cultural agility is essential to innovation

Cultural Agility: Small is The New Big

“Can you move fast enough? Can you avoid bureaucracy while you grow?”

I posed these two questions in a dialogue with company leaders seeking to grow rapidly through mergers … and who wanted to remain culturally agile.

It led to an important dialogue about how to protect and preserve what what made each company successful. (and those they sought to acquire.)

The center of this, is the ability to connect in tribal fashion and remain agile in two ways: Responsiveness and shared knowledge. We all know BIG growth is how ideas, innovations, disruptions, trends, gain market scale. And that scale is needed to balance cost, growth, and profitability.

And yet, seismic shifts underway in our global society – in both idealogy AND technology – require us to approach growth and change differently.  To build cultural agility through habits that are more human-centered. (a radical and uncomfortable departure from military-and-machine systems and structures of the Industrial Era.)

“Cultural agility” is about setting up teams and companies to align with how humans connect and create. Modern companies can succeed at innovation by also observing and mirroring how it occurs naturally and easily: In nature.

Evolution (in the natural world, including human tribes) occurs where three “rivers of circumstance” converge:

1. Felt need. A problem to solve. Successful innovation, like nature, evolves by a living entity that responds to what isn’t People want to listen to their music on the go. Innovation = iPod. In business, speed is almost counter to innovation. Nature can take generations to evolve to adapt to warmer climates; a successful business without innovation can go extinct in one or two generations.  How DO we organize innovation with sufficient speed (which takes resources, ie, money) while remaining small enough to grow BIG.

2. Opportunity gives birth to the unexpected. A person with a mindset oriented towards expansion, new, possibility, stumbles across an idea or vision while pursuing something else. Because of their mindset, they see how it can solve a different problem. (Many people are blind to possibility thinking and will never see accidents as opportunity.)  X-Rays. Play-Doh. Sticky Notes. Velcro. Penicillin. All of these great innovations were born from experiments that began with a completely different hypothesis.

3. Habitat. A seed with life potential, planted in hospitable soil, coaxed from dormancy with proper resources – grows. A seed with life potential in an environment that conveys “must grow fruit now” rarely receives the proper resources. Start-up tech companies are incubators for seeds because they create a growth-enriching habitat that attracts and germinates creative thinking and teamwork.

Cultural agility is about fostering a habitat to see and seize opportunity, that solves a felt need.

Following are observations and ideas of how organizations – of any size, industry, or maturity – can foster the Big to Small Movement in their world:

Size DEFINITELY matters. Jeff Bezos’ “2-pizza rule” has science behind it. (no team should be bigger that what 2 pizzas can feed.) Why? Organizational psychologist and team dynamics expert J. Richard Hackman explains that it’s not the size of the group, but the number of links between people that is the issue. This math formula explains the number of links between members in a group: n(n-1)/2.

  • A basic two-pizza team size of 6 people = 15 links between everyone.
  • Double it to a team of 12, now you have 66 links.
  • A small business of 50 people has an incredible 1225 links to manage.

As group size increases, the volume of links becomes unwieldy.  The communication, coordination, and management of details grows in complexity. Collaboration becomes harder, as people separate into “small tribes.” Think of a dinner party – 6 people can sit around a table and have a group discussion easily. Expand that dinner party to 12, and the conversations and pods diverge. The most interesting story Uncle Joe told – that in a smaller group would start the most memorable conversation – may only reach 4-6 people.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist famously argues that 150 is the number of individuals with whom a person can maintain stable relationships. Some companies are taking this seriously: Home Advisor (an online platform that connects homeowners with handyman and remodeling services) will open a new location to expand once their team reaches this magic number.

Scrum used to have the rule known as 7 +/- 2 – a Development Team was expected to have at least 5 people, and 9 at most. The Scrum Guide has evolved this guidance to 3-9 people. This is confusing when looking for academic exactness, less confusing if this is seen as guidance against the goal of being “small enough to remain nimble and large enough to complete significant work within a Sprint.”

Consider why the average size of a wolf pack is 5-8 members.

To grow BIG innovation, keep teams small. And create teamwork as the operating system of your culture.

A few more healthy ideas to protect your organization from the chronic illness of bureaucratic thinking and old-era culture:

Instigate the tension and rules that stimulates collaboration.  Diversity is the fuel of innovation. Yet, the human mind is also programmed to resist what is “not like itself.” (in ancient times, this was a survival strategy.)  We must teach tools for generating healthy conflict and diversity of opinion, thought, and point of view.  The basics of collaboration (shared goals, co-location, facilitation skill, felt need) won’t stick unless you create it as a cultural expectation. Google initiated a research effort “Project Aristotle” that discovered the most defining characteristic of successful collaborative teamwork was an unwritten social code that everyone on the team spoke equally. When managers spoke 80% or more of the time in meetings, it correlated to the least collaborative teams.  Create a strategic goal that requires people to work across the business, yes.  More importantly, enable Collaboration or Balanced Participation as a core value. Reward leaders who stimulate it, who organize people to work across boundaries. Teach and enable managers HOW to foster collaborative teams. Pose provocative questions to the team. Bring tools that promote visual thinking Ensure everyone weighs in with a slightly nuanced or different point of view. A subtle point of great importance: Ensure team leads and senior executives curb their frowns and body language when points of view surface they don’t agree with.  Practicing diversity of thinking in a team, takes structure, patience, and practice.

Work + Social = Performance. Food (managed properly) is the ultimate productivity tool. It’s why tech startups and cool companies have kitchens that resemble a high-end food court mall and give their employees meal cards. More important than the free meal and eliminating  the 45-minute lunch break … companies who encourage teams to eat together AND play together, ramp from “Forming to Performing” much more quickly.  It’s no longer desirable in any culture, to hide in your cube and avoid people. How can you encourage fun, frivolity, and free time spent together within teams?  Agile advice: FOCUS on the goal doesn’t in itself produce the highest levels of productivity. Shorter bursts of activity with rest, physical activity and play are a known productivity formula for human beings.

Easy #Connected.  It’s essential to have cloud-based communication tools especially for teams that work virtually across diverse geographies. Keeping people inspired, in-the-know and connected is about having a communication manager on the team who stimulates Twitter style briefness and relevance. It is a must in the Millennial workforce. Software like Evernote and Zinc-It help keep people connected and sharing ideas – and connecting people easily from the front lines to the office staff to the leadership – IS one absolute in a large company that seeks innovation to grow.

What culture practices is your company using to fuel growth through “Small is the New Big” principles?

Article sources:

The Science Behind Why Small Teams Work More Productively: Google’s 2 Pizza Rule

Google’s Unwritten Rule for Team Collaboration



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