Principles of Agility

When it comes to agility I’ve had leaders tell me to force it, buy it, demand it, mandate it….I don’t work with people like that.

Agility is released. It comes from knowing where you are going, what problems are stopping you from achieving success, building the right team, instilling the right behaviours and habits, and learning as you go.

What follows in this post are a series of principles that Cultivated Management work by. We find that managers and leaders resonate with many of these, but they are also a guiding light for us when we work with clients. They help to shine spotlights, start conversations, instigate studying and assess whether we’re building the right teams to get stuff done.

Merely laying these down and having a robust conversation can be enough to get people thinking, and behaving, differently. That’s what we use them for.

Here are the main principles and guiding ideas. I’ll explode each one below.

  1. Build stable teams
  2. Visualise work and take responsibility
  3. Focus on flow, not just capacity
  4. Prioritise and force rank the work
  5. We can always improve
  6. Value your customers and deliveries
  7. Ask “What problem are we trying to solve?”
  8. Know where you’re going
  9. Lean into problems
  10. Behaviours are everything
  11. Management and leaders have access to the most powerful levers
  12. Agile is NOT an end goal
  13. Effectiveness and efficiency are not the same thing
  14. Systems govern success, but good people can change systems
  15. Follow Process. Move Fast. Learn.
  16. Follow decisions to the outcome


Build Stable Teams

You see it a lot.

People moving left, right and centre – switching teams, moving roles, taking on new projects before completing existing ones.

Managers moving people, redeploying “resource” and recreating teams to deal with poor planning, a lack of capacity or simply relying on heroes.

The forming, storming, norming and performing idea is a sound one – I see it firsthand in every company I work with. Some teams can get to performing quicker than others. Some teams need more help than others. Some teams, honestly, never make it to performing. Some teams never exit the storming phase.

A core principle we look for, and encourage, is to build stable teams and leave them alone unless they need some help.

Managers dabbling and interfering can cause all sorts of problems. A clear direction, good support, good behaviour management and a clear direction for the team helps teams get to performing quickly. Releasing agility relies on a clear direction.

There is one caveat. If you’re growing at a rapid rate then always seed new teams with people who live and breathe the values, mission and cultural behaviours. That way, the new team stand a chance of being connected to the core business and developing in a way that supports the culture.

Other than that, help the teams to normalise and understand each others. Then leave them alone if you can.

Know where you’re going

A true north, shining light, bright star, painted picture, vision, mission statement – yada yada yada. Call it what you want.

Without a clear painted picture of the future – you’ll always struggle to release agility. People won’t know what problems they are trying to solve.

Release – set free from confinement

Agility – moving quickly and smoothly towards your goals.

When we work with a client, we need a True North or painted picture. We need to know what markets exists, what needs customers have, what conditions we are operating in. What problems need to be overcome – evidence and insight-based data and information that helps to direct the next steps and overall vision.

The business needs this. Your people do too. Knowing where you’re going is the key to success. After all, there is little point in moving quickly and smoothly in the wrong direction.

It’s not uncommon to have many True Norths in an organisation, often competing, often confusing. How could you ever expect your teams to deliver when confusion over the direction exists?

It’s not just at a company level either – you need this clarity over direction at every team level within the organisation too. A clear why is important. A clear strategy is needed. It gives everyone in the organisation a marker to make decisions against.

Confusion leads to busyness, burnout and waste.

The best companies know what they’re trying to achieve. They may not get there, they may pivot along the way, but they are clear at all of these points.

Communication is key here. Evidence and data help too. A compelling story of change is a must.

Visualise work and take responsibility

Agility requires work to be visible.

Only when we can see work, discuss it, report on it, move it, prioritise it and study it, can we make good decisions.

Too many teams have hidden work or have little idea about what’s involved in complete success. When we start to visualise work, we often see many teams are trying to do too much. When this happens people are often making decisions about what to work on. And sometimes it’s not the most valuable work.

That’s where a clear True North or painted picture comes in, but so too does the ability to see all of the work.

The path of least resistance, easy work, obvious work, fun work – these are all genuinely good reasons why people choose their work. But sometimes these choices aren’t based on what the customer needs to be done. There is always too much to do, people need clarity over how to make decisions on the important work. Making work visible is a good first step to this.

When you make work visible it must also have an owner.

That person must take ownership and responsibility of that work. It’s hard to hide when your work is visible. People don’t hide work and lack of delivery on purpose – the system conditions often force that behaviour, but making work visible means people can then take responsibility of it – the ability to respond.

It’s also clear to others what decisions are being made and which work is being done – and by whom. It’s not about a blame culture (although it’s always the scrum master’s fault 🙂 ) – it’s about ensuring everyone understands the complexity and complicated nature of bringing humans together to get work done.

No heavy weight PMO needed – just honesty over what’s possible or not – and then good visibility to make good decisions to add good value to customers. We can’t do it all – but hiding work has a detrimental effect to everyone in the organisation – and your customers.

Focus on flow, not just capacity

Flowing work from idea to delivery is the goal of agility. It’s about releasing value quickly and smoothly. The problem is most workplaces focus on capacity.

How many people do we have, how long does it take and therefore, when will it be done?

The problems are many with this approach but in essence, it leaves little room for errors, emerging work and change. And it assumes our work is heavily defined upfront. Some work can be, some is unknown until we start on it.

Capacity is important but maxing it out is crazy.

Think about a motorway. When it’s at capacity nobody moves, when it’s flowing everyone gets to their destination faster. Think about sports people, they are at their maximum capacity on game day, but they aren’t working at maximum capacity every single day. They’d be destroyed, tired – burned out. Yet we often expect that from our employees – full time 100% capacity – no wonder people are tired and burning out.

Flow allows people to adapt and change. Good people won’t slack off with more slack time. They’ll use it to learn, explore, deal with emerging work and it acts as a buffer for that work which becomes complicated quickly.

Everyone in your organisation wants to achieve success. Good managers, who have set a clear direction and are helping people use their skills and strengths don’t have to worry that slack in a schedule will be filled with Facebook.

If work isn’t flowing, it’s likely you’re at capacity. Go study and see for yourself.

Prioritise and force rank the work

I hear it often. Everything’s important. Everything is a number 1 priority.

I was in a meeting with some execs once and the highest priority changed 6 times.

If everything is important, then nothing is.

There is always something more valuable and important to your customers/business than something else. Force rank your work. Number it 1 to N. Prioritise it – then deliver it.

Something must be more important. And working that out, deciding on it and forcing the prioritisation is hard – but leads to clarity for all involved.

Don’t fall into the trap of taking on more work when the number 1 piece of work is blocked or taking a while to deliver. If it was number 1 then it still is. Put everyone behind it to get it done. It was important when you started working on it, it needs delivering.

We can always improve

“We’re too busy to improve”. No, you’re not.

“We’re already really good”. Maybe, but you need to dig deeper and study more.

We can always be better. I often describe better as a “beautiful word”.

If we all try to be better people, team members, workers and our organisation instils a sense of continuous improvement – imagine how much we’d get done and how much more positive our work would be.

Be better. Agility requires a relentless and unnerving pursuit of getting better.

Value your customers and deliveries

There’s little sadder in the workplace than a bunch of good, well intentioned people delivering little value. Yet, it’s easy to fall into the trap of busyness. People, working hard, delivering the wrong things, or in many instances, delivering little at all.

At the root of most of this is a loss of connection to the customer and those all important priorities.

When we help companies release agility, we draw a picture of a sample customer on the wall. We then ask the leadership team to draw their current “path to live” process from the customer backwards, whether that be software or advertising or service design. We often need multiple walls – their paths are complicated and long-winded.

Layers and layers of red tape, meetings, sign-offs and governance stand between an idea and realising the value of that idea. Some of this is needed, most is not. Functional silos, pointless meetings and endless reports get in the way.

Agility is about working out what you need and discarding the rest – and when we help companies do this – they focus on shipping value. I often describe agile as an action orientated way of working. What’s the smallest next step? How can we get something to our customers quickly and easily and with the right quality?

I often suggest to leaders that they bring some of their customers into the office and show them how their products and services are delivered.

Most decline – after all – what would their customer’s really say, if they saw how disorganised the company is, how badly communication flows (or doesn’t) and how busy people seem to be on building PowerPoints, reports and preparing for governance meetings rather than shipping value?

You need some of this. But most companies have bloated beyond what’s required – brought in by well-intentioned people trying to gain some control.

The only real control you have in an organic organisation is your people focusing intently on the customer – and the right level of due diligence to stop simple mistakes and poor judgement creeping out. It’s easier to create this can kind of path to live than most people think – and it all starts with studying what the customer needs – and working out how to provide it in the simplest form.

Ask “What problem are we trying to solve?”

When we work with clients, you’ll hear us ask “what problem are you trying to solve?” about almost everything. Meetings, work process, products and services, hiring and governance boards.

What problem are you trying to solve?

And often the answer is unattainable.

Problems exist in all companies. Interesting companies have interesting problems to solve. Talented people like to solve interesting problems too.

Understanding what problems are on your path to your true north and which ones aren’t, is important. There are always more problems to solve than we have time to fix. So, we need to narrow scope and fix the ones in our way. Yet, many people are busy solving easy problems, fun problems, obvious problems – and some, if not many of these, add little value to the business.

Leaning into problems is a challenge too – but to release agility we must embrace the problems facing us, lean into them, understand them and solve them.

After all, if we don’t know what problems we have, how can we ever know if we’re solving them? Solutions to unknown problems are common – only they don’t solve problems – they often create more.

Study. Learn. Move fast to solve.

Behaviours are everything

If you’ve followed my work before you’ll know I focus almost entirely on behaviours. Underneath every successful methodology or framework is nothing more than people behaving in a certain way – with a clear direction of travel.

The culture of your company or team is nothing more than group habit. It’s what people do every day. It’s the sum of everyone’s behaviours.

If you want to shift the culture, you change behaviours.

Behaviours are what people do, what they say, how they say it, body language and work output (manager-tools).

You can observe behaviours, describe them, explain them, give feedback about them, nudge them and nurture them. You cannot change them – individuals must do that themselves.

Every company has its own culture and it’s the role of managers and leaders to nudge behaviours in the direction that is right for their company culture goals. I don’t thrive in high pressure, aggressive environments – some people do. There is no right or wrong (well, there are plenty of wrong behaviours but I’m assuming most people don’t partake in those sorts of behaviours).

Management and leaders have access to the most powerful levers

We like to work with managers and leaders when it comes to releasing agility. It’s why Cultivated Management exists. Managers and leaders have big levers to pull. Far too many companies engage agile specialists at the work output level, but it only takes a few hours before you encounter a management problem.

Managers have the ability to change the system, the rules, the budgets, the work process, team structure and more. They can bring about big change quickly. Most employees don’t have these levers. It’s why it’s important to have a management and leadership team that are all heading in the same direction. They are clear about what the goals and mission of the company are. They exhibit the behaviours they expect others to demonstrate and they hold others to account for their behaviours. They lean in to problems.

Managers open up change. Or they close it down.

If you’re a manager or leader then listen to your people. They likely know how to make your world of work better – they just don’t have the right levers to pull. You do. Listen, study, make a decision, change the rules, fix the system – pull the right levers.

Agile is NOT an end goal

I hear many companies demanding that agile be the end goal. A deliverable. A finite state to achieve.

It’s not. We don’t do agile at Cultivated Management. We release agility – and there’s always more of that.

The more you release, the more problems you encounter. Solve those and you release more. By always getting better and always solving problems on your journey you’ll start to release agility and get smoother at delivering your goals.

And I have never known an end state to this – it’s an organic process that continues forever.

Anyone who polishes up a framework and lists some measures of agile is selling you something you don’t need. How can they know your company problems, domains and behaviours? On what planet would you want to be compared, on an agile maturity model, to another company with different people, goals, constraints, culture and expertise?

Business results matter. Behaviours matter. Being a level 5 on a maturity model that someone has made up – that doesn’t matter.

Focus on your own path, on your own business results, on overcoming your own problems – and you’ll release agility along the way. And it will be right for you, at your season of life, in your company’s chapter of its story.

Made up maturity and assessment models may be helpful, instructive even, but what happens when you reach a maturity level, but your business results aren’t going so well? Is that a positive result?

What happens if you’re the highest level of one of these maturity models, but your people are disengaged, or your customers are moving to another competitor, or your team are all having stand-ups but aren’t really discussing the real problems?

Measure your own success based on behaviours in your organisation and your people’s ability to achieve their business results (and stay at your company for the right reasons).

Agile is NOT an end goal, delivering business results is.

Effectiveness and efficiency are not the same thing

I’m not sure where it came from but there seems to be this drive for efficiency over effectiveness – and many agile practitioners will talk a lot of efficiencies.

Efficiency should never be the primary goal. After all, it makes little sense to become efficient at delivering something that is ineffective.

Effectiveness is the main driver when releasing agility and achieving business results.

How can your organisation, and the people in it, become more effective?

Once you’re more effective you’ll be adding more value. And this value may come in many forms, but an obvious measure is that the customer is actually getting what they need.

Once you have an effective process, an effective team structure, effective internal communications and effective behaviours – then you should start looking to make efficiency gains. Study, optimise, fix problems, measure – then bring in IT and other tooling to be efficient.

Have you ever seen an ineffective team using an agile tool? Car crash. Yet many people are selling tools with the claim of improved efficiency.

And remember this, people are generally effective but not always efficient. Use your people (and their mighty brains) to solve problems and be effective. Use IT and tooling to extend that effectiveness and bring in efficiencies.

Don’t sacrifice effectiveness at the door of efficiency.

Systems govern success, but good people can change systems

The workplace system, processes and structure often govern the success of your people. The rules, red tape, hurdles, measures, goals, reporting and more drive behaviours and limit success.

Most people work within these constraints and never challenge them. The best employees overcome them, not through breaking rules and doing what they want, but by constructively understanding the system and changing it (or making a case for change to a manager willing to pull a lever).

Hire good people. Let them improve the system. Pull levers of change to support them.

Follow process, move fast, learn

When we release agility, we must follow a process that is effective first, then efficient. Moving fast becomes standard when the process is effective and then made efficient.

Following the process (whether it works or not) leads to learning and opportunities to make it effective.

I was speaking with a senior leader who wanted a new demand management process in place to govern new demand coming in. They had designed it without studying where demand comes from.

When I asked what problem they were trying to solve (standard question for us here) they responded by telling me that the existing, well documented, process didn’t work.

When I asked why it didn’t work – they told me that nobody followed it.

  • How did they know it didn’t work if people didn’t follow it?
  • By redesigning the process based on little knowledge, would people now follow it?

They didn’t know the answer to either question.

This is a behaviour we see time and time again – people circumventing processes for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because it doesn’t work but no manager is willing to pull a lever of change. Sometimes it’s because they deemed it too slow, or didn’t like it, or thought it didn’t apply to them. All potentially valid excuses not to follow the process.

The problem is that by not following the process they will never understand what works and what does not.

We only learn by following the process consistently and finding gaps, holes, flaws and problems. If everyone does what they want, we will rarely discover what does work and what does not.

Once you know what works, you can improve the process to make it effective first, efficient second. But this only works if people have the behaviours in place to follow it. It helps if you co-design the process, but we should also be aware that sometimes people’s preferences are put ahead of what the customer needs.

Once something is effective everyone must follow it.

When I worked in HR we built a rock-solid hiring and new starter process based on evidence and optimisation. It was lightweight but amazingly effective. I wrote a whole book about making it work here. When people followed it, they had new starters join effectively and quickly. The new starters were informed, welcomed and effective in their own work quickly. Everything worked. And the majority of people followed it.

  • But can you guess who didn’t follow the process?
  • Can you guess who thought that process didn’t apply to them?
  • Can you guess who couldn’t be bothered to fill in a simple one-page form in Salesforce to kick off the process?

The executive team.

They wouldn’t follow the process and did what they wanted.

And the feedback was telling. New starters who didn’t go through the process didn’t have the right information, complained that the recruitment process didn’t work, didn’t get laptops and struggled to understand the complex nature of the business. In one instance, a poor fellow joined and didn’t get a laptop and his boss wasn’t even present for three days. He sat on his own doodling on paper for three days. Can you imagine what he was thinking? “WTF?” springs to mind.

Everyone must follow the process. It’s how to make it better, tweak it, and then use it to rapidly achieve what the process helps you achieve. Blindly following without improving isn’t good – but use processes for what they are – aids to help you all get more done consistently.

Follow decisions to the outcome

Releasing agility means we understand the consequences that decisions and prioritisation lead to. This means following our decisions to their conclusion and understanding the impact.

Leaders make decisions every day, yet they often don’t see the carnage they unleash in an organisation because of it. The best leaders follow the decision and understand the impact. They then learn and adjust.

Releasing agility requires studying – and one thing to study is what happens when we do something. And we’ll only ever know this if we care enough to see the consequences. It’s one of the reasons why people are often so busy on busy work – because a decision is made miles away from the work – and it results in dysfunction.

Study. Learn. Improve.

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