The future of agile: changing the world of work

I gave a presentation at the Scrum Gathering in Phoenix AZ about the historic context of Agile and Scrum, and where we are headed next. While agile practices like Scrum and XP are fairly mainstream in software companies, Agile as a mindset is still in the early adopter phase in the business world at large. What can we do to help it “cross the chasm” to broader adoption?

Below are the slides and the talk track. The presentation was in Pecha Kucha format – 20 slides, 20 seconds each on an auto-advance timer, which was a fun challenge to put together!

The Context For an Agile Mindset

1. So Much Shouting
Every day, Social Media and Email Lists are overrun with agilists virtually shouting at each other about why their favorite techniques are the best, and this makes me sad. We are in the middle of a complete transformation of our economy and the role of people in it, and these debates often end up splintering our community and confusing newcomers.
2. The Economic Shift
Technology has had a major impact on the world’s workforce. In the last 100 years we have seen factory automation and robotics displace millions of physical laborers, leading to the knowledge work era. In the last 20 years, the proliferation of computers and the internet have displaced millions of knowledge workers, causing the current shift to what is referred to as the Creative Economy.
3. The Creative Economy
The creative economy is based upon the uniquely human capability to generate new ideas, new technology, and works of art. In the creative economy, workers are driven by autonomy, mastery and purpose. When these conditions are present, innovation thrives, customers are delighted, and workers collaborate to unite science and art to solve deep human problems.

Agile: The Past

4. The History
Unfortunately, most organizations are not set up with the needs of creative workers in mind. Our management approach comes from the 100 year old concepts of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and our org structures go back even further to the hierarchy of Julius Caesar’s armies. These approaches were breakthrough ideas at the time, but are not effective approaches in Creative Economy organizations.
5. The Background of Lean
In the second half of the last century, the big three auto makers dominated the market with massive workforces, inventories, and bottom lines. Toyota, a scrappy automated loom company in Japan was just entering the auto industry. There was no way they could afford to match the economies of scale of the U.S. manufactures. Their only competitive advantages could be speed and quality.
6. The Birth of Lean
The American expert W. Edwards Deming was working with several Japanese business leaders teaching them the Total Quality Management approach. A rising executive at Toyota named Taiichi Ohno embraced Demings’ ideas and expanded upon them to create the Toyota Production System, what we now refer to as Lean Manufacturing.
7. Lean Principles
Three key concepts from Lean that are helpful in the Creative Economy are: 1. Trusting the workers to decide how to do the work, rather than relying on managers to choose the process, 2. Focusing on continuous improvement over relying on prescribed best practices. 3. Viewing value from the customer’s perspective, instead of from the company’s profit motive.
8. The Context for Agile
Let’s fast forward to the 90s, and transition to the world of software. The Chaos reports from that time do a nice job of illustrating the somewhat disappointing state of the industry. The large majority of the features we were building were rarely or never used, and most projects were at least challenged and at worst completely failing to deliver on their stated goals.
9. The Birth of Scrum
In 1984, two business professors published a paper sharing the results of their study of several lean companies that were getting great results. Jeff Sutherland combined their findings with ideas from Complexity science and other areas to give birth to scrum. Notice that Lean was a direct ancestor of agile. Scrum incorporates and builds on several lean concepts.
10. Scrum Principles
Three key ideas from scrum that are helpful in the Creative Economy are: 1. Focusing on building small, high performing, cross-functional teams, rather than relying on and rewarding individual heroics. 2. Developing products incrementally, where each increment is potentially releasable so that we can get good feedback. 3. A new type of role that uses a servant leader approach to help organizations to continuously improve.

Agile: The Present

11. The Context of Lean Startup
Scrum and related agile approaches did help many organizations get better at delivering working software. One such company called IMVU was using full XP practices. However, they were still failing to succeed in the market. While agile had helped them build things fast, and build them the right way, it hadn’t helped them build the right thing and deliver value to their customers.
12. The Birth of Lean Startup
Eric Ries, the CTO at IMVU at the time, was taking some classes at Stanford from noted business professor Steve Blank, whose approach had helped many startups pivot towards a great product/market fit. Eric combined the ideas from Blank’s customer discovery process with Lean, Agile, and Open Source, into what he called “Lean Startup”.
13. Lean Startup Principles
Three key ideas from Lean Startup that are helpful in the Creative Economy are: 1. A focus on working directly with potential customers to develop empathy for their problems and better understand their unmet needs, 2. A rapid iterative approach to discovering what solutions we might provide to meet those needs, 3. And a shift from thinking about requirements, to testing our hypotheses in the market prior to investing in developing the product.
14. Alignment of Ideas
So, while we burn energy debating the merits of these approaches, they are in fact not competing ideas. Lean begat Agile, which begat Lean Startup, they are fully aligned, and, used together, are creative economy enablers, that create an environment where autonomy, mastery, and purpose are not just posters that HR puts up on the wall.
15. Generational Waves
These approaches have emerged in generational waves, about every twenty years. Each new evolution of this mindset enabled us to deal with increasing levels of complexity. When I noticed this 20 year pattern, I began to wonder what might be the next evolution. I discovered some interesting research that shows some emerging and aligned patterns at the organization level. Let’s look at some metaphors:


16. Organizational Metaphors
Some organizations see themselves as armies, with strict hierarchy & processes. Others, like machines, where leaders pull levers and the org spits out a result. Agile organizations, like families, strive to balance the needs of everyone involved. A new pattern is emerging in organizations that see themselves as living systems, evolving without hierarchy towards a shared purpose.

Agile: The Future

17. Teal Principles
Three key concepts from this emerging organizational paradigm are: 1. Anti-fragile organizational patterns, usually completely flat or based on interlocking circles with no managers, 2. A primary focus on achieving a shared, evolutionary purpose, 3. A focus on wholeness, where workers don’t feel like they have to be a different person when they’re at work.
18. The Engagement Problem
A 2014 Gallup polls show that only 31% of US workers are actively engaged at work, and Gallup estimates that the 18% that are actively disengaged cost the US $550 Billion dollars a year in lost productivity. The numbers internationally are worse, and I believe that the engagement problem is a root cause of the world economic crisis.
19. A New Perspective
The organizations of the world are struggling, people are hurting, and it is our responsibility as members of the Agile community, and just as human beings, to broaden our perspective. Combining the concepts of Lean, Agile, Lean Startup, and Organizational Agility provides us with a framework for dramatically improving the level of engagement at work.
20. Change the World of Work
Old thinking does not create new results; we need to shift from ideas of exerting control and achieving financial profit towards enablement and achieving a shared purpose. Only such a mindset shift will give us a fighting chance to fulfill the Scrum Alliance’s Mission to Change the World of Work. I don’t know if the world can wait another 20 years.

What do you think?

Let me know what you think – what can we do to help spread the mindset of Agile – which is all about engagement, wholeness, and adding value in our communities? If you liked this post, please share it using one of the social media buttons below!

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  1. Very good presentation about the evolution and the values of the process transformations. Keeping in mind the purpose of each transformation is indeed key to making sure what we’re doing is right and for the right outcome. I am a firm believer in the benefits of Agile, Lean, Lean Startup and at the same time subscribe to the position that the result (measured by satisfied customers, successful business, productivity, happy employees) is more important than the specific practices of the process at hand. Thus the process is a means and not an end. Those who argue about one practice being better than the other, or even that a process is applied “incorrectly”, miss the point in my view. I will look for more on the topic. Well done.

    1. Good points Mourad, I agree – the process is not the point. The outcomes are the point. Certain mindsets and practices are more likely to lead to better outcomes, but that both the outcome and the practices are wholly up to the organization to choose.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Your presentation really resonates with my way2 of thinking about the value of the agile mindset in turbulent environments. As an agile practitioner, some five or so years ago, convinced of the value of agile thinking, I found myself more often asking why agile works rather than how it works. Eventually, this lead me to a rich vein of study in organisations and organisational dynamics. Authors such as Stacey and his views on complexity and Boxer and his views on networks and the boundaryless organisation amongst them. Closer to home, writers like Wastell, and better know thinkers like Donald Winnicott. I’m curious as to your thoughts and ‘why’ agile works. Andreas

    1. Hi Andreas,

      That is a great question… I think that when it works, it works because it is aligned with how most humans prefer to do things – in small teams, able to make important decisions, solving problems that make life better for people, with a focus on improvement. It also aligns nicely with Teresa Amabile’s “Progress Principle”, where her research showed that as long as people were making small progress every day on something that mattered to someone, they were highly engaged. Agile done well often results in this small daily progress (impediment removal, small slices, pairing, etc.) and encourages a connection between the work and how it helps the people that benefit from it (frequent delivery and feedback, focus on value for the customer, etc.).

  3. Hi Peter — Great format to make your case and point. Great take aways. While living in Denver, I had the “agile” privilege of being part of team which completed a one-off ground control data display system for the original construction for DIA. Being agile on a large government contract at that time was like an oxymoron process. Not only was it difficult to sell some off-the-shelf solutions as part of this new system (think the technical creativity of Apollo 13 finding a way to return home — ALIVE). The upside of an operational system was more and safer ground control of aircraft during Colorado’s prime ski season – more tourism revenues. The downside was convincing academic and bureaucrats they were neither technical nor creative, while they held the “power of the pen”.

    Another issue at the time became more important and relevant to your post. The “right” talent was scarce because of the lack of vision through a new prism to guide and train users of the true value of their system to the economy of Colorado. I had already had decades or large data center technology/build where I had experienced the same issues — lack of engagement, overstaffing, and undertraining. Thus began my journey to understand the race between technology automation and the continued redefining of “work” and how-where-when it is accomplished.

    I’ve been involved in many SAP deployments and the use of ERP by end-users. Today any SMB can put together the “horse power” of those systems with Cloud computing and SaaS apps at one-tenth of the cost of the legacy systems. Thus more task automation, but fewer full time jobs being created. Enter the GIG economy where currently 35% of work is accomplished by moon-lighters, freelancers, free agents, and independent professionals. Predictions abound that by 2030 at least 50% of “work” will be accomplished by automation and contract workers.

    With the retirement of 70 million baby boomers, a population the size of the 19th nation on the planet, more human agility exits and technology for task automation increases unabated. Will Lean, Toyota Way, Scrum, Six sigma go the way of the horse and buggy, steam engine, etc.?? We shall see! See me at for more on the subject.

    1. It’s an interesting time, isn’t Mike? Any attempt to predict what will happen will no doubt be wrong in some way! For me, all I can do is look for systems and approaches that have a chance at being successful in the new world of work and do all that I can to help people adopt them. Not only do these new approaches to work seem to help address the challenges in the shift toward more and more automation, but they appear to have the added potential benefit of creating a system that is more aligned with making work fulfilling for people, a cause I’m willing to throw my heart and soul into!

  4. Hi Peter,

    A great presentation/article. Thanks for that!

    You mention the engagement level as one of the key ‘things’ to be improved. Would you recommend this to be measured at regular times? If so, how would you do so? Do you see other important indicators that could or should be measured, or not?

    You were saying that you discovered some interesting research that shows some emerging and aligned patterns at the organization level. I would be very happy if you could provide a reference, as it might help me in some research I’m performing at the moment….