Agile Isn’t Everything and Everything Isn’t Agile

The righter we do the wrong thing the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. - Russell L. Ackoff

It’s always dangerous when people become more obsessed with the process of producing something than with the results produced.

A few years ago Bromford Lab was criticised by an auditor for not sticking to one methodology when it came to the innovation process. They were right – we didn’t- it was by design rather than accident. We had assembled a ‘Swiss army knife’ of tools to attempt to solve both straightforward customer challenges and wicked problems – including elements of design and systems thinking, lean, kaizen, working backwards and agile.

We didn’t pay a blind bit of regard to what the auditors thought and carried on regardless. No one outside your immediate team cares one jot about the processes and methods you follow – only about whether you make their working lives that little bit easier.

It’s never helpful when one methodology takes hold in the business world – if everyone is doing something the same it’s usually a sign that you’ve missed the boat anyway. David Bowie knew this when he said “My policy has been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date.” If it works, it’s time to move on.

Not that it does always work. Agile is an example of a methodology that seems to have captured a lot of organisations to such an extent that being seen working in any other way is seen as pre-historic. Seemingly everyone is agile, although arguably our productivity is not benefiting from it.

I’m always suspicious when anyone is wedded too closely to one methodology or ideology. For instance, agile was only founded as an approach in 2001. It was not used to build the Taj Mahal, discover penicillin or invent the television. There are other ways of achieving great things.

A friend of mine was recently invited on a two-day training course to teach/indoctrinate them in the ways of agile. It was accompanied by a 500-slide PowerPoint, no doubt explaining terms like ‘scrum of scrums’, ‘time boxing’, ‘epics’, ‘niko niko planning’ and the other 101 flavours of corporate bullshit that are contained in the agile lexicon. Unsurprisingly, two months after the training nothing has changed. But at least they now know what a ScrumMaster does.

One of the issues I have with agile working (which never feels very agile funnily enough) is the presumption that teams using agile methods get things done faster. And fast is always good.

Depending on the problem, sometimes you need to go fast but sometimes you need to go really slow. And sometimes you need to go fast and slow at the same time.

Fetishising speed results in just hurrying up. And once going fast is on the table, things quickly start falling off. As Stowe Boyd said ‘Fast gets all the attention, slow has all the power’.

This isn’t an attack on agile, just a reminder to myself as much as anyone else to never forget the fundamentals. A mix of approaches is preferable.

As Colin Bryar and Bill Carr have suggested the best solution could be to combine agile with something like working backwards. “Amazon, for example, has learned to use the working backwards process for idea development, but then follow agile to build and ship the product.”

Or maybe just develop an approach that suits your people and culture. Bob Marshall has written that the reason projects succeed is less to do with any methodology and something far more prosaic and human:

“What is the common denominator for successful delivery of great software products? People. Engaged, committed people. People that really want to make a difference. If you buy into this, then everything else pales into insignificance. Agile doesn’t matter, Waterfall doesn’t matter, processes in general don’t matter. People will find their own way. Some of those people will like Agile, and use it. Their success will come from the sweat of their brows and their commitment to making things work.”

You can be as agile as you like but that doesn’t help you ask whether you should be doing this at all. Why are we doing it?  How do we know this is the right thing to do?  What alternatives are there?  

As Ackoff said, most of our current problems are the result of policymakers and managers busting a gut to do the wrong thing right. Efficiency is often overrated.

Getting your people lined up behind your purpose and working tirelessly to do the right thing, regardless of your latest methodology, might get you better results.

Related: Disruption-Proof: How Entire Sectors Avoid Transformation