The agile organisation – a risky proposition

When somebody tells you that they want their organisation to be agile, what do you read from that? I’ll bet you feel a bit sheepish because you feel that yours is not, but it should be. I suspect that you remember this becoming a fashionable goal and thinking you would find out at some point what it all means.

If you answered yes, then you just joined a huge club closely affiliated to the new man”, “cosmopolitan woman” and all the others.

Maybe you have already announced to your boss that you are “going agile” and you still haven’t quite got round to working out what precisely it is, but you instinctively know that it is right for you. This is also a very large club growing daily. You won’t be lonely in there either.

The most likely thing is that you came across it via a systems project and all the new converts raved about their new found, almost religious belief in this cure-for-all-corporate-ills. You loved the stories about no decisions, no commitment, no planning, and no documents. ”This is damned interesting, I want to hear more”, you said

What did Bill Gates mean and what did it mean to Microsoft to be agile. Well Bill made the mother of all misjudgements when he said that the internet was of no interest to Microsoft and dismissed its potential. Within one and a half years, Microsoft had changed its mind, won the browser war with Netscape and delivered ASP, the first and still dominant commercial application server for the internet. That was agile, but it had not a thing to do with stand up meetings around whiteboards and walls covered in scribbles.

Horses for courses

Adapting a largely web development methodology and attempting to use it as a corporate philosophy is bonkers. Anybody who tells you otherwise is out of her tree and I’m not given to sweeping statements, so I’ll need to back that up with some arguments, here goes:

  1. Large organisations need process, it is their blood supply

Have you ever experienced an agile development team in the software world? The entire fabric of specialisation, process, controls and method are abandoned completely. Everyone claims to be multi-skilled, they are a team of peers, and they operate outside of the business rules and the corporate structures.
They romanticise it as though they were a hit squad, “licensed to kill”.

All this was put in place for a reason. A highly skilled multi-talented team empowered to JFDI is a great solution to political stalemate and analysis paralysis in specific situations, but would we want the CIA or Mi6 running the country?

Even in a highly mature market, our only corporate goal is to maintain our competitive position or improve it and in many cases this is driven by economies of scale and brand strength. This is why we have oligopoly and cartels everywhere manipulating key domestic markets such as supermarkets, fuel, banking, etc. A typical sluggish, but safe operation is exactly right for the job, low risk, stable and relatively low cost. It can function with the average half to three quarter wit at the wheel and needs no dynamism. It’s all about horses for courses. You can’t take away their crutches and expect them to perform. History shows that it fails miserably.

2. The vital relationship between good strategy, intelligent planning and sane execution. Anybody who has working experience of trading the stock market knows the persona of the Bull and Bear. These fabled characters are, of course, not different individuals, but different phases in each trader’s performance. Adrenaline, or cortisol take over quickly when the action begins and knee jerk reactions produce cowardly hibernating bears, or arrogant testosterone fuelled bulls

I witnessed this just recently when my irrational fear of snakes was suddenly reawakened by almost stepping on one and watching him thankfully slither away. I was physically unable to walk any further and had to resist the urge to run back to the safety of the car. It took a few days before I could walk in the woods again without watching every blade of grass.
I went to Vegas once and discovered that one friend had a deeply rooted gambling issue such that he could only see the chance of winning the next hand and had no inclination of the odds. The higher the likely return the more attracted he was, never weighing it against the likelihood of winning. Both of these situations are unnatural and unrealistic reactions to risk and opportunity and both are potentially destructive.
Let neither fear, nor greed be your master
Human reaction to risk and opportunity both tend to bring out the very ugliest sides of human nature, greed and fear. Neither of these emotions is rational and neither can be trusted for any length of time. They stem from another era when we needed to run very fast into a cave without asking questions, or gorge ourselves before we were driven away from the feast by a more aggressive animal.

It is because of these irrational behaviours that every aspect of business behaviour must be driven by a well formed strategy that includes:

  • A well understood risk attitude
  • A carefully devised approach to managing day to say risk that keeps the bear and bull within us well out of the picture and supports rational management behaviour.
    A risk strategy is not a simple thing to plan out. The fact of the matter is that the more attractive the reward is, the higher the risk will generally be. You have to make your choices


Some examples from the finance and gambling industries
E.G. A bank with its risks spread over the right industries and economies can expect that when one is doing poorly another is doing well and thus balance risk.A bookie can balance his books by taking a precise level of exposure on every horse in a race so that regardless of the outcome he wins a little over the day’s activity. Taking a big picture viewpoint as above, and developing from this a strategy that can be applied at a more granular level allows me to look at the snake philosophically and continue my journey, it allows my gambling friend to view his account on a quarterly basis and aim for a profit without making rash decisions on the spot. It doesn’t stop me from pausing till the snake has disappeared, or taking simple precautions in future.

  • A banker without a strategy would panic when three customers in a row defaulted on their payments. A bookmaker would run for the car park when two favourites in a row won forcing him to pay out. Only reliable insight, a solid strategy and a sound plan allows ordinary individuals to successfully run apparently high risk industries.
    Knee jerk “agile” management is the stuff of the hard luck stories.

3. Responsibility to our shareholders demands responsible decisions, audit trails and experiential learning.
Never before have we been so aware of the responsibility to our way of life that is borne by officers of private businesses everywhere. Every quoted company is taking the savings of pensioners and promising to give them a return annually so they can finish their lives in dignity. Every business has a responsibility to employees and investors of all sorts whose lives depend o their performance. Our world is continually burdened with more audit requirements as more frauds are discovered. We need robust and recorded decision making and we need accountability.
Informal decisions around the water cooler open the door wide for the irresponsible amongst us. I’m not espousing process laden organisations with forms to fill in for everything, but if you leave the cookie jar without a lid, you just know what is going to happen

4. The team is everything
Teams are made of people, not numbers, roles or little boxes connected by lines.
People must have their needs met if they are to perform and if individuals don’t perform the team fails. The things that motivate people to perform are all based around security. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs and later Herzberg’s hygienes and motivators all demonstrate that people need to know where they stand in their group and that their standing must fit their contribution. An agile team in the software world can, if correctly balanced to begin with perform very well, but usually it is utterly dominated by one person and becomes a benign dictatorship. Any attempt to get things right first time are usually dropped in favour of constant revision mode and quickly they realise that constant activity disguises the lack of any meaningful outputs.
The peak of the productivity curve is reached very quickly and after that it is all down hill.
In a non software world, there is little difference other than the fact that sometimes the potential downside can be catastrophic and constant revision is usually less of an option. Single agile teams tackling key business change issues can, if correctly and responsibly set up and under constant enlightened management, both during the forming, norming . . phase and into maturity, produce exceptional results for exceptional managers, but as a broad approach and using a large team of teams, the roll call of spectacular failures speak for themselves.

5. The map is not the territory
Most management philosophies are corrupted shamelessly and misused without any insight into what makes them work. Agile works, but only in it’s own unique environment and only when the core competencies exist and the critical factors have all been properly taken care of.
The risk is seeing only the landmarks, e.g. that you see agile as: describing things in user stories, or having stand up meetings, or small empowered teams, or Just In Time decisions making, or incremental delivery of product. You can adapt any of these that catch your eye and maybe they well deliver what you expect, but that won’t make it agile.
See beyond the ceremony, stare straight through the dogma, but when the time is right, do it right and the rewards can be very encouraging, but don’t close your eyes and try to drive by the SatNav.