Support proactivity to unlock the benefits of agile

July 30, 2021

Fast, unexpected changes and the need to rapidly adapt. That’s what almost every organization in the world has been experiencing lately. Some have managed to be proactive and successful while others have had a difficult time. A recent study of over 100 teams and almost 500 employees shows that agile working sets a norm which helps teams and people work more proactively when facing tremendous challenges and constant change. We interviewed the research team behind this study to get some further insights into successful agile transformation.

Agile practices are often brought up when talking about adjusting to a changing environment, market, or customer needs. They are seen as a superior way of organizing and working when there’s a lot of uncertainties—or opportunities for learning and adapting.

Is “going agile” the answer for organizations and teams to become more proactive and thus quicker to adapt and overcome? Does it give an edge? And if so, how do you make agile work in your organization?

Protection against the uncertain

The pandemic has caused a lot of disruptions, but organizations have faced constant change and unexpected challenges long before it. The digital revolution followed by the ongoing fourth industrial revolution keeps organizations on their toes, and the pace of change doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Tom Junker, the lead author of a recent research article published in the journal Human Relations, sees transitioning to agile as one of the answers to the demands that organizations, teams, and employees around the globe are facing. “Agile working provides teams a structured process to deal with these rapid changes”, Junker outlines. Prof. Dr. Arnold Bakker, a co-author of the article agrees. “Organizations that act in volatile environments and need to be able to change rapidly when necessary can profit from agile working. It helps to stay on top of things”, Dr. Bakker adds.

Dr. Bakker also points out that agile practices, such as iterative development of ideas and products and working in short cycles, helps with other kinds of demands and not just those related to global megatrends. “Agile work practices also fit very well with fast-changing customer demands, and thus this topic is highly relevant for modern organizations”, Dr. Bakker says.

Unlock proactivity and the benefits will follow

Agile working holds many promises as a framework for organizing how we work individually and as a team. The study shows how agile working may indirectly contribute to various outcomes such as job performance, employee engagement, and innovation by stimulating proactive behavior.

The research team of Prof. Dr Arnold Bakker at the Centre of Excellence for Positive Organisational Psychology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam has shown in the past decade that levels of work engagement and creativity change daily. This is why it is important to constantly and proactively optimize your working conditions, team collaboration, and well-being.

The agile approach is very well suited for this. However, it is only effective if proactivity is emphasized and supported in the organization and the team.

Discovering the link between proactivity and successful agile transformation

Junker set out to study agile work practices with his colleagues Dr. Arnold Bakker, Dr. Marjan Gorgievski, and Dr. Daantje Derks from the Erasmus University Rotterdam. They wanted to see if agile work practices facilitate the performance of teams and individual employees by setting a proactivity norm.

Tom Junker had experienced an agile transformation process firsthand while working in HR of an organization in Germany. This sparked the interest in studying agile working and agile transformations for him, as he began his master’s thesis research. “When I started interviewing people, they all sounded enthusiastic about the direction the business unit was taking with the agile transformation”, Junker says.

He also quickly came to the realization that studying organizational behaviour related to agile transformations offers a highly valuable perspective. It seemed that the success of agile transformation depended on proactive behaviour. “The agile way of working in this business unit was a contrast to the bureaucracy that was dominating the rest of the organization. Yet, I noticed that in order to make it work, people needed to take initiative and be more proactive than they used to”, Junker depicts.

His co-author Dr. Daantje Derks also sees the value of this perspective. “The link with proactive behavior is what convinced me to participate in this project”, she notes. Dr. Derks also sees that there is still a lot to gain from studying agile working and deepening the understanding of how agile working can be beneficial. “In practice, commercial agile concepts are being implemented without really tailoring them to the work context or even the business they are in”, Dr. Derks points out.

Agile transformations are not always successful, and not everyone is as enthusiastic about it as the people Junker interviewed. People may have bad experiences or even very different definitions of agile working, some of which are biased towards the negative. As any other organizational change, an agile transformation can include friction and problems may arise.

Dr. Marjan Gorgievski has witnessed this negative bias some people have, but she sees that agile work still holds a lot of promise. In her view, agile working may be an answer to a changing society in which organizations need to be able to respond quickly. But perhaps more importantly, it can be a dynamic and inspiring way to work for the individual.

So, what do we mean by agile working?

Agile working is an approach that teams use to enable fast and flexible responses to changing requirements. In their study Junker and his colleagues didn’t focus on a specific agile framework like Kanban or Scrum, but rather on a conceptualization of agile working independent of any popular frameworks.

Agile working can be divided into two dimensions. The first dimension is agile taskwork, or how you organize your goals and perform your tasks. This encompasses such practices as iterative development, where you work in iterations or sprints (repeated cycles of usually less than a month) and produce work outputs in increments rather than first specifying the final work output in detail and then completing that work in one go.

These agile taskwork practices allow teams to experiment with different ideas and prototypes and refine those iteratively, delivering something useful after each iteration. 

By planning the work in iterations, the team can respond to unpredictable changes in requirements, capitalize on what they have learned in the previous iterations, and be more efficient in allocating resources. For instance, a software development team may try to quickly develop a beta-version of an app or a new feature and subsequently refine it based on customer feedback or to meet changing customer demands. 

The second dimension called agile teamwork is all about how you work as a team, how you interact, what roles people have, and so on. Agile teams try to ensure frequent moments for information exchange, most commonly in the form of daily meetings. They also iteratively improve the ways of working together through what are called retrospectives.

Usually during the short daily meetings (commonly stand-up meetings), the team members inform each other on the progress of their work, their goals for the day, and if they are facing any problems or need help. Retrospectives on the other hand usually happen at the end of an iteration for the purpose of taking time to reflect the team’s approach, find ways for improving team performance, and addressing team dynamics or other work-related issues (e.g., conflicts, role ambiguity, etc.).

For this study, the research team deemed it necessary to differentiate between agile taskwork and teamwork since some teams may use agile elements in only one area but not both.

It may be hard to use iterative development processes when the team’s tasks are characterized by repetitive work (e.g., administrative tasks) or if team members work very independently from one another. The team can still incorporate agile elements such as daily stand-up meetings and retrospective meetings in their teamwork activities. “Viewing agile working from both taskwork and teamwork perspectives provides a good foundation for both future scientific investigations and lessons for practice”, Dr. Gorgievski says.

From setting proactivity norms to improved performance—how does it happen?

To test their hypotheses, the research team studied more than 100 teams and almost 500 individual employees. The teams were in different phases of an agile transformation process, which gave the research team an opportunity to see how implementing agile practices evolve throughout the transformation. Some teams were already more familiar with the agile approach while others were just newly formed and had little experience with agile work practices.

The study revealed that agile working is what sets a proactivity norm in teams. This norm makes team members feel safe to engage in proactive behaviors such as job crafting and employee intrapreneurship. “In teams with a strong proactivity norm, individuals feel that they can make changes in their own working conditions but also in organizational procedures or services without fearing criticism for their initiatives”, Junker highlights.

As with any organizational change, adopting agile practices involves a learning curve. “What was surprising to me was that agile teamwork activities such as standup and retrospective meetings were most important for the teams at the beginning of the agile transformation”, says Junker. He explains that more frequent meetings help develop the shared proactivity norms just as any newly formed team needs to spend time together to develop a shared understanding of their roles and behaviors.

Based on the research, proactivity is the key to gaining the positive impact of agile working as proactive behavior improves performance. It will affect both a team’s performance as well as the performance of every individual team member. “The ability to adapt quickly to changing environments can be achieved by being proactive. This can mean, for example, being entrepreneurial and by proactively optimizing your own working conditions”, Dr. Bakker describes. Hence, if you’re planning an agile transformation, you should put a lot of emphasis in creating an environment that fosters proactivity.

How to boost proactive behaviour for more successful agile work?

At the end of the day, the benefits from agile do not come from strictly following the processes, but rather from creating an environment where people feel that they can be proactive. “According to our findings, it is crucial that teams develop norms that support employee proactivity and personal initiative”, Junker emphasizes.

Based on this realization, there are a number of ways leaders of an organization or a team can influence the outcome of agile transformation. Creating an environment where employees feel safe to show initiative and take risks and ownership should be a top priority. It will require support, not punishment, from the surrounding team, leaders, and organization. “The key take-home message is about feeling safe”, Junker pinpoints.

Here are some ideas based on this study for boosting proactive behaviour for the sake of better agile working experiences and outcomes:

  1. Create a safe environment for every employee to show initiative and be proactive without the fear of criticism or punishment. Do not punish them for failing due to proactive risk taking but rather transform failures into opportunities for learning.

  2. Encourage, reward, and make room for proactive initiatives. Communicate that proactive behavior is valued. Recognize and reward proactive behaviour, e.g., during retrospectives and performance appraisals.

  3. Reflect on your own behavior that might make people less likely to take initiative. In which situations do you unintentionally inhibit proactivity? Do your actions and words tell the same story of valuing proactivity? Are you unwittingly dismissing employees when they might show initiative?

  4. Learn to become more proactive together by facilitating e.g., job crafting workshops. Showcase how employees themselves can take charge of their working conditions.

Keep iterating

In the worst case, mechanically repeating the exercises found in an agile handbook might be more like theatre than actual agile working. When going agile, it is better to find and implement optimal practices that suit the team and constantly reflect and refine.

Junker sees a problem in implementing popular frameworks such as Scrum or Kanban if they are seen as an end in themselves. “People think they just need to start working according to the Scrum guide and everything will go smoothly”, he describes. Junker urges teams to go beyond the frameworks. “Teams that want to get the most out of agile working need to start breaking the rules of these commercial frameworks”. Dr. Derks agrees with Junker. “Agile working is a means, not an end. Ultimately, the most important thing is to create a structure that suits your individual needs and your team’s needs”, she adds.

It’s not just about the team’s performance or completing tasks efficiently. It’s also about social interactions, belongingness, and other needs related to the employee experience and even well-being. Optimal agile taskwork and teamwork practices can fulfil a wide range of needs. This is why agile teams should address these needs in their retrospectives and change what is not working for them.

As an example, some teams might benefit from more frequent standup meetings while others may abandon standup meetings altogether. “As long as a practice motivates team members to take initiative, keep doing it. Once a practice starts to hinder proactivity, change the practice or get rid of it altogether”, Junker advises.

The ultimate insight here is that agile working needs to be tailored to the specific needs of a team and the team members. And those needs will not be constant, but they rather change over time. In the spirit of agile, when something changes, you can and should adapt. So keep having those retrospectives, and keep iterating also on your agile practices!

Thank you to the authors for their insightful work and fascinating interviews!

Tom L. Junker
Ph.D candidate, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Tom L. Junker is a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His research interests include team agility, employee proactivity, work design, and organizational research methodology. Tom holds a master’s degree (summa cum laude) in Work and Organizational Psychology from the Erasmus University Rotterdam and a master’s degree in Behavioral Data Science from the University of Amsterdam.

Arnold Bakker
Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Dr. Arnold B. Bakker is professor of Work & Organizational Psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and visiting professor at North-West University, University of Johannesburg (South Africa), University of Bergen (Norway), and the University of Zagreb (Croatia). His research interests include JD-R theory, playful work design, the work-home interface, and work engagement. Since 2014, he has been included in Thomson Reuters’ list of “The World's Most Influential Scientific Minds”.

Marjan J. Gorgievski
Associate Professor, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Dr. Marjan Gorgievski is Associate Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research focus is on investigating how strategic proactive behavior, such as innovative behavior and employee intrapreneurship, can be developed, under what circumstances proactive behavior is beneficial for individual growth and well-being and when it might be detrimental. In addition, she investigates bi-directional relationships between small business owners’ business performance and well-being.

Daantje Derks
Associate Professor, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Dr. Daantje Derks is Associate Professor in Work and Organizational Psychology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Her research interests are aimed at examining the impact of digital media at work, proactive behavior and work–life integration. She publishes her work in high-end international journals in the fields of psychology, management, and human–computer interaction. She is part of the editorial board of Computers in Human Behavior.

Junker, T. L., Bakker, A. B., Gorgievski, M. J., & Derks, D. (2021). Agile work practices and employee proactivity: A multilevel study. Human Relations, 00187267211030101. https://doi.org/10.1177/00187267211030101

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