Roots of agility

The current feeling about “Agile” in enterprises is a bit on the negative site - Gartner’s trough of disillusionment etc … It seems to be a hype of the noughties (2000-2009) that just doen’t seem to deliver on its promises. The reason why it might not work has a lot to do with “Being Agile” vs “Doing Agile”. “Doing Agile” refers to selecting some agile practices that fit the organisation whereas “Being Agile” refers to a certain mindset. In order to explore this mindset it useful to look a bit back at the roots of “Agility”.

It turs out that “Being Agile” has quite a history. Jim Highsmith in the book Adaptive Software Development (1999) - refers to the famous Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the West in the early 19th century as an Agile mission with emphasis on mission, empowerment, local independence. (See Jim Highsmith and Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark expedition ) Agility became one of the organisational principles in the American military organisations - of all places. It made the difference in World War II and laid out the principles for the DARPANET and the current internet technology.

In business the first signs entered with the Hawthorne experiments in the 1920-1930s which negated the Taylorim axioms, currently still cherished in most large organisations. Taylorism is the exact opposite to Agile with extreme separation of control and detailed procedures combining extremely simple actions and unfortunately still deeply rooted within engineers.

The rise of Japanese manufacturing with Lean and Kanban offering principles that still hold, led to a whole new way of thinking.

The agile manifest for business was assembled by Peters and Waterman in their book. Looking why in the 1973 - 1982 crisis some companies managed to thrive, Peters and Waterman found eight common themes which they argued were responsible for the success of the chosen corporations. The book devotes one chapter to each theme.

  1. A bias for action, active decision making - ‘getting on with it’. Facilitate quick decision making & problem solving tends to avoid bureaucratic control
  2. Close to the customer - learning from the people served by the business.
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship - fostering innovation and nurturing ‘champions’.
  4. Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
  5. Hands-on, value-driven - management philosophy that guides everyday practice - management showing its commitment.
  6. Stick to the knitting - stay with the business that you know.
  7. Simple form, lean staff - some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties - autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values.

Yes they map to a lot of agile practices in “DevOps”:

  1. A bias for action: pigs and chickens, scrum with standups, short feedback loops, if something is difficult, do it frequently … you will learn to master it… frequent deployments
  2. Close to the customer: product owner must be present
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneur: empowered teams, scrum master and architectural coach as enablers
  4. Productivity through people: heterogeneous teams .. DevOps
  5. Hands-on, value-driven: testing, definition of done, demo, potentially deployable, continuous deployment, A/B-testing.
  6. Stick to the knitting: YAGNI, micro services, use cloud services
  7. Simple form, lean staff: small heterogeneous teams . If you need extra people make sure: external expertise for learning to fish not to supply fish
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties: so independent empowered product-oriented teams but they follow standards for their micro-services where needed and automate them - automating tedious repetitive steps is crucial to free your human creativity from details so when ever you are tempted to Taylorism, automate it!

So is Agile dead? No it is based upon a long tradition. Disappointments are often due to not “Being Agile” but just “Doing Agile” because it was a hype. “Being Agile” is a long term involvement starting in development but inviting to “end to end” (cust-bus-dev-ops)

Peters and Waterman still think within the traditional hierarchical organization with empowerment coming from the top leaders. The road ahead might however lie in a total new view on organizing our economic endeavors, reinventing organizations as being described by Frederic Laloux in his book “Reinventing organizations” (Nelson Parker 2014) - and already put in practice in some organizations in different sectors and contexts.

The new organizational paradigm is needed to thrive in a complex world as opposed to the more traditional complicated environment: “In complicated systems, we can try to figure out the best solution. In complex systems, we need workable solutions and fast iterations.”What this means for agile development and DevOps is described by Jim Highsmith in the book Adaptive Software Development (1999)

As a start of our journey in a disrupted and disruptive environment, let’s take Tom Peters advise to heart (In Search of Excellence: A Three-Generation Report Card. Copyright © 2001) : The world of 2002? We don’t have a clue. We’ve got to make it up as we go. We’re going to reinvent the world … in the next 10 to 25 years … economics and politics and social interchange. So … S.A.V. Screw Around Vigorously. It is now 2016!


Marc Kimpe

Evolutionary Architect


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