A major challenge when transitioning from the classical controlled project execution models to autonomous project execution like Agile, LEAN PDCA or Design Thinking, is to develop and maintain the proper mindset towards boundaries. The strength of these autonomous methods is the ability to provide rapid go-to-market results combined with continuous improvements based on findings and facts. The challenge during exploring the best business benefits is to objectively identify the real must-have and nice-to-have features and options, especially when the organization is undergoing the transition towards an agile business model.

In the classical controlled delivery and execution models, requirements are given and the main objective is to fulfill these requirements. Managing such project is mainly focused on timelines, budgets and delivery. The road towards completion might change slightly but the requirements are rigid. In an autonomous agile business model, the team is not working against rigid requirements and needs to explore the path towards optimal business benefits. This does however not mean that there are no boundaries to respect and explore.

When the safety regulations for an aluminum part requires a lateral elongation of at least 10%, this forms a given boundary for the engineers and LEAN experts involved in developing and optimizing the process of production. The team could argue indefinitely that the same parts can be produced with significantly lower costs at lower lateral elongation but that would put the plant out of business very soon. A must-have boundary for any improvement the team might come up with. The team will therefore explore the opportunities of improving the process in such way that the costs of producing according to the requirements will decrease. The next step might for example be, that the team develops a weight reduction program for the products and demonstrates the ability to mitigate a significant pain-point in the automotive industry and at the same time further reduce the production costs to fulfill the required elongation.

In this example from my own professional experience, the agile business model accepted the given boundary of safety regulations and explored ways to improve the process while upholding the requirements. What was at first the challenge of production costs at minimum required lateral elongation, turned into an USP of reduced CO2 footprint of the end-product by reduced weight of the component, in combination with reduced production costs.

Similar challenges arise for those companies who are for example facing GDPR requirements and are scrambling to ensure compliance before the deadline. The boundary is straight forward: when either serviced from the EU or serviced to citizens of the EU, the service provider is under mandatory GDPR compliance. Again the responsible architects, product and program managers, and executives could argue that not fulfilling the requirements could reduce costs or free up resources for other projects, but the price-tag of non-compliance would instantly silence such arguments. Business benefits are much better served by seeking optimal means of achieving compliance. This could for example be to finally migrate the last customers from that legacy component to the latest version which is GDPR compliant. Or to consider implementing components from a service provider over modifying own components at the cost of other urgent project.

In following phases after achieving the mandatory compliance, or possibly even during the implementation phases towards compliance, the responsible team might discover that upgrading the consumer portal with functionality required under GDPR could optimize the processes. Following through on these new concepts, with A-B testing and business cases showing the benefits, the former challenge of GDPR compliance could be transformed into yet another USP. Not by challenging the given boundary but solely by accepting and understanding the boundary, and ambitiously searching to maximize the business benefit.

In an empowered autonomous agile business model, the responsible team will navigate through the challenges to drive optimal results. Brainstorming and “out-of-the-box” thinking with the right experts is just as important as the commitment from the leadership team to grow the mindset throughout the organization. Succeeding with an agile business model and autonomous execution is not a matter of adding a badge to the list. This can only be achieved with a lot of small steps throughout the process, and acceptance of learning by doing. Mistakes are made and learnings are implemented. Key in achieving the results and benefiting from autonomous project execution / agile business models is to have the right mix of commitment, accountability and empowerment, driven throughout the organization. This also means the acceptance of continuing to deliver ongoing business while developing and testing improvements.

Empowering teams with the ability to navigate boundaries, including scope and timing, is an underestimated challenge for executives and leaders, and most leaders I have interviewed or worked with over decades admit that they underestimated their own need to change to be able to transition towards an agile business model and autonomous execution. And of course I also count to those who faced challenges in the transition and at times still do. I too am challenged when a project goes “off track” in the classical sense. I too am challenged when the outcome is not what I expected. And I am motivated and inspired when the “off track” project drives significantly more business benefit than we could imagine when we kicked it off. I too have learned to rely on the competence of the product owners and experts to estimate what the market needs. And that took significant emotional competence.

Source: Narrative to the workshop Emotional Competence in Autonomous Project Delivery by dr. ir Johannes Drooghaag

See also: Autonomous Project Execution – Develop the culture to deliver in LEAN, Agile and Design Thinking and the related workshop Mind over Matter