After living in the shadows from general management for well over a decade, Agile is now bathing in the sunshine, even “eating the world.” As the largest and fastest growing firms on the planet embrace the substance of Agile management, more than 90% of senior executives give “high priority” to becoming agile. As less than 10% currently see their own organization as “highly agile,” consulting firms are gearing up to meet the obvious need. But with apparent big success comes big risks, as I outlined in my talk last week’s Agile 2018 conference. As Charles Dickens suggested in A Tale of Two Cities, Agile now enjoys both the best and the worst of times.
Agile’s 15 Years Of Living In The Shadows
The Agile movement took off in software development with the publication of Agile Manifesto in 2001, even though it had much earlier roots, such the 10-men squads of Genghis Khan of the 13th century, the Prussian General Helmut von Moltke in the 19th century, and in the 20th century, the skunkworks at Lockheed Martin, the writing of Peter Drucker, the Toyota Production System, “Design Thinking” and “Lean.”
The Agile Manifesto of 2001 was specifically limited to software. So it’s not surprising that that’s where Agile was located for the first 15 years of its life. In 2010, when I began writing about Agile management, Agile was still mainly taking place in single teams or small groups of teams in software development. When I suggested that Agile represented a major breakthrough in management thinking by showing how to get continuous innovation with disciplined execution, I got two different kinds of reactions.
In software development, there was celebration: finally, Agile was finally getting recognition! But in the general management world, like the annual Drucker Forum in Vienna Austria, I got the opposite. For instance, in 2014, when I attended the Drucker Forum for the first time, I was met with deep skepticism. Agile might be fine, I was told by the world’s leading management experts, for those unkempt, disrespectful software developers dwelling in the basement, or for tiny startups. But if we had learned one thing about the management through the millennia, from the great armies of Julius Caesar onwards, it was that big organizations—organizations with tens of thousands of people—could only be managed by top-down discipline. Otherwise: chaos. It had always been so and so it would always be. I was deluded, therefore, in thinking that Agile teams—small, self-organizing and autonomous—could possibly be the basis for running a large complex 21st-century organization. The very word, “autonomous,” was enough to send shivers down the spine of any senior leader.
Traditional managers didn’t know what to make of the emerging tech giants, which had no physical products. For instance, IBM’s CEO, Sam Palmisano, in a 2014 interview with Harvard Business Review, said that he found it hard to take seriously a firm with “a name like a piece of fruit.” Even at that time, Apple was four times the market capitalization of IBM. (By 2018, the multiple had grown to eight times, as Apple became the first trillion company on the planet.)
There were advantages for Agile in living in obscurity of the shadows of software development for the first 15 years. Since no one knew what Agile was, few saw Agile as a target worth exploiting. The big consulting firms and financial sharks were happily absent. Hence, Agile practitioners had 15 years to work out the kinks in their thinking and practice, before general management discovered Agile and began co-opting it to their own goals. A very large amount of experimentation was taking place in this period, along with lively, even strident, conversation. In the process, much was learned about what worked, and what it didn’t, long before Agile enjoyed the general exposure. So, by 2018, when Agile was being taken up general management, there were already tens of thousands of Agile practitioners who understood what Agile is like when it is done well, and also when it is done badly.
At the same time, Agile had the handicap that it had come from “the wrong people,” i.e. from a part of the organization with no track record for excellence in management. Agile hadn’t been discovered by academics in business schools or high-paid managers in pin-stripe suits from big corporations. The discoveries were made by the people that, in prospect, you would think are the least likely people to have solved a management problem: geeks. Software developers were known to be antipathetic to both managers and management. Badly dressed, unkempt, even sometimes unwashed, speaking in terms and about issues that managers could hardly grasp, these were the most problematic of any big organization’s employees. How could they possibly have anything to offer on a management?
Yet because the software was becoming a steadily more important part of every organization’s future, and because it wasn’t possible to manage the complexities of software development in any other way, Agile management continued to prosper. It was grounded in practice in a way that the management fads of the 20th Century weren’t. There are thus good reasons for thinking that even if Agile were to be co-opted and degraded by the general management bureaucracy, the hedge funds or the big consulting firms. Agile still had a reasonable chance of living on, at the very least as an essential aspect of software development.
Moreover, another factor was driving the inexorable spread of Agile beyond software. By 2018, the rest of the business was beginning to experience what software had already encountered, namely, the increasing power of the customer, the accelerating pace of change, the growing complexity of the business, and the mounting criticality of talent. It was not surprising therefore the managers turned the part of the organization that had already dealt with, and come to terms with, those very problems.
By 2018, Agile was enjoying both “the best of times and the worst of times.”
It Is The Best Of Times ….
- After 15 years of living in the shadows, ‘Agile is eating the world.’ The five largest and fastest growing firms in the world are (mainly) implementing Agile.
- These firms have figured out ways to deliver instant, intimate, incremental, risk-free value at scale—something of which the bureaucracies of the 20th century were simply not capable.
- The most successful firms are those that grow their own version of Agile in an organic fashion. It’s a good thing that some don't use the label “Agile” to describe the way they are run. Instead, they tend to talk about "the Google way" or "our startup culture." Microsoft is one famous exception in making an explicit commitment to “Agile.” But whatever label is used, the successful software firms are all recognizably implementing the substance of Agile—a focus on delivering value for customers, working in small teams in short cycles, and networked organizational arrangements rather than top-down bureaucracy and silos.
- Agile has been blessed by a series of articles in Harvard Business Review and by a book authored by the global managing partner of McKinsey & Company.
- Agile has been spreading from its original home in the IT Department in the basement to all parts, and all kinds, of organizations, even the C-suite. In many cases, the implementations are large in scale.
- Ridicule of Agile by the traditional managers has turned to envy. Surveys show that over 90% of senior executives now give “high priority” to being agile. Yet this aspiration is tempered by honesty: less than 10% currently see their own firm as “highly agile.”
- “Agile transformations” of various kinds and sizes are either underway or planned in most large organizations.
- Agile has become more diverse. The days when Agile conferences were virtually all-male affairs are over and women are very much in evidence, both as participants and as speakers.
- Agile has shown itself to be open-minded and has welcomed ideas coming from other fields such as leadership, general management, strategy, human relations, economics, and gaming. Agile is no longer the preserve of techno-nerds.
- There is a lot of joy in Agile workplaces and among Agile practitioners at conferences. There is a feeling of being part of something much larger and more important than implementing a management gadget.
- Failure is being faced. There are open discussions of why this or that activity went astray and an interest in learning for the future. Even those who are in it for the money seem to mean well in what they do.
- Agile is increasingly recognized as a big deal in social and political terms by putting the human being at the center of the workplace and creating the potential at least of work worth getting excited about.
- The phenomenon is global. The excitements is a just as palpable in Europe and Asia as it is in the Americas.
- It is no longer preposterous to suggest that the world is entering a new age: the age of Agile. As Agile enables organizations to connect everyone and everything, everywhere, all the time, a world is emerging in which people, insights, and money interact quickly, easily, and cheaply. If for some the revolution is dark and threatening, for many, the revolution is uplifting and beautiful.
It’s hard to recall that this good news was almost unthinkable, even just a few years ago.
It Is Also The Worst Of Times …
Yet there is also less good news.
- For all the talk about Agile, only a small percentage—less than 10%— of Agile implementations are fully Agile in the true sense of the word.
- In some cases, Agile is being implemented as a superficial patch on traditional management. The underlying management hasn’t changed.
- Some Agile implementations make early gains and then seem to “hit a wall.” In these cases, Agile continues to be implemented but as a set of processes—mere ceremonies, from which there are few if any benefits.
- The gap between the Agile aspiration (more than 90%) and the Agile accomplishment (less than 10%) has created an army of consultants and coaches willing to help firms close the gap. While many are highly dedicated with genuine expertise, some are selling “get Agile quick” schemes, which benefit no one but the offering consultants.
- As “scaling Agile” becomes the fashion, rather than descaling complex problems into manageable pieces of work, scaling frameworks are being sold that are in some cases just another name for bureaucracy.
- In some cases, Agile is being used to create sweatshops, with intolerably long working hours, in flagrant violation of the spirit of the Agile Manifesto.
- Some firms using Agile as a way to downsize and reduce headcount, so as to give Agile a bad name.
- Some firms are declaring premature victory (“We are now Agile!”) and then using the declaration to remove the leaders and coaches who have been inspiring the Agile activity.
- There is a huge amount of “fake Agile” going on, which runs the risk of discrediting the genuine Agile.
- Agile is being declared by some to be a fad: “This too will pass.”
- There is a risk that Agile is being dumbed down as to become a shadow of the real thing.
- Agile, with the primacy, that it gives to adding value to the customer, is in conflict with the major goal of most public corporations: to maximize shareholder value as reflected in the current stock price. It is unclear how this conflict will be resolved.
Overall, and perhaps most seriously, it’s not obvious that firms are making much money from their Agile implementations. The work usually moves along faster and those doing the work are happier. But it’s rare to pinpoint big wins, like the development of Discover Weekly at Spotify, where the work of a single team developed the tool that brought in millions of new users to the music streaming service.
Sourced from Forbes - written by Steve Denning