Influencing an Ecosystem

We need to see our organisation as an ecosystem and not a machine. 

We need to see people as agents influencing the ecosystem from within. Not merely cogs performing a function or objective outsiders arranging parts in the right order.

What we believe about the nature of our organisation determines our starting assumptions for how we go about change.

Organisations typically begin an Agile journey to be more effective at responding to their customers’ needs and changes in the environment. In a way that increases their profitability and staff engagement. Often we see this done with the dominant industrial way of thinking. I believe this needs to shift to something different. 

An industrial way of thinking brings its own flawed assumptions. That it is possible to see the whole system and engineer processes and structures to produce our desired outcomes. For example, if we implement this scaling framework and order the ‘right’ parts in the ‘right’ way doing the ‘right’ things, we’ll get an agile organisation. Agile Coaches are just another set of cogs in the machine performing specific functions in specific areas. 

So, what’s different about seeing our organisation as an ecosystem? The organisation is evolving in perpetual motion. We cannot see, know or control everything going on in the system due to its fluid nature. Human-to-human interactions alone bring complexity. Some things can be designed up front, many things simply emerge over time. All our actions have consequences within the ecosystem, intended and unintended. We can’t remove all the complexity, we must work with it. Sonja Blignaut goes deeper on the implications of seeing an organisation as a complex system here.

However, within the organisation ecosystem not everything is complex. When making changes in the organisation, like increasing agility organisation-wide, some elements are predictable and related actions have known outcomes.

Our starting point is to make sense of our context to understand where both predictability and unpredictability exist.  For this process of ‘sense making’, I use Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework and I draw extensively from his work and that of the Cognitive Edge network.  

As we understand the current state of our organisation better, we select contextually appropriate ways of introducing changes. 

I often tell people I fell sideways into Agile. My practice is about enabling people to have a greater sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose in the workplace while dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability in their environment.  I found some colleagues in the Agile community were trying to achieve the same thing through Agile (ways of working). 

I’ve had the opportunity to support organisations on an Agile journey in a specialist way, working with Agile Coaches. The organisation has already made a significant investment of time and resource and wants sustained agility organisation-wide. 

Earlier this year I began meandering conversations with a couple of friends in the Agile community, Pete and Cheryl Tansey. Sharing our perspectives on scaling and sustaining Agile in organisations.

To take the conversation to a wider group we focused it on the Future of Agile Coaching, with Pete publishing a white paper to introduce our current thinking. My intent here is to flesh out my contribution to that conversation. 

Specifically, what I believe it looks like in practice for Agile coaches to make sense of the ecosystem and navigate the complexity (While I’m speaking to an Agile context, you’ll notice this applies to anyone leading in an organisation). Below are three key areas for action I want to emphasise. These occur simultaneously and are by no means the only things to focus on. 

1. Form a habit of sense making

Agile coaches actively engage in sense making. This means resisting the urge to rush into problem-solving before understanding what aspects of the challenge will require different approaches. Form a habit of sense making whenever there are important decisions to make, whether personal, team related or organisation wide. For individuals involved it helps to build personal agility and resilience.  Based on Cynefin, some questions to start with: 

What aspects are clear and obvious to act on?

Which ones are a bit more complicated and need some expertise or further analysis?

Which ones don’t have a predictable outcome and require us to try something to learn more about what is possible?  

2. Co-create small experiments

Agile coaches initiate and co-create small, well-structured experiments within their sphere of influence. This experimentation is about exploring possibility within uncertainty, probing the ecosystem to learn more. Not really about proving or disproving a hypothesis. When we design the experiment, we identify early signals of success or failure to look out for. Co-creation of the experiment is helpful in getting a diverse range of perspectives of what potential signals may be. The key to agility then, is to move quickly to amplify the early signals of success and move away from failure. 

In practice, I find within one experiment there will often be signals of both success and failure. So we go with what’s working. There will also be unintended consequences (signals) so we have to start small and monitor closely. Where regular Agile ceremonies take place, such as stand-ups or retrospectives, monitoring signals and learnings from the experiment becomes part of the conversation.

The guiding principle for experimentation is it must be safe to fail, we can recover from any activity that doesn’t work. 

3. Build and remove scaffolding

Agile coaches recognise they can’t engineer success in the ecosystem. They set up temporary structures or processes to allow solutions to emerge. Think of this as scaffolding – it supports people and materials to build the building. Then it is taken down. 

Agile coaches introduce tools, frameworks, consultants, rituals and other initiatives to support people in their work. They are designed to help an effective way of working emerge which leads to desirable outcomes. These elements are not the desired outcome. Part of sense making is to observe when these scaffolds are no longer enabling the emergence of desirable outcomes. At that point it is time to adapt with the context to remove or change the scaffolding.       

We know our organisations are complex. We experience aspects of uncertainty and unpredictability every day. By emphasising these key areas of action, Agile coaches move away from an industrial way of thinking and become effective agents influencing their ecosystem towards greater agility and resilience.

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.