Tortoises and Hares: How do we achieve a balance between slow and fast in an agile transformation?

February 7, 2023

The fable of the tortoise and the hare has been used as a metaphor countless times in different fields from education to the workplace to highlight the value of perseverance over speed. When talking about agile transformations, the following moral is interesting: “I can attain more success by doing things slowly and consistently than by acting quickly and carelessly.”

In my experience as an agile coach in transformations at different types of organizations, I have repeatedly heard phrases like: “The model you are proposing is fine, but three months is a long time. Will it take a whole quarter to make it a reality?”, “The work you do is useful, but it is very slow,” and “The transformation in my area is lagging far behind that of others.”

One of the challenges we have as change agents is to make those who participate in the process aware of the notion of time in transformations. We have to get C Levels, managers, and leaders to understand that significant changes take time, a steady and sustained pace, and regular reflection and improvement. 

That the place we envisioned reaching may change; that along the way, the transformation process is also going to change and will not be what we initially imagined, and on the way we, are going to make discoveries that we would have hardly been able to see when we started.

Time is not linear

There are theories that say that the future has already happened. But without getting into the field of science, in an agile, digital, cultural transformation, time is not linear nor does it move in a single direction.

Slow and fast are relative concepts. Time passes at a speed relative to the observer’s frame of reference.

In agile transformations, there is no absolute truth or a solution that applies to all organizations. I have no idea what is really happening; I have perceptions, anecdotal experiences, and phrases that I repeatedly hear. With what do those who sponsor and participate in a transformation compare slow and fast? This article is an invitation to reflect with a different perspective than the one we usually use.

In general, mental models relative to value delivery times in organizations are set in relation to tangible products—something I can use. Complexity places us in different time frames that we often don’t consider or don’t sufficiently specify or explain. It is possible to clear up these perceptions. We just need deeper conversations in which we can explain the details of these different time frames in each of their appropriate contexts. 

This perception of time is inherent to organizational culture. It is adapted to a way of seeing the workplace, which is one of the fundamental issues that an agile transformation ends up changing.

This judgment regarding time and speed stems from comparing time frames that are usually used to deliver a tangible product or to develop software; short, mid and long terms are conventions that were built by organizations and are implicit in people’s mind. Just like day and night and weeks and years, they are conventions that gave us a

referential mental organization for the passage of time.

As time goes by

in the world of knowledge, time cannot be measured only as the time it takes me to do something, but also in terms of what happens as time advances and what we learn and unlearn.

Things I saw happen over time:

  • People who, when they start to become aware of the space in which they are moving, make decisions that are often very beneficial for their well-being.
  • Teams or groups of people who unlearn, learn, and ask new questions. 
  • Conflicts that emerge, become visible, and generate significant movement to improve or go beyond the status quo.
  • People who discover a potential that was not possible or had not manifested itself in the previous state of things and who begin to generate significant value for the organization, support its greater purpose, and motivate other people.

How can we follow what happens over time seamlessly?

Reflecting on my task many times, in practice I became aware that I naturally use some criteria: one is timing and the other is intuition.

It is very valuable to get a sense of timing. There are changes that a team or group of people cannot yet embrace because they have more basic problems to solve. In these circumstances, introducing a tool that claims to represent a model or process that is not yet clear can be very harmful and may not be able to be reversed in a healthy manner. Before that, we must support the discovery of the best process. Once we have agreed upon the specific minimum conditions necessary for that ecosystem, we can think about tools if we still believe them to be necessary.

A vital aspect in any intervention is respecting people’s time and asking what is “a waste of time” and does not generate value, like, for example, unnecessary meetings. You have to win them over. 

The concept of intuitive intelligence consists of understanding and interpreting the context in order to make the best decisions possible. Seeing the organization as a system gives us that ability.

A person who has to make a decision at a critical moment combines experience, data, emotional intelligence (he knows how to listen to people), and intuition. These are contained in an intelligent memory. There are people who have developed this ability more than others. A leader with this ability will make better decisions or, at least, will fully take into account people and the complexity of the work they perform. A person’s ability to sense the whole is part of this intuitive intelligence.

Supporting people in group dynamics when they rethink their way of doing things is a complex task. It requires the ability to understand the context and achieve a shared understanding, the decision not to rush some things, the identification of the right moment to introduce changes, and learning and unlearning, which also implies taking steps backwards, forwards, or in the direction the transformation itself takes us. 

We, therefore, want to avoid evaluating time as an isolated variable or using references that are not appropriate within this type of process, but it is necessary to make this apparent since not everyone can see it. This is also part of change.

Dance to the rhythm while finding a balance

It is necessary to find a balance between what can be done faster and what cannot. If we think of it like a dance, this would be choreography in which we go from a waltz to jazz, from samba to rock and roll based on the music we are listening to; we need to achieve the value results we are after, and part of the context is the rhythm imposed by the market. We cannot stop dancing to this particular music. It has to be part of the conscious and consensual decisions that we make. Of course, changes exist that can be made faster than others. We don’t want to be hares but we don’t want to be extremely slow tortoises either. It’s about achieving harmony.

To conclude these reflections, it is very important that we create the necessary spaces for conversation within the framework of organizational transformations, so that we can stop speaking in different languages and build a shared one.

The Agile Organizations Studio from Globant  helps organizations develop organizational skills, behaviors, and ways of working that offer the freedom, flexibility, and stamina to compete and prosper in the digital era.

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