We are in 2019, and maybe I am wrong, but I have a strong feeling that the whole business world is putting the word agile everywhere. This situation is a bit confusing, no?
When I started my adventure as an agile coach a couple of years ago, my customers considered me as something in between the dodo bird and a unicorn. Nowadays, when telling me that I am an agile coach, people are looking at me like an expert. Both are weird, so weird.
There is a massive misunderstanding of the meaning of agile. Often people are caring more about the form as about its function. So what is agile then?
During a workshop in the Middle East, one of the attendees asked me the question “what is coming after agile?” I wasn’t able to give an intelligent guess, and I answered: “it is up to you to show me that”. Even that answer sounded honest from me at that moment in time; I wasn’t able to figure out the end of agile neither to imagine what is coming after.
A couple of years later, I was still troubled by my inconsistency: how can I ask somebody to demonstrate a better improvement of something undefined? Or in complicated words: I need you to improve the unknown-unknown. How poor is that?
In 2016, while contracting with a well-known global company, I had tough conversations with some managers about their idea of a transformation. They asked me to execute a plan of what they considered to be “agile”. During these conversations, I mostly disagree by arguing that in the agile context, the one who plans has to execute while understanding the operational realities. These awkward conversations continued until one of the managers told me that I was an agile “fanatic”, even if the word he used was slightly more aggressive.
By asking myself “If this manager is thinking that way about me, and if we need to have such vigorous debates each time, Isn’t deserving our egos only? I have to change something, starting by me.
What organizations can be considered as agile and why?
Attending conferences and reading as much that I can do about organizations; I was impressed by great case studies. All these cases impressed me, and I wanted to see it with my eyes.
That huge bank is now agile was one keynote a couple of years ago. That case was used as a reference in most of the leadership congresses.
A couple of months ago, astonishingly, another case about the same bank came out but now from a different department. Both presentations used the same arguments, the last one giving the impression that they started their organization model from scratch again.
Unfortunately, that bank asked me to provide some agile coaches to support their program. The dream went away once I faced reality: no performance, no communication, no alignment, no agile. “No agile” is a bit rude. It was like when your five years old daughter is showing up with pride that weird picture she draws: you are happy for the effort, but the view is cheap.
During our weekly “supervision” (coaching the coaches), I discovered that the first experience never worked and the second seems to lead to the same results. In our conversations, I wanted to understand what was there the understanding of agile.
Genuinely, some IT development teams are using agile practices, and ‘that’s all. I was confused.
A tremendous amount of money invested in something (agile) used by less than 5% of the whole organization and someone is considering this as an accomplishment, twice?
I used that irritation to dive deeper, and I wanted to know why they failed? What is their understanding of “agile”? What do others understand under “agile”?
I create a questioner. On my “questioner” path, I had the same sad feeling then before: how can you describe a success (we are agile) when the goal is unknown?
I asked a friend or better I asked my network if someone has a pertinent answer on that: “what is agile?”, “what ‘isn’t agile?” And “what company is agile and how?”.
Long answer short: most of the responses were entirely out of scope, esoteric or polluted by engineering or methodological biases.
If I use one of the agile methods, am I agile?
From my questionnaire to my network, most of the answers related to methods came out.
TEST: “if I use an agile method, my organization becomes agile or more, I become agile.”
I think that we tried that before with PMI, Prince 2 or Lean, and we all know the outcomes: none of them succeeded. We had the Lean Office, the Lean Ambassador, the Lean Coach to ensure that everyone is sharing the same knowledge, that everyone had the setup, that everyone had the support. But once a single piece of that structure left neither the roles, the offices nor the methods survived. (ERROR)
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The intention and the logic were correct but were it at the right time? (Budget time: OK) (Performance time: NOK)
Did we change the paradigm of work? (NO)
Methods are part of the documentation once you achieved your goal so that someone else can verify and valid your demonstration. The power of methods is to generate “IKEA Effect” while “overvaluing the creation of poorly constructed products”. (M.I. Norton, D. Mochon, D. Ariely).
I found an answer in Aristotle. We, including myself, thought that teaching tools, methods and processes (techne) were the solution to transform any organizations. We felt that sharing knowledge (“episteme”) will make structures wiser. I was wrong.
The new system didn’t respond to the plan. We fed a full bucket.
Aristotle, again, came to help me out. Change makes sense when you are acting appropriately (“Sofia”) at the “right, critical, or opportune moment”. Methods and tools are not wrong. They are just inconsistent when used at the wrong time.
The belief that a magic silver bullet can solve your problem is hardcoded in our business DNA, we all believe in magic. Agility (the “ish” of agile) is one hard belief: you take an agility process, and all dreams come true.
In 2010-2011, Dave Snowden came in the agile world to explain the principles of Complex Adaptive System (CAS) through his Cynefin model. It was the right time to lift our understanding of agile.
In one of his presentation of CAS, he explained the evolution of work from Scientific Management (mass production) to System Thinking (mass customization) and then to Sense-Making (the ability to situate a network). From a categorization perspective, Scientific Management and System Thinking (Lean) are assuming that “framework” precedes “data” (manufacturing) when Sensemaking model is assuming that “data precedes framework”.
Methods are related to “framework”, and they are valid if you want to build a factory delivering each time the same product. It ‘isn’t the right solution if you produce custom solutions.
In the twenty-first century, and if you have heard about the digital evolution, you might understand that trends are emerging from data. The more data, you have, the more precise you become.
Researchers like Peter Kruse or Peter Niedschmidt are also addressing the principles of complexity.
Peter Kruse, a researcher in intelligent networks explained the impact of the non-linear system nature of the internet shifting the power from provider to customer. These highly dynamic networks (internet, social networks) leads to a change in customer behaviour. The consequence is that organizations and politics have to change or die. Enterprises and politics have to align with the demand.
Peter Niedschmidt explains that complexity is an evolution that influences the nature of work. It is about accepting that a single person does not own the complete knowledge, but the collective intelligence of a group, a system can solve complex problems.
In both scientific management and system thinking, the foundation is built on the idea to built a factory. Factory products having a longer lifecycle and more massive investments, the preparation phase needs to be managed by experts. Once that preparation phase achieved, the experts are handing-over their solutions to be executed by subordinates like a manufacturing process. That is trying to counter in a complicated manner complex problems.
Agile, on the other hand, is trying to address complex problems in a network organized world where the planners are also the makers. That approach reduces the distance by avoiding “organizational waterfall”.
When “scientific management” distils a somewhat paternalistic way of management, “system thinking” tries to embrace the system to reduce the variability in such systems (pattern precedes data).
The other way around, the purpose of agile is to increase the diversity in a system to produce more data. From that data, an enterprise can then collect emerging patterns allowing adequate decision making. The more information you get, the more precise you can estimate your trends, the most coherent are your decisions.
Agile cannot be a method. By nature, a “method” would reduce the quality of the data spectrum and lead to destabilization of the system. When you try to manage a “complex system” you brake the dynamic, and it becomes something else. Like in a conversation, when someone else comes into the conversation, it changes its nature.
Are we talking about a culture?
Is Agile a culture? That is an interesting point to address.
When you research on the internet, the definition, you will discover some similarities that can make valid the assumption that Agile is a culture.
Agile has its:
- Set of customs like iterations, unconferences, open spaces, relaxed attitudes.
- Traditions: gatherings, conferences, blogs, workshops, retreats, etc.
- Values as a society: freedom of speech, curiosity, controversy, critics, collaboration, empathy, co-creation
- Languages: we have our jargon
- Philosophy and mythology: the agile manifesto, hero & stars, etc
TEST: If Agile is a culture, how and when should I be able to define that my team, my organization, my enterprise is agile?
And, isn’t contradictory with what I wrote before regarding diversity?
When you transform an enterprise, and all the people have adopted that “new culture”, What happened with the previous one?
Can I be an Italian from 6:00 AM to 9:00 AM, then agile until 6:00 PM at work, later Italian again? How can I be myself then?
What makes me different from a manager if I am an agile manager?
Nothing, right? (ERROR)
So, it becomes complicated to consider Agile to be a culture as such. It is more something like “Pop culture” for agilists and Agile coaches.
Let us keep in mind the fundamental principle of diversity wards us to not shift into a new age religious crusade. The dissemination of Agile is helpful for the sake of its intrinsic nature by assimilating new approaches or new data, helping us better understand it in the future. Using the culture, religious or philosophical strategy as a key is dangerous and counterproductive. The dispersion of principles should enforce the quality of communication between all the actors in an enlarged system. It is all about assimilation and evolution, not colonisation.
You can consider Agile as a counterculture like the punks and the hippies helping us to reinvent ourselves permanently.
Is it a mindset?
Since two years, a couple of articles have been published to try to explain that Agile is a mindset.
Definition: The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “a person’s way of thinking and their opinions.”
The Gallup 2018 study of employees in France, Germany, Spain and the UK explains that when an enterprise sets up agility “, we have the right tools and processes to respond quickly to business needs…” and “in my company, we have the right mindset to respond quickly to business needs. “
On the other hand, D. Soule from EMERITUS-MIT explains that digital (i.e. agile), mindset is:
- “Make working together expected and easy.”
- “Learn to be wrong.”
- “Grounded in strong customer-centric cultures.”
- “this ability to give employees a sense of optimism about the organisation’s capacity to survive – and thrive- amid disruptive marketplace conditions.”
- It is not matrixed
I agree, the list before is more like a set of value, but doesn’t these values shaping our mindset?
Is “mindset” nothing more like another silver bullet set up of a red herring? Some politically correct not engaging answer to say “I don’t know?”.
What kind of mindset is the right one? Have all the cultures in the whole world the same mindset?
And definitively, if I have the “right” mindset, does it make my surroundings, my organisation agile because of me?
Even if my perfidy leads you already have the answer in your mind, I invite you to dive a bit deeper.
Trying to define agile as a mindset is probably wrong too. It is a categorization issue. Why do we need to categorize it at all?
In the meantime, we are applying complex behaviour while collecting a massive amount of data from our past agile experiments and try to cluster it. Clustering leads to resilience. And resilience leads to separation.
Is this a chicken-egg problem?