Saturday, February 09, 2008

Agile and Free Flow of Information

In his February 07 blog post ManagePro's CEO Rodney Brim discusses the relationship between being fast and managing information.

I like his post very much. However, ... in my post I'd like to discuss one particular aspect that I think needs some further discussion.

Rodney writes: "...the relationship between being fast or Agile and how..." - I think that being fast is not the same as being agile. I think that agile is about adaptability while being fast is about efficiency. Agile is about the ability to adapt for keeping the business fit in an fast-changing environment. Learning about changing environments and learning from past experiences requires the storage, retrieval, and distribution of information.

A lot of companies use paper or it's electronic equivalent for storing and transmitting information. While this has it's benefits for long-term storage - with proper backups it lasts forever - it has also it's drawbacks.

For instance, if I need a piece of information and I can easily recall it from my memory then this is the fastest to obtain it. If I have a colleague sitting next to me who I can ask and he has the information available then that's probably the next best solution. If I have to sit in front of a computer and enter a query I might get pages and pages of search results, even if I am fortunate enough to have a specialized search engine or even if the body of knowledge is stored in a good intra-corporate wiki. So this type of search tends to be very slow.

So depending where information is stored and what kind of access path I have, information is easy or harder to obtain.

But there is at least one more aspect. When two or more people communicate they again can choose different media to exchange information. After all, whatever one person is saying to a different person is nothing more than sending a small piece of information even if the content might be very simplistic. "How are you?" might carry the information about me caring about the other person. Saying "How are you?" in a face-to-face situation has a different effect than saying the same words on the phone, writing the same sentence in a hand written letter, or writing them in an email.

When I work with my people from my team or people from other teams, e.g. stakeholders, suppliers, customers, I am always on the lookout for difference in understanding of different people. When I spot such a difference I try to organize a face-to-face meeting of those people. I try to get them into one room and make them talk to each other.

I also share with my team as much information as I can. Although this certainly has it's limitations where privacy reasons of individuals or confidentiality of company information gets into the game, but it is an important factor for establishing trust.

Here is another way to describe my approach: In order to make my team more agile I try to "grease" the free flow of information. Only if the important information gets to every team member as quickly as possible the team can react in a timely fashion.

The same applies to reporting. I create reports on a weekly basis for the projects I'm responsible for. The stakeholders are informed at the earliest possible time of opportunities and challenges. Giving enough heads-up time with accurate information is probably one of the best things you can do to support your manager and other stakeholders.

So in that sense a lot of the information we circulate in my teams becomes tacit knowledge in the brains of the people.

As that is not always the best way to store information we also employ a wiki for information that we believe is valuable for long-term storage. And there are other media that we use as well such as spreadsheets, pion-boards, white-boards, etc.

So to become an agile organization it is important to use the most appropriate medium and channel for distributing and sharing information. As a collateral it is interesting to see that an organization that is very adaptible - that is agile - is at the same time also very lean and as a consequence very efficient and fast. In contrast a fast organization might be highly efficient and might be able to process service requests, product manufacturing, or software development tasks extremely fast. But if the environment changes that very same organization might have tremendous difficulties to adapt to the new conditions.

There is (at least) one more way of looking at this: Being fast is about optimizing towards efficiency while being agile is about optimizing towards adaptability. Both can be competing objectives at times.

In summary: I believe that an agile organization is very likely to be fast. But a fast organization is not necessarily agile. The other item I learned from practice: Free Flow of Information improves an organizations adaptability.

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