Not long ago I posted a series of myths and realities about Agile on my LinkedIn account. While many in the business world talk about Agile ways of working, how accurate is the information we think we know? Are you confusing an Agile myth with reality? In June, I shared an article on the Agile Mindset and what a person needs to truly be agile. I would like to follow up by sharing my top 6 Agile myths:
agile myths debunked
 

MYTH #1: AGILE IS A SET OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORKS

REALITY: Agile is primarily a culture, a way of thinking and acting.

  • The biggest and most common mistake and the reason that many fail at implementing Agile in organizations comes from focusing on the DOING Agile without working on the BEING Agile.
  • Implementing Scrum, Design Thinking, Hackathons, Lean, Kanban and other Agile frameworks will not be sufficient to be Agile.

 

MYTH #2: LEADERS ARE NOT NEEDED IN AGILE

REALITY: True…and false.

  • Agile needs leaders, but not where they might usually spend their time and energy.
  • Their role is to drive and foster the appropriate ecosystem and culture. They must genuinely inspire themselves first and then their people with a compelling Purpose, Vision, and Strategy that can guide decisions and actions. This is not a minor role. An Agile organization could not exist without these leaders.
  • In Agile, coaching leaders to empower their people by decentralizing decisions, control, and accountability to the point closest to action.
  • To put it in other terms, leaders move from the pilot seat to the co-pilot one.
  • Top management is often unconsciously the main barrier or intentionally the key enabler of BEING Agile more than being directly involved in Agile projects.

 

Myth #3: AGILE IS BETTER AND FASTER. Its role is to increase the speed of decisions and actions.

REALITY: Speed of decision and action is part of a predefined daily and weekly planning but is not a goal. Value delivery to customers comes before timing.
 

Myth #4: AGILE IS ABOUT PRODUCING MORE, QUICKER, AND CHEAPER

REALITY: Big mistake. Agile optimizes value delivery and customer satisfaction first, not just productivity and efficiency.
 

Myth #5: AGILE IS PERMANENT INSTABILITY MANAGEMENT

REALITY: Agile’s pre-defined cadence and framework are highly predictable. You know in real-time how the team is tracking against objectives with daily baby steps, one at a time, with clear objectives. This approach makes manageable permanent changes and instability with iterative adaptations, learning and improving from mistakes/successes with clear metrics from customer feedback.
 

Myth #6:  WE DON’T NEED AGILE COACHES. Agile Coach = Scrum Master

REALITY: Agile is about people before processes and the Agile Coach is here to help the team adopt effective mindsets and behaviors individually and as a team: Agile is a way of thinking, acting, and interacting.

  • The functions of a Scrum Master are to carry out all those projects that use a Scrum methodology from the elaboration of the product backlog, sprint backlog, the sprint itself, and the burndown of the tasks carried out and everything that remains pending.

 

Conclusion

Agile does not have to be a buzzword. It is what you need it to be. don’t copy/paste what others do. Find what works in your organization. BE the agility you want to see in your organization: Agile is not a destination it is a mindset and a way of working together.

Have you ever lived a glorious leadership offsite, where you felt in your bones the newly forged bond with your peers, your mission as a company, and your dreams about the constructive culture you were going to lead by example? How long did that euphoria last? How far did that momentum take you and your team before the friction of ‘business as usual’ slowly and painfully eroded enthusiasm and brought you back to the grind? Were your commitments to each other strong enough to endure the first breakdowns post-summit? In this second article of a 3 part series, we explain the focus of the next 100 days of the new leadership team in its safe descent back to base camp.
In the first article of this series, we laid out what we believe makes a clear roadmap to success for the first 100 days of a CEO and the ‘new’ leadership team that results from the appointment. We shared the lessons gleaned from accompanying team members through five stages, along individual and collective tracks, all the way from base camp to the peak. We find the metaphor of a climbing expedition a fair reflection of the effort it takes to build trust, manage conflict, reach commitments, uphold accountability and focus on collective results. Good expeditions reach the summit and celebrate that feat, for sure. However, great expeditions believe that reaching the peak is but another step in the journey.
Given the importance of the next steps and inspired by Fred Kofman’s Four D’s, which he described in his book “The Meaning Revolution”, we work to ensure that teams return to business as usual in a masterful way.
 

DEFINE the standards of behavior

next 100 days of the new leadership teamOne of the first outcomes of the leadership team journey described in the first article is that participants can clearly articulate who they want to be and what they are going to do differently. How would they achieve better results if they simply continued to do the same old, same old? The norms about how people are expected to behave at an organization are what we call their desired culture. Therefore, explicitly stating how everyone is expected to act could be considered their cultural manifesto.
 
How are leaders expected to lead in this culture? The honest, specific response to this question by the top leaders defines their so-called leadership manifesto. These are just two examples of how a leadership team can explain the standards, so their aspirations become something they can measure, discuss, and disseminate. These need to be more than just posters on a wall.
 

DEMONSTRATE the standards of behavior

The shadow of the leader is long; therefore, the leadership team needs to walk the talk. Declaring how they expect to act is one thing, while actually doing what they declare is another. Paraphrasing Gandhi, the team that reached the peak needs to become the change they wished to see when they defined the behavioral standards for the company. They must be willing to share their struggles and their accomplishments as they learn to live and embody the defined standards. To this day, we found nothing more powerful than leading by example.
 

DEMAND the standards of behavior

The standards that the leaders defined are of no use if every single member of the team does not uphold them. As standards usually express an aspiration, there is typically a gap between where they are and where they want to be. That is OK if they show curiosity about the impact that having that gap has on others. It becomes part of the learning process as long as they explicitly link their actions to their attempts at bridging that gap. Holding people accountable shows that they are serious about their manifestos. They can do this by discussing breakdowns to learn from struggles and actively catching people doing the right thing.
 

DELEGATE accountability for the standards

When everybody holds everyone else (including the leaders) accountable for behaving according to the set standards, there is an intentional ripple effect. Leaders who take this return to base camp seriously grant everyone permission to call them out if they do not behave according to their leadership manifesto. There are no double standards. The culture manifesto naturally becomes ‘the way we do things around here’ without a second guess. The expected behaviors become the norm. Aspired culture becomes the actual, current culture. Another way of calling this D is “Disseminate”, as it empowers more leaders to be culture carriers and scales up the new leadership standards. It means facilitating an environment where others can empower themselves to shape the culture and become responsible for propagating it by repeatedly demonstrating, demanding, and delegating accountability in a virtuous cycle.
 
These four D’s are a simple-to-understand, challenging-to-execute process for establishing or revamping culture norms at your company. Stay tuned for this series’ third and last article to learn what happens to this new CEO and leadership team in their Next Normal. See you there!

The first 100 days of any CEO are usually a watershed moment for the new incumbent, the leadership team, and the company. In this article, first in a series of three, we lay out what we believe makes a clear roadmap to success. We have accompanied numerous executive committees through this new leadership team journey. Their powerful testimonials about its contribution to achieving extraordinary business results, improving team cohesiveness, and growing as individual leaders, inspired us to share the approach more broadly for others who may benefit from the lessons learned.
This unique journey is like a climbing voyage, with all eyes on the summit. However, the climb starts at base camp, that meeting place where we begin the expedition and prepare for a daring feat. Here is where we encourage them to discuss crucial questions in a metaphorical fireside chat:
▶️ To whom are we roped? new leadership team journey
▶️ What are we climbing for?
▶️ What unnecessary weight can we leave at the foot of the mountain?
▶️ What will we hang on to when things go awry?
The answers to these questions set up the expedition for success. But before they start, the team needs to carefully choose what they will take in their backpacks and what to leave behind. So load doesn’t turn to burden, each member of the team needs to ask themselves the following:
▶️ What skill sets can I contribute to this expedition?
▶️ Which abilities should I acquire or enhance?
▶️ What baggage am I carrying that can become a liability?
▶️ Which frameworks, experiences, and techniques can be helpful?
Once the leader’s backpack is ready, it is vital to help the team get their own ready as well. This may be the moment to consider finding trustworthy guides to lighten the load and get well equipped for the climb. At Axialent, you will find seasoned ‘Sherpas’ for journeys like this, who ascend alongside each individual participant and equip them with the necessary tools that will help them identify their own assets and liabilities as climbers.
 

Then they are ready to climb!

At Axialent, we’ve increasingly set out to reach the leadership team summit in five stages, inspired by the work of Patrick Lencioni on cohesive teams:

  1. We always begin with trust. Without it, the way forward will be overly cumbersome. Building trust will help us every step of the way.
  2. When there is trust, we can deal with conflict constructively. We see conflict on a spectrum, where both extremes (denying conflict out of avoidance, to downright explosion) are unhealthy.
  3. A team that manages conflict constructively can truly commit. Authentic commitments require a clear request, an equally explicit acceptance of the request, and all team members’ buy-in.
  4. Practicing accountability is the next stage. The team embraces it to ensure their commitments are honored, even (or especially) when they cannot fulfill them.
  5. The expedition reaches the peak when it can focus on its collective results rather than the individual goals of its members.

 

Two tracks across the five stages of the leadership team journey

We like to say that we climb these stages with the CEO and their team following two distinct, yet interwoven paths: the individual and the collective tracks. Each leader works individually with a personal coach (who we called Sherpa above) on their development goals. In the collective track, the leadership group participates in team coaching to work on their dynamics and interactions as a group. These collective sessions are often co-facilitated by the different Sherpas assigned to the various members of the team to allow for diverse vantage points for richer observation and broader context.
We approach each of the five stages based on the following premise: as experts, we reserve the professional judgment to draw on the frameworks, distinctions, and techniques that will build the skills and capability that each team requires at a given point in time. How do we know? By running individual and group diagnostics upfront and at the end of each journey. This provides rich context to draw on, thus shaping the content to fit this particular team like no other.
At Axialent, one of our deeply held principles is believing in context before content. We go one step further. We also believe in connection before context. Therefore, when we accompany a leadership team in their first 100 days to the summit, we make it a point to start with a virtual coffee where each expedition member meets and greets the Sherpa who will be ‘climbing’ with them.
In the next couple of weeks, we will share the next article of this series, where we explain what happens at the peak and how the new CEO can tackle the leadership team’s safe descent back to base camp. Stay tuned for the Next 100 Days of a new CEO!

All organizations are facing disruption within their markets and business models. Most of them are trying to adapt and keep the pace with cutting-edge organizations that are transforming consumer behaviors, creating new wants and needs in the market, introducing exponential technologies, evolving into digital, and raising the bar every day on how to do and conduct business. Transforming a business requires shifting our perception about how we see and understand reality. We need to update our own operating system and cultivate an innovation mindset.
 

Innovation is king in this era, whether we are ready or not

 
When working with leaders and organizations, they often ask: how can we be more innovative? How can we change and transform our business? What will motivate our people to want to try to innovate? How do we develop a culture of innovation in our organization?
Developing an innovation mindsetWhen we start to explore innovation in organizations, we discover that different people have different understandings about what it means and takes to develop a culture of innovation. Digital transformation and innovation are often talked about together, however, innovation is a much broader concept.
There are endless definitions of what innovation is. In the end, what they all have in common is “doing something different that adds value.” In my experience, what organizations mean when talking about innovation is “challenging the status quo.” They are referring to challenging their people to think and do things differently. This can apply to any dimension of an organization. It means bringing to life a disruptive idea that can give them a competitive advantage among the rest of the players in the market.
If you want to embrace a culture of innovation, you have to do more than just communicate it or create a set of initiatives.  It involves creating the right environment for people to believe that they are expected and encouraged to test, learn, adjust, and implement new ideas that will enrich their value proposition.
Innovation begins when leaders successfully adopt an innovation mindset. Mindsets are the set of values and beliefs that underpin our behaviors. They are the filters through which we interpret reality and give meaning to our world.  They guide and condition our behaviors. The first step to innovating is believing we can.
 

Some key elements of an innovation mindset:

 

  • We can all innovate. “We are not in the innovative team” or “I am not creative” type of thinking kills ideas before they are even born. It prevents us from harnessing the team’s creativity and coming up with and implementing alternative solutions for everyday challenges. With the right toolbox and a safe environment, we can all learn how to innovate and expand our abilities.
  • Innovation: not just good ideas. Coming up with an idea is just the first step of the process. The hardest part is executing those ideas. When it comes to innovation, there are structured processes and methodologies that will enable execution and guide us in the process: from coming up with an idea, designing an MVP (minimum viable product), testing it, learning from its outcomes, and adapting the learnings into a new version of the product before we are ready to scale it.
  • Take calculated risks. Be ready for setbacks. Innovating implies stepping out of our comfort zone and trying new things that we have never done before. It means taking a risk and the associated cost that comes with failure. But failure brings learnings that are crucial to improving and growing. Fostering curiosity, asking questions to learn from other’s experiences, and failure is imperative for innovation.
  • Dream big, start small with ruthless determination. The sky is the limit when envisioning the future. An inspiring vision will fuel your passion and determination. Starting small makes things easier to achieve and helps us conquer quick wins and learning points to keep going.
  • Progress, not perfection: Strive for continuous improvement through repeated experiment cycles. We are not looking to nail it from day 1, we are looking to pursue continuous improvement.

When we think about developing an innovation mindset, it seems like common sense. However, it is easier said than done. In our experience, the biggest challenge to developing a culture of innovation within an organization is the leaders’ inability to develop an innovation mindset.
When we start shifting our mindsets, we start changing our culture.

In the first article of this series, we shared the specific challenges we witnessed when launching an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. In the second article, we shared our thinking around the principles that informed our approach. Now in this third and last article of the series, we share the top lessons we learned alongside the participants and sponsors of this journey.
 

What we would keep doing

    1. Preserve the spirit of wholehearted co-creation. As a consulting firm, we have our proven methods and tools. However, we chose to be highly vigilant and not drink our own Kool-Aid. Show me practitioners who have only a handful of red lines and are willing to adjust everything else on their book, and I will show you professionals who truly put clients first.
    2. When working with top leadership, there is a weight attached to their positions – conscious or unconscious. We genuinely strive to connect from human to human, scrapping all titles. Now we insist more often that leadership journeys begin with coach and coachee sharing a virtual coffee, free from agenda, simply for the sake of connecting.
    3. We will continue to act on feedback as if our lives depended on it. This is no minor task. The distinction between integrating feedback and accepting to do everything your client asks for is not commonly understood. It takes serious preparation.
    4. We will always honor the past AND look forward with curiosity.

Is Agile Shaping Your Culture by Accident or by DesignAllow me to emphasize this fourth lesson for a moment. Agile is often presented as the remedy that will heal all corporate ailments. This is overly simplistic, and some may even consider it an insult to their intelligence. However, the natural tendency of this person is to sway to the other end of the pendulum and negate any benefit of the new way of working. This, too, is foolish.
Many leaders feel trapped in a false dilemma because they think they are facing an either-or choice when we present the gap ‘From-To’. Either we are pro-command and control OR anti-command and control. When we introduced polarity thinking, this subliminal tension dissipated. We honor where we are coming from AND (not OR) acknowledge that moving forward, we need to do some things differently. In Dr. Marshall Goldsmith’s words, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It was no longer a problem with a single solution (agile or bust) but rather a polarity to manage. For leaders, that meant they needed to maximize the time spent on the benefits of agile and the benefits of what preceded it, instead of viewing agile as a new, unquestionable dogma.
 

If we could take a Mulligan…

If you’re not familiar with golf, the term Mulligan means a ‘do-over’. It’s a second try given to a player, without penalty, after a first stroke that did not go well. So, if we were granted a Mulligan, there are some things we wouldn’t have done or that we would have done less.
 

What we would do differently

  1. We are executive coaches, so we didn’t think it was necessary to connect with the agile coaches in the organization. We figured that our work was different. In hindsight, this was a missed opportunity to join forces. In future assignments, we would make it a point to connect the ‘do-agile’ and ‘be-agile’ parties.
  2. We took the sponsor’s brief for granted. Our prototyping, co-creating approach saved the day in the end, as it allowed us to pivot from the original learning journey design. Nevertheless, in the future, we would push for an if-then scenario planning. If the brief is accurate, we will deploy plan A; if it isn’t, we will go with plan B.
  3. We used an in-house feedback tool. We knew it was not ideal and we wouldn’t compromise on it again. A robust feedback tool provides participants excellent traction for change. It is paramount to select it with care.
  4. The preliminary design allowed several weeks between group workshops, and only two individual coaching sessions per participant seemed sufficient. Experience tells us that it is far more effective to shorten the time between team sessions to keep the cohorts focused and on-task. It would also be wise to dedicate a higher number of individual coaching sessions than we had initially planned.

 
These are the lessons we learned behind the scenes of one of the boldest adoptions of agile in a non-tech industry. Are there any lessons that you would like to share around leadership development in an agile context? Have you had similar experiences or were they entirely different? Let us know in the comments! We would love to have a mutual learning conversation with you.

In the first article of this series, we shared the specific challenges we witnessed when launching an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. At Axialent, we deliberately expose and analyze ‘the gap’ before we intervene. We call it the ‘From-To’. It helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem and empathize with our clients as we embark on co-designing the solution with them. In this second article, we share our thinking around the principles that informed our approach to this Agile leadership journey.

The Journey

Following is an illustration of the Agile leadership journey:
 

It consisted of three collective workshops, each a few weeks apart, and individual coaching sessions in between them. During these 1:1 encounters, the coach and participant worked on the coachee’s commitment to experimenting with his/her behavioral change. Full disclosure: this structure was presented to us as a suggestion based on successful deployment at the Executive level with another business partner. We took it on to adapt, test, and learn further with the remaining top-200 leaders (executives included).
 

The Participants

 
The first aspect of this program was defining the target audience. Traditionally, our client would offer leadership development programs at their corporate university campus, as the location where they ‘built culture’. They liked to mingle leaders from around their geographical footprint, resulting in diverse cohorts that did not necessarily work together daily. This had its pros. However, we wanted to test a new approach: we directed this program at intact teams, meaning leadership teams that worked together every day. We believed that this would allow them to have more earnest conversations around real-life challenges that affected them all directly. The most significant plus for us was that they could make commitments that genuinely mattered to their shared agenda. Participants would be primed for mutual accountability.
 

Cadence

 
agile team workingThe second aspect that made this program different was that it was not designed as the typical immersive, residential, intensive x-day workshop. Instead, we scheduled shorter interventions several weeks apart. This design was deployed before the pandemic, so the sessions were held face-to-face. Nevertheless, this concept has survived to this day as a valid structure for most of our hybrid or purely online leadership development journeys.
 

Test & Learn

 
Another principle we followed was a prototyping approach of sorts. We ran pilots for each group intervention and led retrospectives where feedback was gathered from participants as if our lives depended on it. We moved past the typical satisfaction survey and got extremely curious about the participants’ experiences. Which were their ‘a-ha’ moments and pain points? When did they flow? With whom did they connect? What did they learn? This provided a wealth of feedback that we integrated into the last legs of the journey.
 

Shared Accountability

Lastly, we took a shared responsibility approach to facilitation. Both coaches and participants were responsible for the best use of the group’s time together. This is not a new concept, but it gained even more traction as we added elements to the program that emphasized this approach: each program milestone ended in commitments, draft experiments, individual and collective action plans, and a learning buddy system for participants to hold each other accountable for their learning goals. The burden was not on the facilitator; we equally distributed it among all involved. And in teams where circumstances changed mid-journey, both leaders and their facilitators jointly decided how they would shape the agenda differently moving forward.
 
As you can imagine, some things worked, and some things did not click at first. Far from disappointing us, we confirmed that the approach was valid: prototype, test, gather feedback, integrate it, learn, and share the responsibility to improve iteratively and incrementally. This was an agile learning journey after all. We would not have it any other way. Or would we? In the next and last article of this series, we will share the top lessons we learned alongside our clients as we deployed this leadership journey.
 
We look forward to exchanging points of view and continuing to learn together if you’d like to comment below!
 

Doing agile is challenging but being agile is transformative. Where is the right place to start? There is no one right answer. But first things first. What is the difference between doing agile and being agile?

Doing Agile

Agile is not a methodology; it is a mindset you can apply in your life and your way of doing business. Agile is common in the software development industry, but any industry can use and benefit from the agile mindset. For me, doing agile is about implementing specific behaviors or ways of doing business based on four values and twelve principles (the Agile Manifesto). Therefore, a way to do agile is to implement frameworks or methods that are very powerful to organize, collaborate and prioritize tasks and workflows in a team such as Scrum or Kanban.
Most teams try this approach. I don’t think it is wrong, but I do think it is incomplete. When teams focus just on using SCRUM, they forget why they are implementing agile. In other words, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Agile is not about speed. It is about producing better outcomes for the business in a rapidly changing world. For example, a team measures the number of new features (outputs), rather than new subscribers (outcomes). It is okay to have deliverables, but new features do not guarantee business results.

Being Agile

Being agile, on the other hand, is about transforming your mindset. It has to do with how you understand the world. It encourages a new way of leading teams, developing a product, or testing ideas. Being agile is transformative because it forces us to put the customer first and focus on developing the things that matter.

Why Being Agile is So Hard

Being Agile is common sense, but not common practice. It goes back to the Waterfall Project Management framework. This way of managing was created during the industrial revolution. The goal was to find the best way to optimize a production line. Things are different now because the speed of change is so high that companies need to adapt every day. And what is tricky about change is that it’s not so fun. Change means constantly learning and coping with uncertainty. And learning with the wrong mindset means failing, which touches our insecurities.
doing agile vs being agile
I remember coaching a Product Manager to include an experimentation mindset in their agile sprints. In order to do this, she had to coordinate experiments with a team of UX designers and developers. The team was struggling because everyone wanted to have everything perfect. It’s okay to pursue doing things right. The problem is when perfection is a way to keep your work within your comfort zone. For example, their focus was on having the perfect design or the perfect line of code. Instead, they should have been trying to understand the impact their new features would have on their customer. But they preferred to focus on what was less scary for them: the technical output.
Everyone had a reason for this. The PM was new to the role, so she did not want to measure outcomes because, for her, that meant she did not understand the customer well enough, and she was not ready for the role. The developer did not want to measure outcomes either because his job was to make a button work and get that perfect algorithm. He did not see himself as having to change the customer behavior. The UX designers did not want to test with mockups. Instead, they had to do things properly and follow their internal procedures as good design mandates.
This makes sense because it is harder to commit to impact customer behavior (outcome) than to produce an output. It is hard because apparently, the former is not under the team’s control. And this is true if you look through perfectionist lenses, but it is not the only way.

The Simple Solution

Sorry, there is no simple solution. But there is a solution. I will summarize some key points, but I also want to anticipate that agile means implementing a profound cultural transformation and that is a complex process that takes time.
As a manager, you need to accept the impact of working under agile. You cannot ask teams to use Kanban but have a two-year roadmap of features that the team needs to develop. Instead, it would be best if you adopt a learner mindset. As Jeff Gothelf says, you are creating an infinite product. A product that is constantly evolving with the market, and you can’t know what the market will want in two years. A learner mindset implies testing and learning (failing) repeatedly.
Second, test and learn is tough if you don’t create psychological safety for your team to explore the unknown. This is a new way of leading in which leaders need to be capable of having crucial conversations to understand what failure means for each individual on his/her team. The best way to incentivize this is to stop appraising faster outputs, but faster learning cycles. Retrospectives or reflections are crucial but do not focus only on technical issues. Explore the individual dimension. This can start with a simple question: How did you feel during the experiment?
Finally, as a leader, you need to create a shared vision where everyone understands that a line of code impacts the company’s ROI. You need to be consistent and aligned with the results you demand. It is okay to have clear objectives and key results (OKRs), but they should be centered on changing customer behavior.

Conclusion

To sum up, being agile can sound cool and imperative, especially in these crazy times. Sometimes we want a quick solution — we might think agile can be the vaccine to get everything under control again. But things do not go back to normal with quick fixes. Conscious leadership is more relevant than ever. We need to change our mindsets, being players and learners who take care of each other at every step of the way. That is, for me, the best way to be agile.

At Axialent, we are not experts in Agile. Our expertise lies in helping organizations build the cultures they require, in light of their business strategy, and develop their leaders to be living proxies of that culture. In the last two decades, agile has emerged as an unstoppable practice among organizations, and it is changing their cultures. The question for us is: are you managing the resulting culture change intentionally? Is agile shaping your culture by accident or by design?
agile shaping your cultureAdopting an agile way of working can be fraught with challenges. We experienced this first hand when we launched an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. I’d like to share the lessons we learned behind the scenes of what was probably the most audacious adoption of agile in a non-tech industry. We accompanied the top 200 leaders of this organization, in 24 cohorts, across 11 countries, in a 6-month long journey that combined coaching them individually and as leadership teams. This gave us a privileged vantage point to observe their struggles and the gaps they were trying to bridge.
In this first article of a series, we will focus on the specific challenges we witnessed, because we follow this principle: ‘no gap, no coaching.’ Clarifying the gap before we intervene helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem, empathize with our client, and offer higher chances of finding an adequate solution to prototype, test, and learn.
Here are some of the conclusions we reached after exposing the gap:
 

1. Agile brings about a new leadership paradigm and not just a more effective way of working.

It is hard to imagine companies embarking on an agile transformation and taking it lightly. They aim to become much better in terms of quality, time-to-market, productivity, and, above all, employee engagement. Most believe that adopting agile unleashes talent, makes team members accountable and generates one-team dynamics. Other firms might be driving a similar shift, but they’re not calling it an agile transformation. The name is not what matters. Beyond the rituals and ceremonies they adopt, or the frameworks they embrace, the essence of today’s business transformations lies in changing how leadership is felt, conceived, and performed, in a way that is radically different. This happens in most cultural transformations. The difference that agile brings is the context.

2. From rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership to servant leadership 

In this company’s context, the gap for leaders was shifting from a rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership style to a servant leadership style. This change required the top-most executives to give up being the center of the organization. They were now expected to be at the service of the teams who worked closer to their clients than the leaders ever were. They were supposed to coach those teams, instead of giving them detailed instructions. Leaders’ main focus now had to be on removing any and all obstacles that prevented those teams from delivering value to the customer as quickly and effectively as possible. Even if those obstacles were the leaders themselves.
Can you see how counter-intuitive this could be for an executive who climbed the ranks by being a good soldier, was promoted for being a great soldier, and just as he or she was about to reach the summit of a 2-decade-or-more climb is told ‘sorry, the glory is down there?’

3. From micromanagement to  autonomy, engagement, and empowerment 

For employees, the central gap was shifting from a culture of micromanagement to one where autonomy, engagement and empowerment are expected, exercised, and promoted. The intention was to evolve from being managed and having linear career expectations to self-managing themselves and their own career. Why? Because this company believed that it would help them shift from feeling resignation, skepticism, and fear of feedback to feeling engaged, empowered, and looking at feedback with openness and acceptance. The logic was attractive. However, change was not automatic.
 

From Do Agile to Be Agile

At Axialent we believe that, for any change that truly matters, it must operate first at the Be-level. It’s in that mushy place where thoughts & feelings, values & beliefs, and needs & wants reside (and that top execs seldom look at from so high above) where we have found the most significant leverage. From there, the leaders and those they lead can shift behaviors more effectively at the Do-level. Training people how to do agile was not enough. They needed to dive deeper and actually be agile.
In that deep side of the pool, there is anxiety, tension, and even fear among leaders and team members alike. “What will happen to me and my career in this company?”, “How can I protect my safe haven?” “Will we increase risk by letting go of control?” “What do you mean that control is ‘bad’? We’re a regulated company! Control is not only good – it’s mandatory!” Reconciling these dilemmas was suddenly part of their job description. They looked at their toolkit and realized they needed a different set of tools to deal with this new reality. So, we set off to replenish them from our stock.
Understanding these gaps helped us walk in our clients’ shoes as we embarked on this journey alongside them. In the following two articles of this series, we will explain the design principles we followed and the most prized lessons we have learned and would apply in the next opportunity that comes our way. Come along for the ride!

Ten years ago, I decided to focus my career on helping organizations innovate by developing new products and services. Because of that, I did my best to embrace what I considered an “Innovation Mindset.”  I thought to myself: I need to become an innovator and adopt this mindset in my life. For me, this meant not being afraid to try new things, takings risks, and doing my best to be creative. However, as a result, I became someone who struggled with routines because I thought an innovative person should not be static.
As I started to grow personally and professionally, more complex problems appeared in my life. The idea to optimize, or improve, some aspects of my life did not resonate with my “innovation mindset.” I didn’t have a problem with the idea of improving and trying new things. The conflict I had was that for me, optimizing meant finding a routine and sticking to it.
 

The breaking point

 
my innovation mindsetThen, eventually, there was a point when I realized that the pain of not doing anything was larger than the pain of change. So, I started my Optimal Me journey. I decided to start with my nutrition. I reduced sugar, carbs, and read some books on the topic. I have to be honest, I could not become a keto person, but I became conscious about how I eat and how my body feels when I eat garbage (aka “junk food”).
Then, I continued my journey and started tracking how many hours I was sleeping. I downloaded an app and noticed how bad the quality of my sleep was. I kept going and explored new ways of exercising, measuring my HRV to understand my nervous system. In other words, I got quite nerdy about it. I started to read about meditation and practiced it 3 to 5 times per week. I tried specific ways of breathing to deal with stress, and so on. My point here is not to talk about all of my experiments in the Optimal Me program, but to reflect on the fact that what started as a small step became a deep dive on improving several aspects of my life.
 

Readjusting my innovation mindset

 
As a result of implementing these improvements, I was able to cope with some personal and professional problems and found the balance I wanted to achieve (for now). You might wonder if I currently have a fixed routine that includes all of these tools or techniques? Not quite. I do have some routines, but there are a lot of things that I stopped practicing. I thought I had failed because I had explored so many things during the last two years that I was not applying regularly. For example, I remember thinking: “Why am I not tracking my sleep anymore?”
The answer is simple. I am aware that now I sleep fine. Then I realized that some of those experiments helped me to deal with moments of stress, anxiety, and more. I was not using those techniques, apps, or routines simply because I did not have those problems anymore. However, now I have a set of tools that I can use when I feel I need them again. And this is the whole point of optimizing my life. Develop awareness, learn, test, and repeat if it makes sense. Otherwise, save it for later.
I realized I had a framed optimizing my life in the wrong way. It’s not a journey that you start and finish. It’s a life-long learning process of self-awareness and trying new things to deal with all the life-changing challenges that appear along the way. The cherry on top is that this is how innovation in organizations works. Having a successful business is not possible with a fixed optimization formula. The things that worked in the past may not be useful in the future. This is how I optimized my innovation mindset.
 

Many companies begin their culture journey motivated to make big changes. While the intention of major change is there, some will lack the follow-through to sustain focus and solidify lasting change. Taking the time to measure the progress of your culture in a conscious, intentional, and continuous way is important to keep your initiatives on track.
The first step for many organizations is to conduct a baseline culture assessment, typically consisting of quantitative and qualitative data. The purpose of the assessment is to identify their ideal culture, measure the current culture, and find out where the gaps are. This data helps leaders get aligned on their vision, as well as to better understand the mindsets, values, and beliefs that are widely shared in the organization, and how they may enable or get in the way of attaining results.
As the culture transformation process unfolds – roadmaps are defined, workshops are conducted, communication strategies are implemented and change agents are mobilized – measurement typically goes to the bottom of the priority list.  Rarely do we find that the same level of rigor that was used in the assessment step is applied to measure the progress and impact of culture change initiatives.  The approach is often limited to informal sensing based on unstructured conversations and casual observations, or relying on employee engagement surveys, which seldom measure shifts in mindsets and behaviors. This makes it hard to pinpoint where are we making progress and what we need to do to accelerate the change.
However, administering comprehensive culture surveys and conducting multiple interviews and focus groups may not always be feasible if you want to keep the pulse on the change and assess progress in a continuous way.
Here are some ideas to help you design your culture measurement strategy:
 

Identify where you are in your culture journey

Have you recently started your culture transformation effort?  Have you already started mobilizing people and launching initiatives?  Understanding where you are will help you define what you need to look for (your key hypothesis and key research questions) and the data sources that will be most helpful.  For example, you could assess the following:

  • Change readiness – Do you want to see if leaders and employees are aware, willing, and able to drive change?
  • Culture drivers – Do you want to see how effective the new programs or initiatives are?
  • Mindset changes – Do you want to assess if the desired culture mindsets and behaviors are becoming norms?
  • Outcomes – Do you want to understand how culture is impacting key business and people results?

At the beginning of your culture journey, you may want to focus on measuring change readiness and the effectiveness of culture initiatives.  As your process takes root, you can focus more on behavioral and outcome measures.
 

Identify potential sources of data

Since culture is experienced, the best insights typically come from a mix of quantitative and qualitative data.  Based on your key research questions, you can strategically identify potential data sources (such as employee lifecycle surveys, leadership 360s, performance evaluation forms, training feedback, sentiment analysis from employee comments, or feedback data) that can be re-imagined for intentionally capturing meaningful culture insights.  If your focus is more on assessing outcomes, consider conducting advanced analytics, integrating people metrics (such as engagement, retention, development and performance measures) with employee surveys and customer data.
 

Identify potential experiments

Many successful culture change initiatives are rolled out in phases.  This gives the organization the opportunity to learn and adjust, create success stories, and form culture champions.  The phased approach also lends itself to measuring the impact of the culture initiatives over time for certain groups and to compare the differences among groups who have experienced the change vs. those who have not.  Designing and measuring experiments will help you refine your approach before committing to bigger investments, make participants an active part of your broader change process, and assess the ROI of your initiatives.
 

Conclusion

Your strategy to measure the progress of your culture should be aligned to the mindsets that you are looking to drive – whether it is agility, innovation, accountability, or inclusion.  Be intentional and approach the measurement process with curiosity – you are not looking for a pass or fail grade, but for powerful insights that will help you shape your best next step in your culture transformation journey.