Agile at the Speed of People

A new stage production is ready to take Broadway by storm: a great script, a very experienced director, and a troupe of A-list actors. However, as the director meets her cast, something seems amiss. Well, for one, the actors specialize in film acting, not in stage acting. They’ve also never worked together. Now, on the live stage for the first time, they must perform the show. With actors who lack the skills to perform together in a live environment, the director doubts that the Broadway premiere will receive the rave reviews she anticipated.

It’s a lot like the world of Agile: Just as a director unifies the different aspects of a Broadway production, you need to bring together multiple actors who may have never worked on stage or with each other. For everyone to perform together effectively, you’ll need to coordinate a few essential elements. Among these is ensuring your team has the right competencies—such as customer focus, collaboration, decentralized decision-making, and continuous improvement—to perform, grow, and thrive in an Agile environment.

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So, what are these competencies?

Competencies are the behaviors and skills that individuals need to perform effectively. They reflect the attributes that create success at work and reinforce your organization’s differentiators. Ultimately, competencies provide employees with an indication of what will be valued, recognized, and rewarded.

In this blog, we focus on non-technical competencies that apply to the entire business, not those needed for specific roles like product owner, scrum master, or Agile coach. These non-technical competencies are harder to find and are more challenging to train and teach. As such, they’re an asset that must be secured, cultivated, and strengthened with intention.

Imagine you have effective product owners, scrum masters, and Agile coaches in roles, but the rest of your workforce—where the bulk of the work is being done—does not operate with Agile mindsets. You’ll struggle to put agility into motion, and you may fail to unlock the value of customer-centricity, innovation, and efficiency. Similarly, even if actors are individually talented and know their lines, the play will fall flat if they don’t know how to perform together.

At the root of Agile transformations and Agile ways of working is the Agile Manifesto. We have distilled the Agile Manifesto principles into three categories through research and a series of workshops for subject matter experts. Here, we’ll highlight the related competencies that enable a high-performing Agile organization.

  1. Working with others enables customer focus and effective teamwork.

Customer centricity is at the core of the Agile mindset, values, and principles. In other words, customer feedback drives projects, and teams collaborate with customers to co-create their solutions. New ways of working, processes, and governance are not enough to make this a reality; high-performing teams cultivate a few other key attributes. For example, they learn how to enable customer and stakeholder interactions by solidifying relationships, building networks, relating well to people at all levels, and aligning on expectations.

In addition, strong collaboration skills are essential to high team performance. Agile ways of working are, by their nature, highly collaborative, with autonomous teams working toward a team-level purpose and objectives. Key attributes include active listening and demonstrating an interest in understanding others, seeking diverse perspectives, communicating proactively, supporting and caring for others, building trust, and recognizing others' contributions.

  1. Sound decision-making enables autonomous, self-managing teams.

In Agile organizations, self-managing teams get the work done. They are empowered with a defined level of decision-making authority and own the execution and continuous evolution of the work. For teams to hold these responsibilities effectively, individuals need to be skilled in critical evaluation—in other words, in interpreting information to make well-informed recommendations. They also need to achieve a certain level of business acumen, understand strategic priorities, and apply business information that allows the team to build business cases and shape the team's ever-evolving vision.

  1. Learning and adaptation enable iterative value delivery and continuous improvement.

In an Agile environment, context and business needs are continuously changing, and teams must adapt regularly to maximize value for customers through iterative development. Agile teams reflect at regular intervals on how to become more effective, then adjust accordingly. Specifically, teams may need to know how to pivot based on changes in the environment—for example, by accepting new ideas, adapting interpersonal styles, seizing new opportunities from change, and taking action when they don't have all of the information. Applying takeaways from experience to improve future performance puts the team on the path of continuous improvement. Tactics might include being proactive in seeking feedback and reflecting, putting learnings into practice, or gaining new experiences.

Suppose your organization seeks business agility but lacks these competencies. In that case, you risk diminished customer value, lower team morale, reduced efficiency and speed of delivery due to decision-making bottlenecks, stagnation, and lack of improvement.

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What steps can you take to assess and build Agile competencies?

First, set the expected competency levels for each role across your organization. Most roles will likely have the same baseline competency level, but certain employees may need to achieve a higher level due to their accountabilities or the decision-making authority. For example, most of your team may only need to apply business acumen to a limited scope—such as building and maintaining a working knowledge of business lines, products, and the competitive market, requesting guidance where appropriate. Your product owners and senior leaders, however, may need an elevated set of competencies, including role modeling the application of business acumen and fostering learning with colleagues and internal stakeholders.

The next step is to measure current competency levels across the organization and identify gaps relative to the expected levels. A self-reflection survey can be a great way to measure competency, followed by a validation conversation with a line manager and facilitated small-group sessions. The key to success here? Providing transparent competency definitions and guidance for employees and line managers. Explain why you're asking employees to complete the exercise, highlighting the benefits to the individual, the team, and the organization.

The final step is to analyze the results and devise workforce initiatives that help close critical competency gaps. These could include:

  • Individual-level interventions, such as a targeted development plan for each employee.
  • Team-level interventions and coaching, such as leveraging individuals with high competency levels to upskill others.
  • Organization-level interventions, such as a learning and development program for specific competencies, internal rotation programs, or new infrastructure to support Agile competency development.

Like the troupe of actors learning how to apply their talents in a vastly different context, your employees need a set of critical competencies to perform, grow, and thrive in an Agile organization. These competencies should equip your people to live out the values and principles central to Agile ways of working. To start measuring and building Agile competencies, consider:

  • How can you position Agile workforce initiatives as a step toward a more Agile enterprise? Bringing line managers and key influencers in the organization on board first may accelerate buy-in, allow them to see firsthand the impact of building Agile competencies, and establish a robust feedback loop.
  • How might this fit with other organizational priorities? Piloting with Agile teams focused on high-impact initiatives builds Agile competency while also delivering top-priority work to serve customer needs. Consider short-term, rotational Agile experiences that create opportunities for team member engagement, skill-building, and business impact.
  • How might this fit with the organization’s performance management process? Employees should understand how Agile competencies link to their individual performance. If they don’t, they’ll be more likely to resist the new Agile initiatives. Until you gather real-life data demonstrating the link between these competencies and improved performance, consider positioning this as a learning and development opportunity that is separate from performance management.
  • How do the Agile competencies fit with already existing competencies or skills frameworks? Applying existing frameworks keeps it simple for your employees. They’re less likely to feel overwhelmed by multiple models.
  • How well do your systems and technology support the measurement and development of Agile competencies? Using digital tools will improve the employee experience surrounding Agile and create new ways to leverage data. For instance, you might aggregate data on team- and enterprise-level Agile competencies and connect it to data on employee retention. These insights could be an input to a compelling business case for employee upskilling.

Our next blog will explore how you can build enterprise agility with intentional change across mindsets, culture, and behaviors. In the meantime, read North Highland’s three-part series on creating an Agile organization, discover how you can incorporate agility into performance enablement, and explore Agile’s five hidden amplifiers for scaling across the enterprise.