One of the questions that often comes up in the workshops on organisational agility that I run with senior leadership teams is when are agile, iterative processes appropriate and conversely when are they not?
My belief is that in general, many of the principles that surround agile (like data-driven decision making, regular delivery of value, customer-focus, continuous learning, adaptability) are undervalued in business and should be more broadly applied in an environment of rapidly changing competitive, consumer and company contexts. But the wider point is that agile is not just a process, it defines a culture. This is what agile practitioner Michael Sahota described as the difference between doing agile and being agile. It’s the difference between practices and mindset. And as Michael points out, being agile should not be an isolated goal — it needs to run alongside other objectives that give direction. An agile mindset and culture can be a powerful enabler to progress, but it’s about progressing towards those organisational goals in an agile way.
In my experience this is a significant mindset change for leaders schooled in more structured, waterfall-like, processes and thinking, operating in an environment characterised by embedded organisational practice, routines and conventions that are far from agile.
But what of agile as a process? Whilst doing agile (and more generally iterative, sprint working) is, I think, also undervalued and overly confined in most businesses, it is not applicable to absolutely everything. Simon Wardley talks a lot of sense about this when he describes the reasons that you need multiple methods within a company, appropriate for different evolutionary stages of a value proposition or components to a system. Such components can mature from the new and uncharted (characterised by discovery, higher levels of unpredictability, uncertainty, and potential differential), to the more common and industrialised (more certain and predictable, appearance of linear order). Agile is naturally suited to charting new territory and building new value in an environment of rapid change since it is far more adaptive. More industrialised, well-established and well-understood components that are highly stable and repeatable are more effectively managed by a highly structured method (like six-sigma for example).
It makes sense that different methodologies are appropriate for different contexts. My point to many leadership teams though, is that in the context of a modern operating environment that is characterised by heightened levels of change and uncertainty, we need far greater emphasis on emergent strategy, experimentation and adaptive, iterative, agile ways of working. Put simply, we need to completely reset the balance.
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