In our book on Building the Agile Business we detail how agile approaches are far more than a process, and capture a far broader opportunity for operating effectively as leaders and organisations in the modern world. I do a lot of workshops with groups of leaders from large corporates helping them to navigate the rapidly shifting contexts within which leadership now operates, and one of the key challenges often lies in undoing years (decades) of waterfall thinking characterised by comprehensive inputs and gold-plated, ‘death star’ approaches, and instead learning to take far more iterative approaches to solving problems. It’s far easier to be additive with projects, to see future possibilities, to add features, widen the scope, take comfort in building something grand and expensive. Far harder to be reductive, to focus first on the key problem your trying to solve, to test assumptions and validate hypotheses as you go, to start small and scale fast.
Dan Ward, a specialist in defence acquisition, has a lovely way of capturing this approach. FIST stands for ‘Fast, Inexpensive, Simple and Tiny’. He developed this framework to describe a new approach for acquisitions and system development building on an original concept from NASA. In the 1990’s NASA saw great success with their ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ (FBC) series of missions that set out to redefine time, cost and output expectations of their work and included the wildly successful Mars Pathfinder mission (which for the first time ever put a rover on another planet at a fraction of the cost and time of the earlier Viking mission) and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission (which collected 10 times more data about the asteroid Eros than expected yet was under budget by tens of millions of dollars). FIST defines an approach that uses a small team of talented people working with tight time and resource constraints adhering to a particular set of principles and practices.
Like most great concepts, FIST has much broader application and lots in common of-course with Lean and agile. But we need to acknowledge that these approaches run counter to organisational policy and practice that has been dominant and embedded in many businesses for years. In an environment characterised by swiftly changing contexts, the ability of companies to be ambidextrous in their ability to both exploit and explore is more critical than ever. Learning to start small and scale fast is one of the fundamental shifts that leaders can take to begin this journey.