Don't give me solutions - tell me the problem

In my last article I discussed the difficulties of introducing agile at scale using 'out of the box' frameworks; that it is a misconception that these frameworks will solve your agile scaling problems.

Frameworks might give you agility. But only if your problems are the same as everyone else’s. And that’s unlikely to be true. If you are in a large, complex organisation, there's much to fix - and an agile at scale framework won't do that.

I've worked at organisations so complex that they have setup a senior task force to find and eliminate all those process that have become too complex and problematic over time. I call them 'bonkers processes'. I bet you can list a few of your own. In the past, we just lived with them. Now we need to be more reactive. Those processes originally designed to help are now just getting in the way.

The first step is to find the problems that are blocking your agility. But where do you start? Find the biggest problems and start chipping at them? Find some easy wins? Rip everything up and start again?

If you take a traditional problem solving route, it's typically a long and drawn-out process.  It won't help your agility. And there's a big risk you will focus on the wrong problems. That's a lot of effort implementing solutions that don't provide the right benefits.

Instead, take a more dynamic approach to finding and solving your problems. Find a problem, change something, measure the impact. Move to the next problem. I call it agile problem solving.

Find your problems by involving your team

The best way to find your problems is to ask your own people. They know how your business works. Give them the skills to identify and understand the top problems stopping them being more agile. If their problem is too difficult to sort now, choose something that can be done. As you remove each problem, others get easier to solve.

As a leader I’m sure you are often saying “I don’t want to hear problems, come to me with solutions”. While that’s a great way to empower your teams to think for themselves, for a change you are going to let those ‘glass half empty’ folk have their day. This time, you want to know their problems.

Here are a few tips to help your team to root out your real problems.

Set a needed but unachievable long-term goal, ask why they can’t reach it. Get them to list the reasons. Log all the problems - you’ll get a lot.

Now agree an interim target towards your goal, something that’s a bit of a stretch, but at least some of the team think it’s achievable.

Now identify your first problem towards that goal. That might be a big blocker, another team or maybe you are missing some critical information to make a decision.

Get your team experimenting. Make some small changes. Try some new things. Your experiment may not unblock the problem immediately. The most important thing is that the team learn something. By learning they'll get one step closer to understanding the problem. The next experiment they try is more likely to give you the solution.

This process will feel pretty strange at first. Most of us haven't worked liked this since we were at school. Our learning genes have been suppressed through all the processes and controls we have introduced in our working environment. But it is the way to get your team to learn and adapt. It’s the skills they are going to need to help you succeed as a modern, agile business.

If you get your people thinking in this way, they’ll start to change the organisation for you. You don’t need to tie yourself into frameworks, time-consuming training or expensive consultancy. Change from within. It’s the only way to sustain competitive advantage as a modern business in a fast moving market.