IPMA International Project Management Association
20 March 2020 / 9:00

Bridging the Agility Gap

The Project Management Association Finland arranged a 2-day workshop about bringing agility into organisations’ project management. Our facilitator was a very experienced trainer, speaker and agility advocate John Hermarij who is also the main architect of IPMA Agile Leader concept. We had over 20 participants from fifteen organisations. This two-day journey could be summarized in three words: change, positivity and people. From this agility is made of.

Why agility?
When you ask this from John Hermarij he answers that at this moment we as humanity are facing immense challenges. We think we have a good overview of what we should do. But frankly, he is a little more pessimistic.  Hermarij thinks we will face many more surprises in the years to come. This requires a different attitude – an attitude in which we no longer expect solutions only from our managers, leaders or politicians. But that we ourselves make an active contribution to solving the problems we are facing.
For Hermarij agility means that you are and remain of value to those people who are important to you. So if their needs change, you move with them. If you translate this to companies, it means that they move with the needs of their customers. Those needs have to be real needs, so don’t sell stuff that doesn’t benefit the customer. For politicians, it means that they are there for the benefit of their citizens, not because they want to stay in power.

Agility requires one to be willing to change when it is better for humanity as a whole.

“What is changing is not what scares me, what I don’t know is changing does. Reacting to what already is changing is agility.” This is more or less how John Hermarij started his training session. To get to the agility you need change – change in your way of thinking, change in your way of doing and a change in environment. If you truly want a change, start close. Start with yourself. Only after you have changed your way to think you can start asking it from others. For example, don’t assume your boss to all the sudden change his ways but first, change your ways.
Changing attitude changes behaviour – fix your attitude and you’ll fix your behaviour. Instead of seeing mistakes as failures, how about seeing them as ”I learned today”? Think is what you are doing today going to affect anything in the future. This is agility. Agility gives us a unique possibility to make learning our job. We can fail and react in an agile way to the change.
Taking the agility leap requires also a change in our way to see resources in projects: we are no-longer deciding what we want to do and find the resources to do them. The agile way is to do what we have resources for already. Not to first decide to do something and then fill in the need for resources. Also, the attitude towards profit needs to change: this is the loss we are willing to take vs. this is the profit we anticipate. This is the new, agile, way to do things.
The world around us changes all the time and agility gives us a possibility to react fast on these changes. But, change itself is also what has made agility possible in the project world: changes in technology and society made agility possible. A few decades ago agile project management could not have existed.

Most of all reacting to change is in the heart of agility. How well you can react to change and adapt determines your maturity in agility.

When you have a positive attitude towards change, you are at the starting point to agility. Attitude matters – are YOU ready to change your thinking, is your attitude to change positive, are you willing to get started? Help others and start with your neighbourhood. Have a ”fail fast, learn fast” -attitude. If you’re a manager, think about what you can do for your team, not what they can do for you. These are Hermarij’s advice on how to get started with your leap towards agility.
A real agile leader will help others to adapt. Hermarij advises you ask questions instead of criticism. There is no point to tell your superiors what they have done wrong. It will only make them feel failure and stop listening. Instead use positive, constructive dialogue and questions to make your voice heard.
I asked John how to speak about agility in the management language. According to him as a manager, if you want your employees to be able to respond to change, you have to realise that people are actually not well equipped for it. People want to change, but they don’t want to be changed.
What I like about Agile Frameworks is that they actually create a very stable context for the employees. It sounds a bit paradoxical, but by working in fixed iterations, with fixed ceremonies, surrounded by coaches instead of managers, you achieve a more flexible and responsive organization on the one hand. While on the other hand, the work for the fixed autonomous teams provides more stability (i.e. less chance).”, John says.
To make project management more agile it also requires good self-knowledge. Self-reflection and self-management are in agility’s core. If you want to become a true agile leader, you need to have a growth mindset and a positive view on changes. This includes the willingness to adapt and grow.

Third and maybe the most important lesson is people. Everything starts with people. In our workshop, the topic returned to this over and over again. Everything we do according to the agile way of thinking is about people. Maybe the biggest thing for an agile leader is to understand the importance of people, team members, individuals and to value them as they are. A vital thing to understand is also that is WE, not me. Always.
Learn to know the people you work with. Lead with example. Also previously mentioned ”what can I do for my team, not what they can do for me” is linked to this. A true leader gives others room to grow and develop. Because in agile we don’t start with the need for resources, we start with people – you can only do as much as you got the means for already. You cannot demand the resources you don’t have.

The structure of the workshop also substantiated the importance of teams and people. The participant had a lot of team works and tried together to find solutions on how to move towards agility and to remove obstacles in their own organisations. We sat in group tables and had energy breaks together. These breaks were also generated by the participants. We had a literally man-made (made of people) map of Finland and walked in lines back-and-forth in the room, waving hands and standing on one foot – eyes closed of course!
We had case presentations from organisations that have already made the agility leap. These presentations also brought up the meaning of teams – a.k.a people – in project success. Arto Kylmänen from Vaisala Oyj summed his organisation’s agility leap: ”You go with people or not at all. People always come first.” Also investing in project culture was strongly discussed.

Not half-way there
Hermarij made a comparison to a bridge: on one side you have the “old world” with its waterfalls and whatnot and on one side is the “new world” and agile projects. In the middle of the bridge, you have a hybrid – a half-way project. That means the project is done somewhere between two worlds, it is not a traditional project but it’s not fully agile either.
John doesn’t believe this is possible. You can NOT make projects half-way in an agile way, if you do, you haven’t understood at all that agility is about.
As the biggest challenge in moving from traditional to agility John mentions the change in mindset. ”You’ve been convinced of certain things your whole professional life. Then all of a sudden that turns out to be very different – that was hard for me. Is it wrong what I’ve always done? The answer is, of course, no, you’re developing. Usually, it’s gradual, but sometimes in one big step and that’s confusing. It’s really a different mindset.

So either you are agile or you’re not.

Agile with a capital A
Agile with a capital A is ”a non-codified set of organisational theories that are useful for facing 21st-century challenges.” according to John. So, it’s about multiple factors that together make an agile mindset. Agility is not a single thing or theory. In conclusion, agility is:

  • People, planet, profit – in this order
  • Work with what you got (not with what you need)
  • Affordable loss (not anticipated cashflow)
  • As a leader: what I can do for you (not what you can do for me)
  • A plan in a hypothesis that needs to be falsified (not followed)
  • Wisdom of crowds (not the wisdom of consultants)
  • Fail fast, learn fast (not: don’t’ fail)
  • We (not me)

Why aim for agility
When asked a piece of advice for taking the agility leap John answers: To be honest, you’ll never be there 100%. Because if you’re there, the world will have changed by now. You have to be open to change and go with the flow.
IPMA Agile Leader certification which is also offered by The Project Management Association Finland is a good way to verify your agile project skills. John encourages everyone to certify primarily for yourself: certification program forces you to think about your own development as an agile professional during a period of time.
It gives you insight into your own performance. The elements from the Individual Competence Baseline serve as a benchmark and give you suggestions in which you can further develop yourself. In this way, you remain of professional value to your employer and your clients.

written by: Else Halttunen, The Project Management Association Finland, 2020

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