Author: Derwyn Harris

Use Sociocracy to Scale Agile Organizationally

We are at an important juncture in the evolution of product delivery. Agile methodologies have lost sight of some of the core values, and not enough people are using social technology to fully realize Agile’s potential.

Agile, once hailed as the answer to development woes, has become a source of contention and debate. Organizations with larger, more complex projects struggle to adopt Agile. Some organizations won’t even try due to formal processes designed to ensure the projects meet regulations, follow contracts and avoid costly mistakes. This is especially true in industries where the final product includes hardware that can’t easily be built iteratively. 

Despite these concerns, isolated teams within organizations continue to implement Agile where possible. This inevitably is worse because it creates a disconnect between the teams operating within Agile and the rest of the organization.

A lot of these issues are because Agile methodologies are designed around small-team, single-location, software-specific constraints such as sticky notes, standups, and iterative working software. Because of these constraints, Agile methodologies continue to fall short, failing to extend sufficiently beyond engineering to include the wide range of stakeholders impacted by product delivery within the organization. 

There are solutions to these issues, one of which is a concept called sociocracy. The primary problem stated above is that communication is isolated to the specific teams using Agile. Lines of communications necessary for change to occur, and for decisions to be made, are not efficient enough within traditional corporate hierarchies. Sociocracy provides organizations the ability to streamline channels of communication by creating overlapping “circles” and “double-linking.” Circles are groups solely responsibility for a goal, such as a sprint. Double-linking ensures that representatives in each overlapping circle are present. This is not simply having a manager present in one circle to listen in. Double-linking ensures that communications and decisions are relayed quickly, without losing information or causing confusion. This becomes increasingly powerful as you look beyond the traditional product team to include other groups, such as sales, marketing or external stakeholders that before felt excluded from the decision process. 

A good exercise is to write down each perceived circle within your organization. This could be any group with a specific set of goals, such as an engineering team responsible for a sprint, or the company board of directors. 

Next, connect how they communicate and determine who represents the double-linking. Chances are you will find either a single person who is acting as a single-link in many circles, or no direct overlap at all. This is where the communication breakdown begins and is the primary reason why Agile fails. This problem is exponential as the size of the organization or complexity of the product increases. 

In summary, sociocracy is a system designed to incorporate the principles of agile (collaboration and interaction) on a much broader scale. This will ultimately help organizations become more nimble by focusing on the lines of communication rather than on methodologies that don’t scale.

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Getting Buy-In and Engagement For New Requirements-Management Environments

To effect change, market a process not as something new, but as something everyone is doing already. Whether your organization follows the organic or top-down approach, appeal to human nature to drive adoption of new processes and tools.

In a recent webinar on elements of successful requirements management, one of the attendees asked a question I hear all the time: “How do you get people to buy-in and participate, actively collaborate, in a new RM environment?” 

Essentially, when it comes to adopting new processes or tools, how can one help effect change in an organization? Individuals take time to learn best practices—they attend webinars, read books and articles—and get inspired to apply them at work. 

Then they face the daunting task of getting the new thing adopted. Sad to say, change is ultimately a difficult task made even more difficult by human nature. People resist change, especially within the corporate world. 

Traditionally, change can be accomplished in two ways.

The first is the ground-up, or organic, approach, in which an individual evangelizes and implements a solution for the team. This has distinct advantages because it can be more controlled and ultimately more focused. However, this process can result in cross-department conflicts or disenfranchisement by people not part of the process but who are directly impacted by the change. The resulting confusion can bring more harm to the organization as a whole, than the gains realized by the small group.

The alternate approach is a more top-down approach, wherein a corporate directive (with numerous committees and meetings) is set to standardize on a process or toolset. The advantages here are clear: providing an alignment between teams or departments. Of course, there are also issues. Selecting a universal approach or tool potentially disenfranchises large groups of people who were not part of the decision process or simply find themselves required to do more work than before in order to incorporate the new process (even when there are clear gains from doing so). Word documents are a perfect example. Although a document is by far the simplest tool for capturing written information, the long-term impact of multiple documents (organizing, updating, collaborating on, extracting information from) can be costly. Moving to a new solution may require additional time for entry, but the broader perspective is a positive gain.

So, both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Neither is that effective.

So what can be done to improve the success of process change? Again let’s embrace an equally basic truth about human nature. Humans inherently desire to feel connected. They also desire to have that shiny new object.

A recent article in the Boston Globe describes how to effect change.

The two quotes that caught my eye:

  • “To really change how a group of people thinks and behaves, it turns out, you don’t need to change what’s inside of them, or appeal to their inner sense of virtue. You just have to convince them that everybody else is doing it.”
  • “The pressure to conform to what is typical … tends to be stronger than the pressure to follow top-down rules.”

With this in mind, market the change not as something new, but as something that everyone is doing already. Do this whether your organization follows the organic or the top-down approach.

Once you consider the early adopters, and the shiny-new-object factor, effecting change becomes simply a matter of tapping into that cool factor that makes things more interesting. When selecting a new tool, consider the user interface, intuitiveness and the cool factor as part of the decision process. These attributes will draw people in naturally and create the necessary groundswell for widespread adoption.

It will help to work with marketing or management to alert the organization that teams are being successful with change and others should follow.

In summary, change will not be truly accomplished with force, regardless of the approach. Human nature is part of the process, and we work better when we feel that our work is enjoyable and when we are connected with our coworkers.

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