This blog is written by one of our past Certified Agile Leadership graduates, Andy Eley.

Andy is an agile leader and coach who brings a practical approach from a rich background in development, Scrum Mastery, Product Ownership and coaching from diverse domains and industries. He is currently working with Virtusa to help their clients move beyond focusing on transformations and into organisations who can adapt and evolve for long-term success.

Beyond Transformation: Embracing Agile Evolution for Organizational Success

Introduction

Recently, my kids received a caterpillar garden kit, where they could witness the incredible journey of caterpillars transforming into beautiful butterflies. This experience got me thinking about the distinction between transformation and evolution, both in the natural world and within organizations. In this article, we’ll explore how lessons learned from nature can be applied to organizational agility, going beyond mere transformation, and embracing agile evolution to unlock long-term success.

Transformation and Evolution in the Natural World

When a transformation happens in the natural world, there is a significant change or alteration in the structure, form, or function of an organism or system. It often involves a complete or radical shift from one state to another, resulting in a distinct and noticeable difference. In our instance, from a caterpillar to a butterfly. The need to transform can be due to several reasons such as environmental changes, genetic mutations, or external influences. The change takes place in a relatively short time, days, weeks, and sometimes months.

Evolution takes far longer and is a gradual process that occurs over a much longer time. It involves the genetic and heritable changes taking place over multiple generations. It is driven by the process of variation, inheritance, and selection, which leads to the accumulation of beneficial traits and the elimination of unfavourable ones. Through this process, species undergo modifications and diversification, allowing them to better adapt and survive in their changing environments.

What About in the Business World?

The parallel between the natural world and organizational agility is striking. The market environment changes, external influences such as competitors, customers, etc., and organizations must respond to survive and flourish. To do this, we often look to transformations to aid these changes, which focuses on a significant and deliberate shift in mindset, practices, and culture within the organization. It’s akin to the caterpillar’s transformation, a purposeful change from one state to another.

However, true agility goes beyond transformation; it embraces the concept of evolution. It’s about cultivating an environment where continuous learning, adaptation, and improvement become ingrained in the organizational DNA to steer it to evolve for the long term.

Building an Evolutional Culture

There are several elements that can aid us within the agility space to build this culture.

  • 1, Embracing a Growth Mindset: At the heart of a culture of continuous learning lies a growth mindset. Encouraging everyone to adopt this mindset cultivates a belief that abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and effort. Leaders play a pivotal role in promoting a growth mindset by acknowledging and rewarding efforts, emphasizing learning from failures, and fostering an environment where curiosity and experimentation are valued.
  • 2, Creating Learning Opportunities: Providing diverse learning opportunities is essential to expand knowledge and skills. This can include traditional methods such as workshops, seminars, and training programs, as well as embracing other approaches like e-learning platforms, webinars, and mentorship programs. Encouraging cross-functional collaboration, pairing and swarming, and special projects also expose people to new perspectives and challenges, fostering continuous learning. Critically, for this to work, you must create the safe space to run experiments.
  • 3, Encouraging Knowledge Sharing: An organization that values continuous learning must foster a culture of knowledge sharing. Establishing platforms for internal communication and collaboration, such as intranets, online forums, or social networks, encourages everyone to share insights, good/great practices, and lessons learned from experiments. Additionally, organizing regular team meetings, lunch-and-learn sessions, or knowledge-sharing events enables individuals to contribute and discuss their expertise and learn from their peers.
  • 4, Incorporating Feedback Loops: Feedback loops are essential for continuous learning and improvement. Encouraging regular feedback and creating a safe space for open and honest communication empowers individuals and teams to learn from their experiences refine their skills and make informed decisions. Implementing performance evaluations, 360-degree feedback mechanisms, and ongoing check-ins with managers and peers helps them gain valuable insights, identify areas for growth, and foster a culture of continuous improvement.
  • 5, Recognizing and Celebrating Learning Achievements: Acknowledging and celebrating learning achievements create a positive feedback loop and reinforce the importance of continuous learning. Recognizing individuals or teams who acquire new skills, obtain certifications, or implement innovative ideas not only boosts morale but also inspires others to pursue their learning goals. This recognition should take various forms and differ from person to person based upon their individual character.
  • 6, Leading by Example: Leadership plays a pivotal role in setting the tone for a learning-oriented culture. When leaders prioritize their own learning and development, it sends a powerful message to the entire organization. Leaders should actively seek out learning opportunities, share their own experiences and insights, and foster a safe environment where questioning the status quo and seeking new knowledge is encouraged. By using these elements, an environment to continuously learn and adapt can emerge or evolve.

Darwin: “Survival of the Fittest”

What is it that makes the change stick? Going back to our definition of evolution in the natural world, evolution involves the genetic and heritable changes taking place over multiple generations. It is driven by the process of variation, inheritance, and selection, which leads to the accumulation of beneficial traits and the elimination of unfavourable ones. The ‘Survival of the fittest’ is a phrase that came from Darwinian evolutionary theory as a way of describing the mechanism of natural selection, and we see something similar within organizational evolutions.

At the team level, they have an inspection and adaptation feedback loop built into their way of working, such as a retrospective at the end of a sprint for Scrum, where the team makes changes to improve and enhance their way of working. Each time they alter something, they look at the effect over time and decide whether to keep the change or alter it further. Over time, this organic selection of enhancements and experiments adjusts the team’s ways of working to survive and flourish in their environment.

Moving into the portfolio or enterprise level, we see teams of teams coming together to learn from one another and what elements other teams are finding success with or what to avoid. Over time, the different groups can find a common framework or foundation that they all share, with slight variations to their own specific situations. But again, we see a natural selection of what works well stays and becomes part of the organization’s ways of working. Each of these changes that is made is its own mini transformational experiment. While the experiment could work, and the alteration sticks for a time, there needs to be long-term value to them. Otherwise, they come and are celebrated for a short term but quietly get forgotten about as new experiments are proposed and are more successful. This is where a transformational experiment can evolve into the long-term culture and DNA of the organization.

The Summary

The natural world has shown us that transformation is important. Caterpillars turn into butterflies, tadpoles turn into frogs to further their existence and flourish for the short term. However, evolution has shaped the creatures that inhabit the earth now through a steady and slow change. Experimenting and keeping the traits that brought them success over a long timeframe.

Organizations need to adapt to stay relevant in their chosen markets and blossom. When transformations are viewed as the answer, they can only take you so far and provide success in the short term. However, if we consider an evolutionary approach and build the right conditions, we have the potential to unlock success in the long term.

To learn more about Agile Leadership, how to lead and support teams and organizations, how to advance your teams and organizations to the next level, and how to enhance your self-leadership, join our upcoming Agile Leadership workshop, which has been delivered to thousands of leaders globally, or engage us in a private session for your leadership team.