The myth of “small steps”, or how not to become Agile

Just as the dawn of humanity is preserved in myth, business is shrouded in its own mythology; where scientific fact is mingled with legend in a labyrinthine thicket of half-truths and understatement. I would like to start my series of articles devoted to the advantages and downsides of agility with one of such myths. A myth that hides an important truth and is often used as an argument to preserve the status quo.

The myth of "small steps", or how not to become Agile

“Kaizen” vs “kaikaku”

Recent years have seen a meteoric rise in popularity of the theory of small steps, which was first adopted by Toyota. Hailed as an ideal way to achieve continuous improvement, it has stood the test of many industries and services, but also of daily life, successfully used to address challenges such as raising children. But do the tried-and-tested “baby steps” of Japanese kaizen that we value so much really work in every situation?

If you want to become agile, it is important how you start. Or, put differently, what you need is an initial “impulse”, without which most of the blessings of small steps will never come to fruition. And this is where another Japanese word comes in: kaikaku. Kaikaku is not the opposite of kaizen; rather, it refers to a sudden, radical change that creates the conditions for further continuous improvement.

This approach is now several decades old, so you would be excused for thinking it should be common knowledge among managers. But that’s not the case. So let us pause for a moment and ask ourselves: why is there no kaikaku (why do we more or less consciously avoid this approach?) when we have come to a wall (with our baby steps) and need to bring it down to be able to go further?

There are several reasons for this; they may occur together or separately. Below, let me talk about the three most common.

The Łódź Revolt – the new approach is not going to work here

While kaizen introduces change as the last stage of the process, kaikaku requires mature decision-making at the highest levels of power. This is evidenced by what happened in Łódź at the dawn of the technological age, when cotton mill owners in Łódź first got the idea of replacing people with machines.

Their decision sparked riots, resulting in widespread damage and human tragedy. The events still remain deeply etched in the minds of business decision-makers today. Any change in work methodology or technology management today…seems like a nightmare. In fact, however, the problem is not change as such, but our inability to manage it.

As a side note, two of the leaders of the revolt, Franciszek Kindermann and Juliusz Hinzel, later realised that times had changed and accepted the new technology; both rose to become famous manufacturers and owned factories with automated production lines. This part is often glossed over in history books, which is a shame, because the story shows that our thinking can change.

Unfortunately, our fear of ill-managed change means that as we come to the limit of what our old methodology can do, we still hesitate to change our ways. What we engage in instead is “wishful” thinking; we tell ourselves that the new approach surely won’t work for us, because we have always done just what we are doing now and it has always worked. This mantra protects us from having to manage change and facing the possible dissatisfaction of our clients. That’s what happened at Kodak.

The company was a pioneer in digital photography and then…abandoned its invention and decided to focus on what had always been its domain to avoid potential resistance from its customer base. This is the reason why it is often so difficult to shift from feudal-style to agile management, even though the latter better matches the challenges of the present day. After all, why should we get mired in a morass of resistance, persuasion, experimentation and educating our employees? 

Responsibility is a sword of Damocles

Encouraging organic change from the ground up makes management feel rather safe. In more than one sense. First, it creates an impression that something is being done; after all, everyone has heard that continuous improvement is allowed. And second, if anything does go wrong, or nothing at all happens, we immediately know where to put the blame.

This way of thinking, however, misses one crucial thing. In order for small changes to create synergy and bring your business to a higher level of productivity, you need to create the right conditions. Someone may think of a better way to rearrange Jira columns to visualise workflow (the Kanban method), but that won’t do much good if the waterfall model has long defined your tasks and deadlines.

Creating the right conditions is a matter of decision-making and responsibility. Your approach to responsibility is an incredibly important element of your organisational culture which, as we know, is always built from the top down.

If you expect your employees to take ownership of small changes, you first need to show that their leaders have the courage to take ownership of change on a correspondingly greater scale. Managers should internalise the idea of extreme ownership, a concept introduced by Willink Jocko and Babin Leif in “Extreme Leadership”.

The bottom line is that the best leaders never stop at taking ownership of just their own work. They take ownership of everything that affects their mission. When their subordinates fail to do what they should, leaders who believe in extreme ownership cannot blame them; instead they should look in the mirror. This is called RESPONSIBILITY.

“C”-people and the ego

The third reason has to do with our psychology, so disliked by many managers. If it is true that there exists another, more effective way of doing things, managing people, manufacturing, etc., then our current one might not be the best.

This is not always the case, but our unbridled ego will tell us so, only to whisper, a moment later, that that’s in fact impossible, there can be no better way. After all, we already have the best methodology: it was invented or cultivated by our ego. This is one of the most common mechanisms at play in situations of little or no change. More often than not, the more effective a manager once used to be, the more resistant they will be to change, basking in the dusty glow of their former glory, which makes them question all that is new and different.

We have all probably heard a manager say something along the lines of “Agility? Give me a break. I was a manager before you were born and I know better”. That way of thinking is a defence mechanism that protects a fragile ego from having to confront an unknown reality.

For people who depend on it, a need for change will come across as a personal attack: “they are telling me I should change this. So what I’m doing now is wrong. No, that’s impossible. I am a director, after all”. This eliminates the risk of failing at the new way of doing things. A fear of ineptitude is one of the greatest fears experienced by adults. We are lucky it never affects children, or else few would ever learn to walk or tie their shoelaces. What is particularly dangerous about this defence mechanism is that it operates in the background and remains invisible to us.

So even those who loudly preach the need to move mountains can quickly come up with “rational” arguments to leave them where they are. Sounds irrational? Well, we’re not always logical creatures. If you want to read more about ego-managers, Radosław Drzewiecki’s book “Strategia Lean” is a good place to start. And since the Lean method is a forerunner of, and inspiration for, all agile methodologies, you should have a peek at that book, especially if you are interested in business agility.

Shifting responsibility to your team

Companies often fail to communicate the process of change well and instead issue commands. I would like to quote one such communication, which caused surprise and met with strong resistance from employers, in a sort of a modern version of the Łódź revolt. A director once called all department staff (c. 40 people) to a meeting and announced: “This is your Scrum coach. He will train you and, next month, we will start working with the agile method to boost performance. Now go and study. Good luck”. Unfortunately, he never asked anyone how to do it well…

Some try to evade responsibility for change altogether by shifting it to their team and calling it “self-organisation” (a real buzzword today). I have recently heard a boss throw this word around, brandishing out-of-context quotes from Jurgen Appelo, as he complained about the lack of change in his organisation, even though he had previously allowed his teams to self-organise. He thought nobody appreciated that and he changed nothing.

Implementing agility of becoming agile?

But is there any remedy to this situation? Fortunately, there is, even though it requires a great deal of good will and…courage. So let’s think about where to start.

When we work with our Clients, large financial institutions and mid-sized companies alike, we always emphasise that, in our pursuit of agility, we first need to have a very good plan for what we want to happen in the future. Later on, these plans may fail more than once, but before we start out, we really must look at the coming change from as many angles as we can.

You can use the Dice Dilemma® method (which involves a sequential, iterative and increasingly in-depth analysis of various perspectives on a given situation) or organise a moderated strategy session: what is important is that you look at different points of view that are close in spirit to the agile methodology, such as systems theory and complexity theory, as well as the psychosocial mechanisms that are sure to come up during your kaikaku. This is best done with the help of experts and external consultants.

They will take care of the process, so that decision-makers can focus on their business. One necessary element of the plan involves the effective marketing of change (communication plan) within the organisation. After all, managers are not the only ones who fear the new. And, what will our kaikaku do without proper planning? Ask the weavers of Łódź.

From our experience, an advantage of agile transformation is that the process of transition is in itself a great lesson. Your path from initial planning to becoming truly agile in your day-to-day business (I promise you) will abound in changes: say hello to the inspection-adaptation cycle because it is here to stay. It will also be a lesson on how small changes should be introduced.

Your decision and agile transformation plan are a kaikaku, a big qualitative change; for many, it will be seen as turning the world order upside down. Metaphorically, it will set out on a new direction. As a result, you will need to make tons of small corrections, kaizens, in response to current developments. And even before your transformation is over, you will have already gained lots of agile skills. Because businesses don’t implement agility – they become agile.

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The real secret behind effective transformation is a balance between revolutionary change and later evolutionary improvement. No organisation would survive constant revolutionary change. Nor would it stay at the top without taking a few bold decisions along the way. If you want to know how to make a permanent habit of agility in your approach to…everything and how to cope with an overactive ego, read the next instalment in this series.

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