There doesn’t have to be a trade-off between efficiency and flexibility in work design. You can have both – if you know how.The ever-increasing pace of change means organisations, from corporations to startups, need to be flexible, fast and adaptable, write Nelson P Repenning, Don Kieffer and James Repenning for MIT Sloan Management Review. The authors use examples from Toyota’s manufacturing processes and agile software development to illustrate a new framework that offers both efficiency and flexibility: “dynamic work design”.THE ALLURE OF AGILEAgile methods in software development have generated impressive results and significant improvements over their traditional predecessors. But can they be applied to other types of work? Many books, papers and blogs suggest they can – but the evidence is limited and there’s no guarantee that the methods will work in other contexts.In applying agile methods from the software industry to other domains, managers often confuse practices and principles. The key to transferring a set of practices from one domain to another is to first understand why they work – and then to modify them in ways that both match the new context and preserve the underlying principles.STABILITY V. UNCERTAINTYContingency theory presents a straightforward approach to designing work. If the work being designed consists of well-defined tasks (e.g. assembling components), then it’s best to organise it serially, or using the ‘factory’ mode. If the work is ambiguous and requires ongoing interaction (e.g. designing new products), then it’s best organised collaboratively, or in ‘studio’ mode. PROBLEMS WITH CONTINGENCY THEORYThough powerful, this approach has two flaws:1) It implies a necessary trade-off. Work done using the serial factory design isn’t very flexible, making it hard to adapt to changes in external conditions; and work done using the collaborative studio approach often isn’t very efficient.2) It doesn’t fit the reality of work. Few types of work perfectly fit the archetype of well-defined or ambiguous work. Even the most routine work has moments of surprise, and the most novel work often requires routine analysis and testing to support creative iteration. Real work is a mix of routine and uncertainty.Conventional work design is static, presuming that, once a piece of work has been designed, everything will go as planned. In contrast, dynamic work design views work as an evolving response to the inevitable hiccups in real organisations. Agile methods transcend the traditional serial v. collaborative work framework by creating better mechanisms for moving between the two basic ways of organising work.DYNAMIC WORK DESIGN AT TOYOTAThe Toyota production system seems at first to be the ultimate in mechanistic design, but a closer look reveals something more dynamic. Sometimes things go awry. A worker noticing such an issue is supposed to pull what’s known as the Andon cord (or push a button) to stop the production line and fix the problem.When a worker pushes the button, stops the work and asks for help, she temporarily changes the work design. The system briefly moves from mechanistic ‘factory’ mode to collaborative ‘studio’ mode to solve the problem. Once resolved, the operator can resume her normal task and return to the serial work design. This shift from serial to collaborative work and then back again increases agility.DYSFUNCTIONAL DYNAMICSWhen organisations don’t do a good job of cycling between factory and studio modes of work, two related failure modes ensue: “ineffective iteration” and “wasted attention”. When combined, they create a truly unproductive work design – “the axis of frustration”.1) Ineffective iteration. When elements of the work are ambiguous but nonetheless organised serially, this creates slow and costly iteration.2) Wasted attention. Organising well-defined work in a collaborative fashion also creates inefficiency. If the work is clearly defined, it doesn’t benefit from collaboration. This just multiplies the cost.3) The axis of frustration. Processes can devolve to the point where they oscillate between wasted attention and ineffective iteration.Guard against getting stuck on the axis of frustration by paying careful attention to the mechanisms that move a process between the factory and studio modes.AGILE AS DYNAMIC WORK DESIGNSoftware was once developed using what’s known as the ‘waterfall’ approach, but agile methods have since become popular:1) Waterfall approach. Here, the development cycle is divided into phases – such as requirements, coding and testing. Most of the time is spent by software developers on a specific phase, who then come together for weekly project meetings. At the end of each phase, a review determines whether the project is ready to move to the next phase.2) Agile approach. In the scrum approach (one version of agile), work isn’t divided into a few major phases but into multiple short ‘sprints’ (1-2 weeks) focused on completing all the work necessary to deliver a small, but working, piece of software. At the end of each sprint, the end user tests the new functionality.Like the waterfall method, the agile approach has three basic work modes – individual work, team meetings, and customer reviews – but it cycles among them very differently. From a dynamic work design perspective, agile offers two benefits over waterfall: frequent check-ins (often daily) and regular iterations. Waterfall development has nothing to test until late in the cycle – when it might be too late.HOW TO APPLY DYNAMIC WORK DESIGNTo move between individual and collaborative modes of work, use the following four principles to create shifting mechanisms that are well-matched to your organisation’s work:1) Separate well-defined and ambiguous work. Don’t try to handle both types of work in the same process. Look for the signature element of ambiguous work: iteration. When work is well-defined it can be moved to the next stage. When it’s ambiguous, even the best effort needs to be revisited.2) Break processes into smaller units of work that are more frequently checked. In both traditional manufacturing and waterfall software development the assessments are infrequent and ineffective. The recipe for improved agility is: “smaller units of work, more frequently checked”.3) Identify the chain of individuals who support those doing the work. In manufacturing the help chain starts with a machine operator and extends all the way up to the plant manager. Identify individuals, not their roles or functions. You need to know who to call when there’s a problem.4) Introduce triggers and checks that move work into a collaborative mode. There are two mechanisms for activating the help chain: “triggers” and “checks”. A trigger is a test that reveals defects and then moves the work from factory to studio mode. A check involves a pre-scheduled point when the work is moved to a more collaborative environment for assessment.LOOK FOR BEST PRINCIPLESBest practices are ‘best’ when they produce behaviours that are well-matched to the organisation. Toyota’s Andon cord capitalises on the efficiency that comes from individual repetition and the innovation that comes with collaborative problem solving. Agile development methods work by channeling the creativity of software engineers through frequent team meetings and customer interactions.Organisations become more adaptable when they find defects and misalignments sooner. A dynamic approach to contingency, supported by triggers and checks, can help you create practices that support increased agility in the work of your organisation.