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How To Solve Problems In An Agile Environment

When an organization moves from being a traditional hierarchy into self-management, it’s a moment of great flux for managers: There isn’t enough clarity on what exactly their role is within this new agile environment. As people who are used to being in-charge of all matters concerning their teams, managers find it extremely hard to adapt to their new role on the sidelines.

Organizations just getting started with agile concepts believe it’s important for their managers to “let-go” of all control - a notion that can not just confuse middle-management, but also the newly self-managed teams. For, when a problem strikes, both team members and managers, alike, are used to expecting the latter to take charge and resolve the issue.

Changing The Way Managers Solve Problems
However, there’s no place for such top-down management in agile organizations. So, managers as well as their teams need to learn how to take control of the issue - togetherEarlier, problems may have been solved by managers, irrespective of whether they were directly involved in them or experienced the consequences themselves.

In other words, when a problem was raised, traditional managers tend to look at the facts and prescribe a list of actions to take in order to resolve the issue. However, this type of problem-solving is at the root of many workplace issues and often leads to dissatisfaction, band-aid solutions and overall negativity.

It’s better, instead, to deep-dive into where the problem really is; which stakeholders are directly affected by it; what are the goals when looking for a solution; what actions need to be taken to implement the solution; and who takes responsibility for what part of the solution.

A Case Study In Agile Problem-Solving
Every year, the holiday season presents a huge capacity issue for the ABN AMRO bank in the Netherlands: People want to go on holidays and often the dates overlap and create a capacity deficit. Since the bank needs to be open six days a week for their customers, the bank used to approach the issue with top-down decisions that resulted in a lot of resentment and frustration for the employees as well as the management. Besides, these managerial decisions didn’t take into consideration variables like someone falling sick or there being an emergency.

At the beginning of 2018, the bank decided to explore the self-management route and do away with its hierarchical layers. It replaced traditional managers in its over 100 branch offices with skill leads and team coaches. But most importantly, under the new organizational structure, teams were responsible for setting their own goals, making their own decisions and resolving issues on their own.

This change meant that there was no conventional planning commission at the head office deciding who went on holiday for how long. Instead, the newly agile teams had to resolve the capacity issue with some facilitation and external support from their skill leads, team coaches and regional coordinators. The problem began with some branch offices realizing that they couldn’t keep their branches open on Tuesday and Thursday of a particular week during the holiday season. In such a situation, how should all the stakeholders react? What actions should they take? Who should take ownership over what part of the solution?

Everyone Holds The Key To The Solution
The first thing they did was to identify who the actual problem owner was - of course, it was the teams in those branch offices that were having a capacity deficit. But, these teams couldn’t solve the issue on their own because so many people were taking off on overlapping dates and they needed to seek the help of skill leads. Skill leads are meant to step-in and help coordinate solutions when problems that affect multiple teams arise. The teams also asked the help of other bank branches to resolve the problem.

Every stakeholder held the key to certain parts of the solution: There were people in other teams who could fill in for the people on holiday. There were other regions in the country with a surplus of capacity and the regional coordinators got together and figured out how they could move people around to balance the capacity deficit.

The team coaches helped the teams with surplus capacity to see how they could contribute towards the solution. So everyone played a role in the solution, but it all started with identifying who the real problem owner was.

Resist Falling Back Into Old Habits
In the previous traditional hierarchy, the solution to the same problem would have taken a lot of hard work, created disappointments and frustrations for everyone involved. But now, the teams resolved the problems themselves, seeking the help they needed, understanding the goals their solution needed to meet and implementing actions that were holistic and sustainable.

It’s very easy, especially in the initial stages of self-management, for managers and teams to fall back into old ways. Managers might be unable to resist the temptation to jump right in and fix a problem, while teams could become complacent or dependent on their managers to come up with a solution - even if it isn’t the best or correct solution to their problems. And that’s why it’s extremely important to coach managers, as well as teams, about their new roles within a self-managed organization.

Strengthen Agile Foundations With Trust
Managers need to be shown how they can trust their teams to arrive at the solutions themselves and establish boundaries to create psychological safety for newly agile teams. The teams, on the other hand, need to be given the confidence that they can, in fact, resolve their own issues.

The trust, psychological safety, and confidence are among the foundational concepts of an agile organization and once it’s firmly in place, teams will be able to increasingly resolve their own issues, while managers facilitate without actually getting their hands dirty.

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