The future of agile: changing the world of work
May 14, 2015
| by: Peter Green
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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!