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Agile Organizations

Agile Organizations The week before last I was in Regina teaching a two day Agile Project Leadership course for the Regina .NET User Group. One of the side conversations we had there was about Agile Organizations. Companies who not only embrace agile principles on their projects, but also within the behaviour and execution of their entire business. There is a big difference between running projects in an agile way within a traditional organization and orienting an entire company around principles that match agile values. Here are four well known and some not so well known examples:

1) Toyota
Toyota’s lean approach is well publicized. Through their passion for worker-led continual improvement they review, learn, adapt and improve at an impressive pace. Much has been written about Toyota’s capacity to innovate and nearly all of it comes from the incorporation of many small internal suggestions. In “The Elegant Solution: Toyota's Formula for Mastering Innovation” author Mathew May describes how Toyota implements over 1 million employee suggestions per year, that is about 3000 per working day, a truly staggering number.

The Elegant Solution
There is no big prize for the best suggestion picked each month. Instead all suggestions are valued equally and thanked in a small way. Toyota believes the biggest improvements come about from implementing thousands of small improvements, not waiting for the next big idea.

How do we learn from this? By creating ways for people to contribute, canvas their ideas frequently and recognize all suggestions for improvement; whether they are ultimately successful or not.

2) AES Corporation
Dennis Bakke successfully led the AES energy company with over 40,000 employees and $8.6 billion in revenue by creating an empowered, fun to be at, workplace. His book “Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job” outlines how this was achieved by freeing people to act, exercise their natural gifts and fulfill their potential.

Joy at Work
Bakke suggests that we quit searching for the secret to always winning, profits and stock prices that rise quarter over quarter. “Let’s accept that losing is part of life and that we can make mistakes and fall on our faces. Out of these experiences come new learning, growth, hope, and life. He advocates for an unselfish and benevolent concern that allows people to give up power and control, to treat each person with respect and dignity, to serve others, and to inspire people to work with greater purpose. To Bakke, this is love—perfectly consistent with even the most aggressive economic goals and the final and crucial ingredient in a joy-filled workplace.”

What can we take from this? People, not processes or a focus on profits are the true differentiator.

3) Semco
Just how far can empowerment go? For me, Ricardo Semler and his Brazilian Semco company appears to be the most courageous and successful. In his books “Maverick: The Success Story Behind The World's Most Unusual Workplace” and “The Seven Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works” Semler outlines the almost unimaginable amount of empowerment offered at Semco.

Maverick                   Seven Day Weekend   
Employees define their own work schedule and their work location. Employees choose their own salary (peer reviewed) and all meetings are voluntary and open to everyone. HR has been abolished because leaders need to be able to treat their employees right themselves. All employees rate their bosses twice a year and all ratings are published.

Semco takes empowerment to a new level, operating as a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). If an employee has a passion for a new project and can build support for it, then they are encouraged to develop it, since motivated people can achieve amazing results. This is how Semco, originally a hydraulic valve manufacturer, diversified into property management companies, then software development companies, and more recently environmental management consulting companies. All because employees had a vision and passion for a cause and pursued it.

These ideas seem fanciful and impractical yet under Ricardo Semler’s ownership, revenue has grown from $4 million US in 1982 to $240 million in 2008. The company has extremely low turnover and people travel from all over the world to be interviewed for jobs.

Semler admits being inspired by companies like W.L. Gore and Associates participative principles founded in the late 1950’s. The Semco success has been very influential too. Google’s Project Friday’s where people are given time to work on projects that interest them parallel Semco’s whole week approach to the pursuit of your passion. Ricardo Semler is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Business School and creator of the The Semco Foundation, a mentoring and catalyst group for educational, cultural, environmental and strategic projects.

The Semco takeaway? McGregor’s Theory Y can work, given the right conditions, most people will want to do well at work. Be open to a more positive view of workers and the possibilities that this creates

For anyone interested in reading more on Semco see the Semco Principles and Values and watch Ricardo Semler’s “Leading By Omission” MIT video

4) Invenio University
Last October I taught a couple of leadership courses at Invenio Univesity in Costa Rica. It was a great trip to an amazing country and I, along with my colleague Dustin, had a fabulous time looking around and taking in some of the attractions and eco-tourism activities. Dustin speaks good Spanish and translated my slides. I really enjoy teaching these courses and they are very well received. 
EventoAgile     Invenio Agile Leadership Course

My take on agile is very human focused. I believe it is people, not process that provide the biggest lever on projects and so much of my material is about how agile methods support more effective work structures and how to increase motivation and productivity.

I use elements of leadership, the theory of constraints, and psychology along with agile that have been practiced on real projects and found to produce great results. These ideas are laid out as a model based on my 20+ years of project experience and I thought they were fairly unique.

So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the Invenio University not only embraced many of the agile principles and leadership ideas that I taught, but has them baked into the DNA of the University philosophy.

Invenio Campus

Invenio Vision:Develop a new model to educate needed professionals with ethical and human values, with social and ecological responsibility, committed to sustainable development.”

Mike and Adrian 

After the courses we met up with university founder, Adrian Lachner to discuss the courses and learn the history and thinking behind Invenio. He told me that staff members from Invenio University who attended my course were surprised at the content I was presenting because to them it was the “Invenio Way”.  “Did you tell him to say that?”, “Is this his material or ours?” were the questions he got from his staff and he explained that: No, he had not told me what to say and instead there was just extra-ordinary alignment between my recommendations and his thoughts for the university. 

Invenio University has five core principles, these are:

1. ALLIANCE - Realize that we have a mission, and we are invited to freely find and fulfill our mission.
2. LINKING - A perfect relationship with our creator, with our selves, with others, and even with things.
3. FREEDOM - Having the possibility of taking decisions, assuming responsibility and executing properly our decisions.
4. TRUST - Trust in the good that still exists in others.
5. MOVEMENT - Idealism, making sure we identify for ourselves and others the ideas, and let ourselves and others choose the way to reach these ideals.

The parallels to agile methods and empowered teams are apparent. The parallels to my own views on agile and leadership were uncanny. I hope to go back and do some more work with Invenio University. Their Dual Education model is fascinating and they have big goals for the University.

The Invenio takeaway: Give young people a glimpse of how things should be during their education experience and see what they go on to create when out in the workforce.


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