“Because Our Competitors Are” is No Reason to Become an Agile Organization

Companies are starting to fall into a trap, and it goes something like this, “Our partners/competitors/… are Agile, so we need to be Agile.” Becoming Agile without a valid reason will harm your organization. I can’t state that any simpler.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, rival manufacturers often visited Toyota plants, and Toyota was delighted to welcome them, because Toyota understood that even if their competition copied company practices, practices change. What competitors weren’t copying was the culture that created the practices in the first place, and that’s where the real value was. Thus we had Cargo Cult Lean at many North American manufacturers, and it didn’t produce the results that companies were hoping for.
We’re seeing that again with Agile. It’s not enough to become Agile and to copy Agile practices simply because your competitors are. Unless you develop a culture that creates its own practices, this will lead only to Cargo Cult Agile, and not a true Agile Organization.

What competitors weren’t copying was the culture that created the practices in the first place, and that’s where the real value was.

So what are some valid reasons to become Agile? One of the primary ones is to be able to readily adapt to a changing environment. Other reasons include: Resilience; Predictability; Risk Reduction; Morale and Retention; Early ROI; Predictability; Customer Satisfaction and Simplicity.
Consider how Blockbuster adapted to online video, or how the taxi industry is responding to Uber/Lyft. Control-focused organizations struggle to adapt rapidly enough to survive, compared to their competitors who embrace change. Traditional/hierarchical organizations work well when problems are clear and solutions are repeatable but, unfortunately, those that thrive in those conditions are fragile when the situation changes and they can’t adapt.
The structure of traditional organizations is one which evolved in a world where the pace of innovation and change was much slower. Changes could be spotted years out, and a response could be crafted and the organization would do well.
That world no longer exists. Whole industries die in only few years if their response to change isn’t rapid and flexible. Which is where Cynefin can come in to the conversation.


Cynefin is a way of understanding the problem domains in which we find ourselves, and identifying which tools would be appropriate in response.
At first blush it can look a little daunting, but bear with me and you’ll see that it doesn’t have to be. It’s merely a matter of “cause and effect”, and how simple or complicated that plays out within the context of your organization.
The Cynefin Framework breaks down into 5 different domains to describe different types of relationships between cause and effect – from straight-forward, to complicated, to non-existent.
The first of these is, well, Obvious.
Obvious (formerly called Simple) is just as the name suggests. These contexts are clear to all involved. If X, then Y. At any stage in a process, it is clear what the next steps are. Examples are aspects of banking (interest calculations), insurance (calculation of premiums), etc., Organizations in this realm gain value from a degree of structure to ensure that people follow the rules. Standard practices apply here.
A simpler example? Let’s talk about growing things. Develop your green thumb. In an Obvious system, we have a sponge. If you apply water to it, it will swell and grow. Cause and Effect in its simplest form. Sponge + Water = Bigger Sponge.
That’s Obvious. The next domain is a little less so.
Complicated is where the relationship between cause and effect is harder to see. It requires analysis and, often, expertise to find and understand the relationship(s). Once understood, “best practices” can be developed in this domain.
To return to the growing analogy, this is the system where we’re growing one plant in a pot, which is considerably more complicated than growing a sponge, but there is still logical cause and effect involved. Seed + Soil + Water + Sun + Food = Plant. In this world, there are rules of thumb (green or otherwise) and best practices.

It’s important to note that one of the risks of a Complicated Domain is that we listen only to the experts. It’s vital that we also factor in our own observations and environment.

The next domain is more Complex and, in these contexts, cause and effect relationships are only understood in hindsight. Given the unpredictability of this domain, we’re better off probing, sensing and responding instead of trying to control or plan. Instead of looking for complex solutions, seek simple rules or heuristics to help work well in this environment.
Trying to help grow our kids is an example of the Complex Domain. We ask them to do something (probe), they respond (sense) in an unexpected way. It’s only in retrospect that we can see why they responded that way. Next time, we adapt (our response), changing the phrasing/tone based on our new understanding of them.
Complex domains require many diverse viewpoints to help solve. Although challenging, they’re still much easier to navigate than Chaotic.
In Chaotic Domains, there is no relationship between cause and effect. Emergency/disasters are examples of the Chaotic domain. In these cases, the goal is simply to try and bring them back from Chaos to the world of the merely Complex. We don’t often see this domain in the business world, so we’re not exploring it here.
And the fifth and final domain is Disorder, which exists when it hasn’t yet been determined what the cause and effect relationship is.  It’s in this state that people are most apt to make decisions based on their own comfort zone.

These days, businesses are usually working in Complex Domains, which means that traditional, old-school approaches aren’t realistic.

We can’t afford to have the DNA of Simple organizations persist, if organizations want to thrive in this new, rapidly-evolving world. So we need to create organizations that can adapt – and even thrive – in a Complex world, and help Simple and Complicated structure businesses evolve to that goal. We can do that by creating Agile Organizations that understand the Cynefin Framework, and how different responses are appropriate for different complexities of situations.
cynefin chart
Agile Organizations:

  • Can sense their playing field
  • Can adapt
  • Have resilience built in
  • Focus on quality
  • Delight the customer
  • Get earlier ROI
  • Target delivery, not risk reduction
  • Build simpler systems and products
  • Create the unimagined
  • Ensure alignment toward a common goal

Become an Agile Organization because it helps your organization to thrive in a Complex world – not because your competition is doing it. Choose this path knowing that there is a great deal of change involved, but understanding that the change will help create more value in the long run.



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