Embrace Messy Coherence to get a jump start on your agile transformation

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Frameworks towards agile (and these days business agility) ultimately aim to establish efficiency, alignment and homogeneity in the organisation. Are these worthy goals, though? Is agility the only goal for an organisation, or is it essential to ensure that they are resilient and anti-fragile too? Does homogeneity stand in the way of building resilient organisations?

Snowden might think so when he says in one of his blogs, “The desire to eliminate foreign bodies and align people with common values and goals may sound superficially attractive but in practice it damages resilience” (Snowden Dave, 2019a).

Framework-based approaches often fail at achieving homogeneity and alignment as well because the systems we are operating with aren’t linear and perfectly ordered. These are complex adaptive systems, and they do not respond so well to these calls for uniformity. While we keep talking about VUCA, the transformation approaches often assume an ordered world that is malleable to move towards a defined end state (or target operating model if I use a consulting term). Outside the boardrooms and beyond the power points lies a messy world with multiple constructs playing, yet there is a distinct order and sense to it too.

It is not chaos; however, it does not always welcome a call for broad-brush uniformity. There is definitely some coherence, albeit messy.

Messy Coherence

Coherence is hard to explain. So let us start with incoherence.

If I would write this article with the same content, but the sentences jumbled up in a very random order, that would be incoherent. You would struggle to make meaning out of it. The structure and flow of the sentences are crucial for the article to be coherent. Having a structure does not mean that there are rigid rules or no scope for differences in approach. I could choose to write in a very informal tone or take a very academic research paper approach. However, If I stick to generally accepted writing styles, the “messiness” could be bounded well enough for things to remain coherent for a vast cross-section of people.

Messy coherence is also referred to often as Coherent Heterogeneity. It is about acknowledging the differences within boundaries that ensure the coherence. It is about embracing as much diversity as we can without fragmenting or becoming incoherent (Snowden Dave et al., 2020).

Aligned Diversity

As you increase variety within the system to the point where it becomes heterogeneous, it matters that the differences are capable of coherence. While there may be conflict, alignment, in context, should be relatively easy to achieve (Snowden Dave, 2019b).

Diversity and the inherent conflict themselves are not necessarily bad if the stakeholders can co-exist and align when needed towards common goals and outcomes. Teams inside an Agile Release train could either practice Scrum or Kanban, yet they can ensure that they are aligned and synchronised with constructs like Program Increment Planning, Scrum of Scrums (SOS) and others.

It is not necessary to force homogeneity for alignment; it can also happen in diversity.

Using “AND”

Too much difference and things become incoherent. Too much coherence and things become too homogeneous (Snowden Dave et al., 2020).

Suppose you had hundreds of teams in your organisation, and each chose their own ways of working without always a perspective on the bigger organisational picture. That kind of heterogeneity might lead to potential misalignment and conflict. However, forcing a single framework or process across all teams undermines the system as there is no room for contextual adaptation.

A better way might be, based on the context, the teams will choose what they will optimise for. Will they stick to the globally suggested model or tweak it to adapt to local needs? Local diversity and global alignment must co-exist based on context; one of them must make way for the other as needed. Teams will need to think about every practice in much finer detail. There is no local or global to choose from in generic ways. They might follow global processes for backlog elaboration, refinement and dependency management yet local practices for the coordination and collaboration between team members.

Using “AND” and making decisions in context is crucial instead of getting mired in binary choices. Given the state of the framework wars, you don’t need to choose between Scrum OR Kanban. Why not choose the best of both to experiment and adapt as you go.

Acknowledging Bounded Applicability

Bounded applicability is essential because things are never context-free. Boundaries give meaning, and practices are rarely right or wrong in absolute terms or are universally applicable. Every technique, method and approach have a utility in a bounded context. Beyond that boundary, the utility breaks down. A practice outside its boundary of utility creates more mess than coherence.

The SAFe Program Increment Planning is an excellent practice and makes perfect sense if you work with a team of 100+ people. Such an alignment at the start of a development cycle adds tremendous value. However, if your group size is only 40 people, are you going to do program increment planning with a similar agenda. Not really, the elements still make sense, and the necessary adaptation of the PI Planning agenda to the context creates value instead of waste (and mess) created by a rigid compliance approach.

Implementing Scaffolds, not frameworks

Ann Pendleton-Jullian writes, as quoted by Sonja Blignaut in her medium post (Blignaut Sonja, 2021)

“A framework is a structure designed to support or enclose something, or an abstract setup for solutions to several related problems. It is a complete structure, usually permanent, and gives form to that which it supports, or encloses, or solves. A scaffold, however, is a temporary structure that supports something to emerge on its own terms, it influences as it supports and is designed to ‘scaffold’ and steer emergence in today’s complex environments.”

Frameworks lead us into thinking of end states. Scaffolds allow emergence. Scrum, which its creators call an “immutable” framework, could be a fantastic scaffold enabling organisations to evolve and agility to emerge. In forcing the constructs of Scrum, the opportunity for emergence and adaptation to the context is often lost. I have always viewed all frameworks as inputs to build my scaffolds adapted to the context and have had some pretty exciting results. However, there have been unwelcome consequences like being scorned by agile and framework purists.

Nevertheless, scaffolds are crucial to steer emergence. You have to be mindful, though. Even though scaffolds are temporary, they must be robust structures and strong enough to support the current state and the next level in the emergence. Otherwise, you won’t be able to support building the next level and guide the emergence you seek.

The Wrap

While messy coherence looks pretty logical, it is not intuitive to understand and more so accept — not just for the leaders but also for the agile coaches. The prevalent management thinking is to aim for better order and structure. The mind constantly strives to find simplicity in a complex world. Adopt those frameworks now is the mantra to eliminate the inefficiencies, drive alignment and build homogeneous organisations constantly moving toward that target end state — our idea of simplicity.

Acknowledging and accepting that messy coherence is OK could be an excellent start, a big jumpstart towards a different and possibly more successful transformation journey.

References

Blignaut Sonja, 2021. Creating Messy Coherence. While researching these posts, I… | by Sonja Blignaut | Medium [WWW Document]. URL https://sonjablignaut.medium.com/creating-messy-coherence-c0ae404e2627 (accessed 7.3.22).

Snowden Dave, 2019a. Coherent heterogeneity (1 of 2) — The Cynefin Co [WWW Document]. URL https://thecynefin.co/coherent-heterogeneity-1-of-2/ (accessed 7.3.22).

Snowden Dave, 2019b. Coherent heterogeneity (2 of 2) — The Cynefin Co [WWW Document]. URL https://thecynefin.co/coherent-heterogeneity-2-of-2/ (accessed 7.3.22).

Snowden Dave, Goh Zhen, Borchardt Sue, Blignaut Sonja, 2020. Cynefin — Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of Our World by Dave Snowden.

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