile transition. Anticipate and remove organizational impediments whenever possible and identify any impediments that are outside of any of the delivery teams’ control.
  4. Guidance and support to teams and organization. Develop backlog items, rollout, and integration across the organization. Promote team dynamics/commitments, support/model for teams through quick feedback and continual involvement with the delivery teams.

How do I get started?

Here are some initial steps to establish an enablement team:

  • Determine who should be involved and ensure that each person is willing to give time, focus, and energy
  • Develop a vision for the group. What is your organization’s purpose for greater agility?
  • Determine the capabilities or success factors needed to achieve your vision. What do you need to do to become a more agile organization?
  • Determine the minimal action items needed to achieve those capabilities or success factors. These will become your backlog of work.
  • Determine how you will work, both within the enablement team and with the rest of the organization. How will you plan? When will you meet? How will you communicate changes? Who will be involved in the organization for working on the backlog?
  • Get started! Be prepared to inspect and adapt the group as you get going and learn better how to enable the organization in pushing its flywheel of agility.

References

1: Collins, Jim (2001). Good to Great. HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
2: Kotter, John (1996). Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press.