The 6 Enablers of Business Agility – Karim Harbott’s Book


I first stumbled across Karim Harbott in a 2020 YouTube Video that he created called The 6 Enablers of Business Agility. By itself, the video wasn’t revolutionary. I appreciated how Harbott organized the various aspects of business agility into the 6 enablers. If you have not seen this video, I recommend that you pause this blog and watch it here:

The 6 Enablers of Business Agility Kareem Harbott

It has been a while since I first saw that video, so I was excited to see that in 2021 Harbott published a book by the same name. This post is focused on that book.

Have you heard of Karim Harbott? I never had until I saw the video. That said, when I learned in his book that Mike Beedle was his mentor, he had instant street creds. Though Mike Beedle passed away tragically in 2017, he left a legacy. A Chicago resident, Mike was one of the 17 co-creators of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. He also co-authored with Ken Schwaber one of the first books on Scrum and went on to develop Enterprise Scrum. So when Harbott said Beedle mentored him, I paid attention.

Let’s cut to the chase – the 6 Enablers of Business Agility is a great book! Harbott does an effective job of laying out what business agility is and why it is important. He correctly points out that adopting agile ways of working without addressing the underlying enablers is foolhardy and likely to fail. He likens it to trying to grow roses in the desert – it just ain’t gonna work!

Who is the Audience for the 6 Enablers of Business Agility?

This is a must-read book for business leaders who are learning about or trying to improve their business agility. This should include most leaders today if they want their organizations to be competitive and still around in 25 years.

The challenge is that most leaders today operate from a management paradigm rooted in the industrial agile. Most will have a hard time grasping the importance of these items. Or, managers want to maintain their power and control and could not imagine the need for change.

In fact, except for “Ways of Working,” all the enablers in Harbott’s book are things that managers and leaders need to focus on. This should come as no surprise to agile practitioners. You may recall the top reasons given as challenges for agile ways of working from the VersionOne 15th Annual State of Agile Report: VersionOne Top Agile Challenges 2021

All the items on the list are the responsibility of leaders and managers.

There is a second somewhat obvious audience for this book: the agile coaches leading agile transformations. Sadly, I suspect many people calling themselves “agile coaches” are unaware of most of the concepts in this book.

Outline of the 6 Enablers of Business Agility Book

I found the book well laid out. Harbott does a good job of introducing the need for business agility. He discussed Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) and organizations’ increasingly short shelf life in the S&P 500. He introduces his 6 Enablers and then spends a chapter (4 – 9) on each. Then he spends the final Chapter discussing how to lead change in organizations.

  1. The Changing Business Climate
  2. Introducing Business Agility
  3. The 6 Enablers of Business Agility
  4. Leadership and Management
  5. Organizational Culture
  6. Organizational Structure
  7. People and Engagement
  8. Governance and Funding
  9. Ways of Working
  10. Leading the Change

My Key Takeaways from the 6 Enablers of Business Agility Book

1. A Framework for Thinking about Agile Transformation

The biggest takeaway was the framework for the 6 enablers of business agility. I would not call the categories novel or necessarily even new. Most of the ideas in each of the 6 enablers have been identified before by other authors, including Jorgen Hesselberg in Unlocking Agility, Darryl Rigby in Doing Agile Right, and General Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams.

What was helpful was organizing them into a reasonable number of categories. I found it helpful, almost as a checklist of the things that must be explored and perhaps changed within an organization to support agile ways of working.

Karim Harbott 6 Enablers of Business Agility

2. Agile Leaders Go First

The first of the 6 Enablers that Harbott introduces is Leadership & Management. This is typically the last place that organizations focus as they push for team-level agility. Harbott rightly points out that everything stems from leadership and management.

As shown in the VersionOne list of barriers above, the barriers require work for leaders. They are not things that the teams can address. A good example is culture, the second barrier on the list with 43% of respondents.

“43% – Organizational Culture at Odds with Agile Values”

What can an individual employee or a team do about culture? Very little! As Harbott points out, culture is shaped by the organization’s behaviors, which are shaped by the policies and rules. Those policies are the levers through which culture is impacted. Harbott describes some of the policy changes that are aligned with agile ways of working.

We need leaders and managers to not only “allow” or “buy-in”; we need them to lead with a deep understanding of business agility and a willingness to change policies and procedures to improve the culture.

3. Putting Agile “Ways of Working” in Proper Context

Another great thing about the framework is the relative importance of Agile Ways of Working. It is one of the 6 Enablers though Harbott devotes only 20 pages to it.

The point Harbott makes is that this is the area that most organizations focus on when trying to improve agility. They ignore or downplay those other areas and push to get teams to use Agile Ways of Working.

Harbott says that trying to get agile to thrive in a non-agile context is like getting roses to grow in the desert.

“If you focus only on [agile ways of working] you will fail. The reason you will fail is that the organizational and leadership challenges needed to create an environment of success, the organizational operating system, will not have been met. This is akin to trying to grow a beautiful rose in the desert. It just will not and cannot, thrive until the conditions are right.”

Karim Harbott, The 6 Enablers of Business Agility; How to Thrive in an Uncertain World

This is why those bottom-up agile efforts often flame out over time. A team can apply an agile mindset and use the Scrum Framework, but they won’t get far. Without management on board, they will struggle with:

  • Forming true cross-functional teams that can deliver end-to-end without handoffs
  • Eliminate project-based funding and success measures
  • Restrictive HR policies that limit agility

This chapter on agile ways of working doesn’t go into much detail about Scrum or Kanban. Instead, it focuses on a handful of practices and principles that will help teams. Many of these principles were established nearly 70 years ago by Toyota:

  • Communications – this includes the Allen curve which shows the inverse relationship between distance and amount of communications. The farther away people are, the less likely they are to communicate in any way, face-to-face or via electronic means. Harbott cites recent studies by Ben Waber that shows that even with the electronic tools, out of sight pretty much means out of touch.
  • Visualizing Work – A lesson from Toyota that has stood the test of time is to make work visible.
  • Daily Alignment Meetings – I am glad he didn’t say daily status meetings! The short daily Scrum or daily standup meeting is the heartbeat of an agile team.
  • Small Batches – Harbott describes the lessons learned at Toyota about working in small batches means less waste and faster throughput. Though counterintuitive to many, it is easy to see the importance of small batches with an exercise like the agile penny game – something we include in our in-person training courses.
  • Slack Time – You would not reward firefighters for being too busy to put out a fire, right? That said, many managers focus on maximizing resource utilization rather than delivering valuable outcomes.
  • Outcomes OVER Outputs – On a related note, Harbott recommends focusing on outcomes over outputs. Both are much more important than activity as described in this related blog, for High Performing Teams – Deciding What to Measure.

4. Historical Perspective

Harbott does a great job of explaining how we got here. Case in point – the history of modern management techniques. Harbott cites the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Scientific Management Principles. Those led directly to specialization, best practices, and separation between thinking and doing work. That approach works great for shoveling coal but fails miserably for modern knowledge work and VUCA.

Harbott also explores Max Weber’s Bureaucratic Management which further encouraged specialization, hierarchy, and rules and regulations. These are antithetical to agile ways of working.

Finally, Harbott looks at Henri Fayol’s Administrative Management approach from the 19th Century. These included bureaucratic practices that are still common today, more than 160 years later including planning, organizing, commanding, controlling, and coordinating.

These concepts and approaches worked great for the work of yesterday. But they won’t work today unless you are shoveling coal.

5. Pointers to Other Great Agile Resources

Harbott brings in several great ideas from other thought leaders, current and past. He cites examples from current companies and those going back to the roots of agility, like Toyota.

At the end of each chapter, he provides a list of learning resources. I was happy to see many of the books from my list of Best Agile Books included in his chapter references, along with many other great books and websites.

6. Business Agility Canvas

Harbott closes the book with the chapter, Leading Change. In this chapter, he talks about why change can fail and introduces ideas and change frameworks from the likes of Richard Rumelt, John Kotter, and Simon Sinek. He references a little-known approach from Salesforce cofounder Marc Benioff called V2MOM, which is an acronym for Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures.

Then he introduces the Business Agility Canvas, shown below. The top of the canvas focuses on what and why. The “why” is something that is often overlooked in agile transformation. Many organizations find it easier to focus on the “how”, such as, “how can our teams adopt Scrum.” That is a mistake.

Instead, start with why.

The middle section of the canvas focuses on the “how” which includes Harbott’s 6 enablers. The bottom section of the canvas addresses “what else?”.

Karim Harbott Business Agility Canvas v9

I like the Canvas! I like it because it is one page though Harbott and I would recommend making it one big whiteboard if you have the facilities to do that. The canvas represents an approach opposite to a waterfall, sequential step-by-step plan for achieving business agility. Rather it can serve the team. Harbott says that using the business agility canvas:

  • Creates alignment
  • Allows the team to see the big picture and
  • Visualize the transformation.

You can download the business agility canvas and a supporting guidebook here (free registration required): Business Agility Canvas. 

Bottom Line

Harbott’s book does a great job of identifying and organizing the enablers of business agility and making a case for why leaders and managers should pay attention. I am unsure if the ideas are new or novel, but the framework for looking at agile transformations and the business agility canvas are beneficial. I highly recommend this book for Leaders and Managers and have added it to my list of Best Agile Books for 2022.

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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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