Post Written by:
Steve Denning / Senior Contributor at Forbes
“I talked to 50+ leaders and consultants about what ‘agile’ means,” the legendary professor of management science at the Stanford Engineering School, Robert I. Sutton, wrote on Twitter late last week. “Read 10+ books. I agree with many principles and grasped it when it focused on software. I am now confused. It has become a huge tent with varied jargon monoxide. Consider this graphic via @stevedenning.”
Agile Has Multiple Meanings
Professor Sutton is right of course that “Agile” is used in many senses by many different people. In an interesting article, Jason Yip of Spotify lists some of the different meanings of “Agile.” They include:
- “Agile” as a synonym for good.
- “Agile” as a particular workflow.
- “Agile” as a set of practices.
- “Agile” as an ideal.
- “Agile” as a set of target outcomes.
- “Agile” as a community.
- “Agile” as doctrine, or a set of fundamental principles that guide actions in support of objectives.
Agile’s Origins In Software
Agile took off in software development in the 2000s. But even here there has been a lack of clarity. As recently as 2017, a survey cited in Computer Weekly concluded that “Three-quarters of the 300 U.K. and U.S.-based CIOs surveyed said they were no longer prepared to defend agile. Half said they now think of agile as ‘an IT fad.’ Over half of the CIOs have discredited agile development.”
Things are shifting quickly. Surveys by Deloitte and McKinsey suggest that more than 90% of executives give high priority to business agility, even though less than 10% see their current firm as “highly agile.”
A Paradigm Shift In Management
The answers you get to the question as to what “Agile” means will depend on who you ask. For many, Agile (or business agility or organizational agility, or whatever you want to call it), has come to mean a paradigm shift in management, a fundamental rethinking about how work gets done in the 21st century.
As Thomas Kuhn explained when he introduced the concept of a paradigm shift, it’s normal to encounter a great deal of confusion as to what is going on while the paradigm shift is happening. If you go around talking to random people asking what “agile” means, you will inevitably get very different answers, particularly if you are talking to people who are stuck in the old paradigm, or who are having problems implementing the new paradigm.
What Do Agile Firms Actually Do?
To make sense of the confusion, anecdotal inquiry makes less sense than examining the actual differences between firms that are “highly agile” and those that aren’t.
When we conducted research over several years on this issue in the SD Learning Consortium, we concluded that there was a small set of principles that divided the “Agile haves” and the ‘Agile have nots.” It wasn’t in the end a set of processes or practices that made the difference. It was a different way of thinking, understanding, and acting in the world.
We found that the “Agile haves” have a mindset with three keys or “laws”:
1. The Law Of The Customer
The most important aspect of the Agile mindset is the Law of the Customer. Agile practitioners are obsessed with delivering value to customers. Globalization, deregulation, and new technology, particularly the Internet, provided the customer with choices, reliable information about those choices and the ability to connect with other customers. Suddenly the customer was in charge and expected value that is instant, frictionless and intimate.
The primacy of the customer is at once the most obvious and the most difficult aspect of Agile to grasp. One reason why it’s difficult to understand is that 20th century managers had learned to parrot phrases like “the customer is number one,” while continuing to run the organization as an internally-focused top-down bureaucracy focused on delivering value to shareholders.
2. The Law Of The Small Team
The second universal characteristic of the Agile mindset is the Law of the Small Team. Agile practitioners share a mindset that work should in principle be done in small autonomous cross-functional teams working in short cycles on relatively small tasks and getting continuous feedback from the ultimate customer or end user.
3. The Law Of The Network
The third characteristic is the Law of the Network. Agile practitioners view the organization as a fluid and transparent network of players that are collaborating towards a common goal of delighting customers.
To be sure, we also found scores of Agile practices needed to to implement these three keys. But the secret of Agile didn’t lie in these multiple practices. It lay in the mindset. Without a mindset with these three keys, what we saw was ‘fake Agile’ i.e. Agile in name only. And there is a lot of fake Agile around.
Agile Is Eating The World
Because firms that are highly agile way can act and respond faster than their competitors, they are taking over the world, as we can see in the performance of the five largest and fastest-growing firms on the planet: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Agile organizations are connecting everyone and everything, everywhere, all the time. They are capable of delivering instant, intimate, frictionless value on a large scale. They are creating a world in which people, insights, and money interact quickly, easily, and cheaply.
In effect, Agile is eating the world. For those firms that have mastered the paradigm shift, the revolution is uplifting and beautiful.
For those that haven’t mastered it, the future is dark and threatening. Big, lumbering market-leading bureaucracies consistently miss game-changing transformations in industry after industry. For these big old bureaucracies, the choice is stark: change or die.