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Is your Organizational politics hurting your Agility?

The pursuit of business agility by companies is still in its early days and success has been varied and elusive for many. There is little doubt about the benefits of higher agility – the ability to reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, technology and their products or services towards creating higher value. Yet, many companies struggle in their transformation efforts to improve their agility.

In research conducted by McKinsey & Company, it was found that only 22% of organizations were agile (based on a set of eighteen practices that enhanced organizational agility).

This article explores one key factor, organizational politics, that seems to have a strong impact on agility and agile teams. The article also offers suggestions for tackling politics given that politics and people are two sides of the same coin.

Defining organizational politics

Organizational politics can be defined as informal, unofficial and behind-the-scenes efforts to push agendas or influence an organization, increase power or achieve any other targeted objectives. Political agendas or objectives are sometimes incompatible and in direct conflict with the organization's’ agenda or objectives and serve the vested interests of an individual or small group. However, organizational politics is quite normal (if it is not dysfunctional) and should be seen as another influencing process along with the norms, formal authority and expertise. While many people intensely dislike politics of any sort, the reality of organizational dynamics requires us to be aware of and deal with politics even if we do not wish to indulge in it.

The root cause of political activities are often scarce resources (money, time, people, skills, etc.), social and structural inequalities and individual and personal motivations.

One dimension of the political landscape in organizations is the type of power that individuals possess. Some individuals have “soft” or informal power and is characterised by how they make use of influence, relationships and norms. Political activity based on “hard” or formal power draws upon role authority, expertise, directives and ability to control rewards or mete punishments. Both, soft and hard power politics can be helpful or hurtful to organizations depending on how that power is used to progress or block organizational agility. While rules, structures, policies and procedures may act as checks and balances against damaging politics they also have the tendencies to restrict agility by being too bureaucratic.

Understanding the political terrain of organizations can help team members avoid or fight dysfunctional politics. Team members who can avoid the hidden traps of political dynamics and defend themselves against the bad side of politics and use what they know to support the organizational goals will find it easier to engage in positive behaviours that drive agility.

The Politics of controlling resources

Resources, in the context of organizations, include money (budgets), time (schedules), people, equipment, etc. Individuals with “hard” or formal power by their hierarchy in the organization tend to control these resources. By providing or restricting the resources they control, executives have a direct impact on business agility. Typically, they tend to be middle-level managers in the organization. While they may have an interest in advancing business agility their behaviours are also negatively influenced by power politics of jealousy and intolerance towards their peers and their peers’ successes or achievements. A strong culture of collaboration and shared rewards driven by senior executives to whom these mid-level managers report can often counter the bad politics of controlling resources for personal agendas rather than to drive organizational agility.

The Politics of changing established practices

Driving business agility requires organizations to change their established practices, processes and approach. Change usually transfers or displaces established power in individuals and teams and as such those people tend to indulge in political activities to maintain status-quo or impede change initiatives.

Agility focuses on creating value through inspection, adaptation and improvement which are all characteristics of empiricism. Organizations tend to be more process and procedure oriented than empirical, which calls for strong governance to ensure that stipulated polices and processes are followed and not deviated. Further, agility requires and actively promotes transparency across individuals, teams and units. Usually the conflict between these two paradigms gives rise to politics.

Agility is predicated on collaboration, not control. Individuals, teams and entire organizations work together to create products (or services) that enhance business value to users or customers. Organizations that tend to function through tight control will have a high-level of political activity because control delivers power to a few and it benefits them significantly to hold on to it. Controls are usually exercised through “approvals” for allocation of resources (money, time, people and material) and for key activities.

The power Politics of structures and hierarchies

Agility is directly proportional to the number and type of levels in the organizational structure. Flat, non-hierarchical and informal structures tend to be more agile than layered, hierarchical and formal structures. Decisions and approvals tend to be slow and bureaucratic in formal structures and conflicts with the self-organization characteristic of agile organizations. Formal and hierarchical organizations tend to have a significantly higher level of political activity, because people in higher levels exercise more power and influence by their designation and not necessarily because of their competency and personal characteristics. To keep their employees superficially happy, organizations tend to create superfluous and unnecessary managerial layers thereby increasing the level of political activity.

Guidelines for coping with Politics

  1. Engage a great Agile coach to conduct focussed sessions for Mid-Level Managers on Agile values, principles and practices. Spreading the knowledge of Agility is half the battle against detrimental politics. Repeat these sessions regularly until that knowledge is ingrained well in Line Managers. It is not enough to transform the mindset of just team members to be more agile and assume that Managers are already agile in their thinking and actions.

  2. Encourage Agile teams and individuals to understand the nature and types of politics (outlined earlier in this article). Set the expectation that organizational politics is a reality and it is wishful thinking to not have it. It is useful for teams to identify political players and their agendas early in a project and discuss approaches to negate hurtful politics. Teams that develop the mindset and ability to cope with such politics, rather than become frustrated, tend to be resilient in the longer term.

  3. Proactively bring to the surface all behind-the-scenes politics and discuss the impact of dysfunctional politics on Agile teams and overall Agility. Letting dormant politics work its way at corroding Agile environments is significantly more damaging than any potentially vindictive action by political players.

  4. Conduct project-specific and enterprise-wide retrospectives regularly and include political players in the events. If it is not a safe environment then get team members to bring to the surface political tensions, activities, etc. to the fore through anonymous notes. Get senior executives to discuss these issues in Retrospective forums in the presence of all.

  5. Establish clear and simple Agile team structures through support from senior organizational leaders. There are only three roles in Scrum teams – Product Owner, Scrum Master and Development team member or Developer. Usually structural politics arises when the role of a Product Owner conflicts with the role of a Line Manager or between a Product Owner and Scrum Master because of misunderstandings. It will benefit to revisit the responsibilities of Scrum teams, from time to time, during retrospectives or open and trusting conversations.

  6. Teams often engage contractors as Scrum Masters or Developers. Sometimes, tensions arise between contractors and permanent employees of an organization because of attitudes, compensation, treatment, sense of belonging, competency, etc. Such tensions manifest itself in political activities. One way to overcome such politics is to bring those tensions to the surface through open discussions involving the entire team during retrospectives. In most cases, covert tensions and behaviours are like a cancer eating away at the team’s productivity and cause irreparable damage if ignored or left untreated. While it is hard to bring differences and tensions to the open for discussion, it is the optimal way to treat bad politics.

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