Agile: is it hype?

In January 2014 I wrote a blog ‘Designing for Agility’. I’ve just re-read it to see if/how my thinking has shifted since then.  I’ve been prompted to do this because, this week I again heard myself saying again that ‘agile’ – as applied to organisational design and effectiveness – is a massive hype that has, as the authors in one article point out, ‘entered the business lexicon like few other terms in recent memory.’

In 2014, when I wrote the blog, I don’t think I heard/read the words agile/agility as much as I had by 2016  when I was reading that agility has become a ‘meaningless buzzword …  It’s another word business leaders use to sound dynamic and edgy (often while laying off staff), like disruptive, innovative or even intrapreneur’.

Another two years have passed and the rate of usage of the words agile and agility seem  to be still shooting up.  Is it even more meaningless now?  Are there degrees of meaningless-ness?  Has the hype has overtaken good sense?

One of the issues around the meaninglessness is because definitions around agile/agility ‘remain loose, situational, informal, confused, and sometimes non-existent.’ (Chris Worley’s words). This lack of definition is one of the issues that makes me uneasy about the agile  ‘movement’.

Lucy Kellaway, takes a sideswipe at agility in her (2009) FT management guff column, saying,  ‘The latest Harvard Business Review contains an 11-page article telling us that the best way to survive financial meltdown and global recession is to be like Muhammad Ali when he met George Foreman for their Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire. What the renowned boxer’s performance teaches us about thriving in turbulent markets is that we must all be agile and we have to absorb blows. The point is helpfully summarised by various charts, diagrams and a two-by-two matrix with agility up one side and absorption along the other.’

Agile may be a meaningless buzzword,  the definitions may be loose, and it’s easy to knock the movement, even so, the intent of it is worth looking at.  It is intended to act in the spirit of the 2001 12-principles Agile Manifesto. However, that’s where another of the issues lies.   There’s a tendency to take aspects of the agile methodology and principles – which were originally devised for a better way of developing software – and try to apply them in a wide range of business contexts and situations, in the hope that by the application of the selected principles the organisation will be(come) more adaptable and responsive to the operating context.

However, as a McKinsey podcast points out ‘that agile is not a menu of things from which you can cherry pick … you need to think of them in a holistic way. You can’t just cherry pick a few of them … it’s a system.’   Saying you’re ‘doing agile’ if you are running daily ‘stand-ups’ is not going to make an organisation ‘agile’.

The band-wagon effect of wanting to be or do ‘agile’, reminds me of similar attitudes to TQM, Six Sigma, Lean, Continuous Improvement, and other methodologies which have emerged over the decades and which were each the ‘flavour of the month’  at some point.  (See a comparison of TQM, Six Sigma and Lean here)

Agile is of the same stock as these – not only because it is a ‘flavour of the month’ but also because it has a similar intent to all these methodologies in aiming to build the adaptability and responsiveness necessary to do well in the emerging context through   plan-do-check-act types of cycle (in agile, often called ‘test and learn’).

In also has roots in other methodologies.   A colleague, asking me what I thought of agile, offered his views: ‘From my fragmented research it seems there is a link [to agile] between ideas from old school socio-technical systems, participative methods, self-managed teams, and distributed leadership (though rarely acknowledged) … fashionably re-packed.’  And in another conversation I had on agile, socio-tech was mentioned as having some similarities to agile.

I am not saying that we should not aim to be adaptable and responsive, to put the customer first or to give workers more autonomy and discretion.  All of that is laudable but it is not new or specifically ‘agile’.   In fact, I don’t think there is much about ‘agile’ that we haven’t discussed, seen, worried about or worked with before, agile is not new or different.  It is well-packaged to look new and different.

Another example, take the recent McKinsey article Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st-century organizations, in which the authors discuss nine new leadership capabilities:  Shifting from reactive to creative mind-sets, fostering innovation/collaboration/value creation, helping teams work in new ways, design thinking and business model innovation, applying the principles and practice of agile organisation design, shaping an agile organisational culture.  (We discussed the article on last week’s Organization Design Forum, Global Conversation –  you can register to join these regular global conversations that discuss articles listed in the monthly newsletter).

To me, adjusting for the language of the time, these capabilities are pretty much the same as Deming’s 14 principles of management (published 1982) or the leadership traits that Peter Drucker talked about in his long career.  I can’t really see anything about the capabilities that is ‘new’ or specific to ‘agile’.   Although, if pushed I could agree that ‘design thinking’ is ‘new’ at least in this context, but hardly ‘new’ in the history of design.  (On Design Thinking see a view from Natasha Jen, Design Thinking is Bullsh*t).

If the leadership capabilities and the methodological concepts around ‘agile’ are not new, then what is it that ‘agile/agility’ is promising that we are so entranced by?  In our focus on the buzz we have not examined closely what the promise is and, more importantly, whether it can be delivered on by ‘agile’.   I think we think the ‘agile’ promise is that it will enable us to cope with the utterly different context (geo-political, social, economic, technological, etc) that we face.  And we can’t resist that promise.

In an excellent piece (thanks Stefan for sending it to me), Dude you broke the future, sci-fi writer, Charlie Stross tells us how he used to be able to write good sci-fi by a recipe of ‘90% of the next decade’s stuff is already here today… another 9% of the future a decade hence used to be easily predictable … it’s the 1% of unknown unknowns that throws off all calculations.’ He continues saying, ‘’But unfortunately the ratios have changed. I think we’re now down to maybe 80% already-here—climate change takes a huge toll on infrastructure—then 15% not-here-yet but predictable, and a whopping 5% of utterly unpredictable deep craziness.’

And it’s here that I am alarmed.  I see us jumping on what appears to be a very attractive, agile band-wagon.   Who can resist the McKinsey metaphor, ‘as a gardener, the agile leader might pay attention to creating the fertile soil and environment that will enable growth and creativity to flourish.’?   The metaphor sounds lovely, aspirational even, and that is where we are stuck at the superficial non-critical level of agile’s promise.  We are not thinking deeply and talking reflectively and collectively about the ‘deep craziness’ in which we are living.

This ‘deep craziness’ is one where are lured by the metaphor of ‘creating fertile soil’ and faced with the reality of, ‘A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, according to a new United Nations-backed study that calls for a shift away from destructively intensive agriculture.’

Everywhere we look we see multiple world-issues  of this scale that we are ill-equipped to respond to.   

Is what we talk of and practice asAgile’ the route to handling this level of challenge?  Is it hype or does it hold a real and realisable promise?  Let me know.

One thought on “Agile: is it hype?”

  1. Thanks Naomi for the history lessons on the various iterations of agile, and agree that stand up meetings are not enough to be considered an agile team or organisation.

    Interestingly, I do see some orgs that the rallying cry for agility has gotten some traction, although it is still largely not understood very well. I wonder if any org who aims to be agile could come up with it’s own manifesto, will give this a go.

    Cheers to finding ways to deal with the complexities we face, regardless of what we call it.

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