AgileCommunicationGuiding Questions

Guiding Questions for Agility at Enterprise Level

There’s no doubt that for larger companies to survive in today’s world, they need to become agile companies. To become an agile company, its internal communication ―expert-level communication and decision making included― need to function with the speed and reliability of a high-speed train, in all directions. But where are the companies whose internal communication operates at this speed and level of reliability? Where is the trend, priority, solution, best practice or method needed to make this happen? 

Let’s have a look at an agile method for this challenge and experiences of operating it with 30.000 employees.  

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Why no Accepted Solution Exists Yet

At this point, you may be wondering, when this is of such importance, why does no accepted best practice or solution exist? With the popular solution approaches, the trouble is this: This is a highly complex and dynamic challenge. Complexity itself refuses to accept solution approaches via linear processes and partial solutions, such as better communication, sharing of information, better IT applications and better governance or control. Take any two or three partial solution that can be implemented in parallel and too many obstacles in other fields remain unsolved. Even if progress is made, sooner or later, solved problems re-open.

Theses days, one could be tempted to apply agile best practices such as Scrum, Semco, Holocracy or self-organisation. Indeed, they have delivered impressive results with up to a few thousand employees and, under certain conditions, with more employees. Well, for as long as the general guiding questions and the guiding questions of this post remain unanswered, how can they solve this challenge? Sorry, as long as these questions remain unanswered and from the perspective of this challenge, they are just partial solutions.   

This challenge demands a relatively simple yet integrated solution, with the partial solutions contributing their lowest-effort yet highest-impact elements. This was how we found the solution bridging the internal communication gap for 30.000 employees and enabled agile decision making. Because it worked primarily through natural process flows and mechanisms, its costs and efforts were a fraction of those of the traditional approaches.

Does This Look Familiar?

In positions I held between central organisations in the United States and locations throughout Europe, one of my tasks involved facilitating expert-level communication, in both directions. This worked well until complexity increased and a tipping point was exceeded (Guiding Question 4, a phenomenon). From this point onward, issues, complaints and finger pointing, such as the following, mounted up:

  • The environment changed more quickly than the strategies, standards, processes and best practices could be updated.
  • The critical lessons learned became lost in a crippling bureaucracy and information overload.
  • The central organisations and management complained about a lack of compliance and reoccurring problems that should have been prevented.
  • Employees said “We cannot find the directions, guidance and lessons learned we need. When we find them, they are conflicting, outdated or too theoretical.”
  • Governance, project management and service management/ITIL can function properly only when their input documents containing the directions, guidance, service descriptions and lessons learned are easy to find, concise and reasonably up to date.     

With these and more patterns, as well as the illustration of this poorly built bridge between organisations1 below, it was clear why even the best communication experts, senior managers and project managers struggled to get their messages across. Symptomatic were responses such as ‘I believe it when I see it’ or ‘This will not work, either’. Credibility dropped. The gap between the central organisations and the field widened. In this situation, a few of us took the initiative and conducted a root cause analysis the old way.

The Helicopter View, Together with Sufficient Detail, Made the Difference

1. Our Solution Approach

Instead of a splitting the challenge into supposedly manageable parts, we approached the challenge with the helicopter view and went into detail when necessary. Responding to Guiding Question 2, the hidden causes, and without knowing it, we applied elements of the de Monchy method. In this way, we identified changeable causes hiding behind complaints, reoccurring problems, and more. We brought the solution beyond the positive tipping point, where it would work. As we didn’t worry about fields, best practices, boundaries and other restrictions but were still interested in their well-working elements, the solution turned out to integrate their lowest-effort yet highest-impact elements into a single, rather-simple solution. The remaining gaps were filled based on experience and common business sense. 

These days, the solution is called Guided Self-OrganisationTM. In other words: as much freedom as possible for agility needs, and as much direction as needed for stability, efficiency and credibility needs.

It was originally published as The (IT) Strategy Management Process in book form1. The process model was that of an open and agile process, without the crippling bureaucracy of traditional processes. In response to guiding question 4, the phenomena, the process model was based on roundabouts. Instead of process descriptions that nobody reads, red traffic lights and ‘If [this] is the situation, then do [that]’–type instructions, it worked through natural process flows, guiding mechanisms and boundaries, allowing for decision making at the optimum level. 

2. Results Achieved

Following are some of the results:  

  • Colleagues found relevant documents containing strategies, service descriptions, standards and the like with just a few mouse clicks in the central repository. Finding relevant instructions and associated guidance in documents adjusted to the new structures took seconds. 
  • Green, yellow and red flags, next to the documents containing directives, service descriptions, and the like, delivered their current statuses. Clicking on a flag opened the lessons learned and/or improvements needed. This and more made using the information in operational processes, for decision-making and for the development of new versions attractive.
  • A single question in a global governance process connected central organisations with experts in the field. It prevented the creation of a highly bureaucratic and costly process.   
  • Projects that ended up in troubled situations due to lack of access to reliable information, became successful again.
  • Compliance and the culture changed for the better, as hidden causes that had created compliance and culture issues were resolved.

Spin-offs were structural reductions of the information overload, bureaucracy and complexity. The problem of the environment changing more quickly than the documentation could be updated turned into an opportunity for competitive advantage. In addition, it became obvious why initiatives to change culture had to fail. Following is an illustration with the six elements for the Bridge.

We had an agile solution for internal communication and for making agility happen at the enterprise level. Without making additions to it, we had a working solution for the BI-knowledge need outlined in the Business Intelligence (BI) post. The solution was in production for the 30.000 European employees of IT service provider EDS (later taken over by Hewlett Packard). 

In case somebody claims to have a better solution, a simple health check can be performed to find out whether such a claim is justified.

Please observe that the solution discussed here may act as an example, template or method. To identify the executable solution for the specific environment, this solution needs to be tailored to your environment. The fastest, lowest-cost and lowest-risk approach is, in my experience, via the de Monchy method.  

3. A Tough Lesson Learned That You Want to Avoid

After years of exceptional results, the unexpected happened. Our solution disintegrated slowly. We did not understand how this could have happened. Root cause analyses identified the fundamental root cause: Through traditional best practices, IT and growth, bureaucracy and complexity had increased faster than we were able to reduce it. Our solution had moved from a place prior to the tipping point where it worked well, to a place beyond the tipping point where it could not function properly anymore (Guiding Question 4, the tipping point phenomenon). Because this was a new situation and we did not know the cause at the time, we lacked the answers through which we could have avoided disintegration. 

Avoiding the trap is possible through: 

  1. Applying the answer to guiding question 1 (the mounting conflicts)
  2. Embedding the solution into corporate governance 
  3. Regular health checks

One of the consequences is that the original book publication is no longer available. With that being said, this may change, as the subject appears to be more relevant today than back when it was published. In the meantime, here is a white paper.

4. Step 1 of Your Internal Communication Project

For your internal communication project to be successful, it is of critical importance to build up trust, free up budget and reduce project risks drastically. The answer to guiding question 1, the mounting conflicts, may be sufficient. However, adjusting partial solution attempts, such as those listed above, to where they can truly provide value, should free up more budget and increase your credibility even more.

And with that, let’s move on to the guiding questions you can ask in your environment.

Guiding Questions to Create Agility at Enterprise Level

In addition to the generally applicable Guiding Questions, below are the guiding questions for the challenge of this post:   

We have many partial solutions, tools and experts for internal communication and for creating agility at enterprise level. Where are those solutions, tools and experts ensuring that not only the partial solutions work but also the overall package? Where are those creating the speed and level of reliability of a high-speed train?

More specifically:

  1. Where are the lessons learned from the past 15 years?
    • That is, especially those hiding behind complaints, re-occurring problems and project failure rates of this field.
  2. Where are the solutions and mechanisms for handling situations such as having an environment that changes more quickly than the documentation can be updated?
  3. Where is the single, central repository through which employees can find relevant strategies, standards, service descriptions, lessons learned and the like with just a few mouse clicks? 
    • That is, from the user’s perspective—not from the tool or document owners’ perspectives. 
    • It is  inclusive the structures through which employees can quickly find relevant, to-the-point content inside lengthy documents and IT applications.
  4. Where are the simple mechanisms and policies for decision-making at an optimum level and within boundaries?
    • Amazingly, not businesses but rather the US military and other Western militaries have implemented this through the new command and control doctrine of the US Department of Defense.
  5. Where is the overall environment through which the policies, strategies, standards, lessons learned and more can be trusted again? 
    • As before, this is from the user’s perspective, not from the author, owner or tool perspectives.

1 Source: The IT Strategy Management Process. E. Oetringer. 2004. Van Haren Publishing.