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29/5/2019 Understanding Fake Agile

164,708 views | May 23, 2019, 05:52pm

Understanding Fake Agile


Steve Denning Senior Contributor
Leadership Strategy
I write about Agile management, leadership, innovation & narrative.

I was recently asked by a major corporation to give a talk on “fake agile.” They
wanted me to explain what it is, how to identify it and how to deal with it. The
request led me to give some thought to the many varieties of the beast, the
reasons for its emergence and the prospects of taming, containing it, or turning it
into the real thing.

The request is understandable. Some instances of supposedly agile management


have as much relation to real Agile as someone wearing flamenco costumes and
talking about flamenco, without having mastered flamenco dance steps or
displaying a feel or flair for flamenco music.

With the growing recognition that “Agile is eating the world,” surveys by Deloitte
and McKinsey show that more than 90% of senior executives give high priority to
becoming agile, while less than 10% see their firm as currently highly agile. The
gap between aspiration and reality has led to a vast number of managers,
consultants, and coaches claiming to be agile and offering to help firms become
agile. Quite a few firms also have CEOs who are asking, “Why aren’t we agile?”

As a result, the term “agile” is often thrown around without any agreement as to
its meaning. It is often applied to firms, or parts of firms, that have no substantive
claim to any kind of agility. In part, as a result, firms that are in fact very agile
often shy away from the label, “agile” and use their own home-grown vocabulary
which feels more authentic.

Agile Defined

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To sort out the confusion, we need a definition of the real thing. As explained
here, my research over the last decade suggests that the main fruits of Agile
accrue to firms embodying a mindset with three main components.

To underline the importance of all three of the components, I have—only half-


facetiously—called them “laws.” By this, I mean that unless you are obeying all
these “laws”, you can’t really call your organization Agile. I am here talking about
the agility of the entire firm, or business agility, since experience suggests that the
main fruits of Agile are only generated if the entire firm is operating from the
same script.

The three laws of Agile are thus:

the Law of the Customer—an obsession with delivering value to customers


as the be-all and end-all of the organization.
the Law of the Small Team—a presumption that all work be carried out by
small self -organizing teams, working in short cycles and focused on
delivering value to customers—and
the Law of the Network—a continuing effort to obliterate bureaucracy and
top-down hierarchy so that the firm operates as an interacting network of
teams, all focused on working together to deliver increasing value to
customers.

This definition includes both operational agility (making the existing business
better) and strategic agility (generating new products and services and so
bringing in new customers). The definition is also independent of terminology,
labels, specific proprietary processes or particular brands.

Agile Without The Label

The definition recognizes that some of the most successful Agile implementations
use home-grown terminology. In other words, these firms don’t even call
themselves Agile and shy away from standard Agile vocabulary, some of which
(like Scrum) was deliberately devised to be unattractive to management. Thus,
most of the largest and fastest-growing firms on the planet—Amazon, Apple,
Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Microsoft—are recognizably Agile in much of what
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they do, even though they generally don’t use standard Agile vocabulary. Their
business agility is an important reason why they have become the most valuable
firms in the world.

Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg ©

2017 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

‘Early-Stage Agile’

Agile is a journey. No large firm is able to implement all the elements of Agile on
Day One. Mastering the various facets of Agile takes time. When a firm is in the
early stages of the Agile journey, one might call it “Early-Stage Agile.” It's not fake
Agile: it's Agile that is incomplete. If the journey proceeds well, then the firm will
gradually master all the three Laws of Agile as well as strategic agility. The
journey never ends: firms go on finding new ways to become ever more agile.

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Microsoft Agile Journey IMAGE: STEVE DENNING

The sequence of the journeys of firms can differ. For instance, Microsoft began
with small agile teams about ten years ago. It continued experimenting on a
steadily growing scale in the period 2008-2014. It was only after this period when
Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s CEO that the approach began to spread to the
whole organization and one could think of Microsoft as a firm that was beginning
to exemplify business agility. Before 2014, one might have called Microsoft a firm
that was in Early Stage Agile.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

By contrast, Amazon embraced an obsession with the customer from the outset of
its stock market debut in 1997, with an explicit commitment to devote itself to
giving primacy to generating customer value and achieving market dominance. It
was only five years later—around 2002—that Amazon embraced “two-pizza
teams” and began to link the teams together in a network rather than a top-down
hierarchy. Before that, it would have been appropriate to call Amazon an instance
of Early-Stage Agile, although the sequence of the early steps in its journey was
different from Microsoft.‘

'Agile In Name Only’

Not everyone uses “Agile” in the way I have defined it. Some people use “agile” to
refer to any firm calling itself, or claiming to be, agile. This usage leads to many
firms being called agile even though they are not being managed any differently
from traditional bureaucracy. It also excludes some of the firms that have been
most successful in implementing Agile, because they don’t use the standard
terminology of Agile. Hence this usage leads to many firms which might be called
“Agile in name only” or what I have sometimes called “fake Agile.” In other

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words, to understand whether a firm is Agile, we have to look beyond what firms
are saying and look at how they are operating.

“Agile in name only” is also sometimes applied to firms that are implementing the
ceremonies and processes of “Agile” but without the Agile mindset. They are
doing Agile without being Agile. For instance, Wal-Mart in the period before 2016
had many supposedly agile teams but was not getting much benefit from the
effort. The teams were executing agile processes, but managers’ hearts weren’t in
it. They lacked the Agile mindset.

Walmart Supercenter in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

It was only in 2016 when Walmart bought Jet.com and recruited Marc Lore to
lead the Wal-Mart effort that things started “moving at the speed of a start-up"
and benefits started to flow. Within a year, Wal-Mart had massively expanded the
products available online, was offering free two-day delivery without customers
having to pay for membership of Amazon’s Prime and deploying its stores as
fulfillment centers. Better financial results soon followed.

‘Agile For Software Only’

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For many agilists, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development of 2001 is the
North Star of the agile movement. Its 4 values and 12 principles have been a guide
to hundreds of thousands of software developers interested in “uncovering better
ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.”

The Agile Manifesto is often also the starting point for those seeking to spread the
message of agile beyond software development and so also becomes an important
reference for business agility. A gathering in 2011 of 10 of the original signatories
of Manifesto showed no inclination to change a single word of the Manifesto or
expand it to go beyond software. The Manifesto now has the status of an iconic
historical document, akin to Magna Carta or The Declaration of Independence.
Although these historical documents do not say the last word on their respective
subjects today, they remain as permanent beacons for those who come afterward.

Yet the fact that the wording of the Manifesto is limited to software development
makes it less than adequate as a definition of business agility. In fairness to the
drafters of the Manifesto, they weren’t thinking of business agility. Their
preoccupation was more about making the world safe for software developers.

But restricting agile to software development becomes a problem. When agile


thinking takes over software development in a traditionally managed
organization, it inevitably begins to run into conflict with other parts of the
organization that are moving less rapidly and less flexibly.

‘Stalled Agile Journeys’

We see many examples where Agile becomes an increasingly important dynamic


of the software development group but ultimately fails to win support from the
top management. Initially, the fact that software development is operating in an
Agile fashion, while the rest of the organization is functioning much more slowly
and inflexibly in a traditional bureaucratic fashion, isn’t too much of problem: the
management is happy to see the faster production of software.

But as the agile movement spreads, the tension between the two different modes
of operation can start to become a source of tension. The software developers

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become frustrated with the slow pace with which the rest of the organization uses
its software and start lobbying for change.

At some point, the lobbying may irritate the top management as the software
developers challenge well-established management practices. As a result, the
management may close down Agile implementation and dismiss the Agile leaders
and coaches. Of course, the top management doesn’t use those words. Instead,
they declare victory: “We are already agile. We don’t need agile leaders or coaches
and more.” As a result, the Agile journey can stall or die, or at least go
underground.

Stalled Agile Journeys IMAGE: STEVE DENNING

Yet the problem in the marketplace that prompted the firm to pursue Agile in the
first place still exists. Without Agile, the firm isn’t able to develop and adapt
software rapidly enough—a critical handicap in a world that is rapidly going
digital. Often, after a few years, we see the firm launch a new effort to “become
agile.”

It’s not that “agile for software only” is fake agile. It’s not. It’s just that when Agile
management is limited to software only, it has a limited life expectancy. Conflicts
with the rest of the organization are inevitable. Agile and bureaucracy are
mutually incompatible: in the medium term, only one can survive.
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‘Branded Agile’

There is also Agile in the sense of the various Agile brands promoted by
consultants and trainers, of which there are hundreds. These are multiple
variants of the same underlying idea of Agile. Yet often there is an insistence on
using particular terms and specific named processes, which are defined in this
way for the commercial purpose of distinguishing their offering from competing
consultants and trainers. The result is mass confusion as shown in the diagram
below.

Graphic by Lynne Cazaly. based on Craig Smith, reproduced with permission LYNNE CAZALY

Some of these branded variants of Agile may be Agile. Many of them focus on the
implementation of the Second Law of Agile—the Law of the Small Team—because
it is the easiest thing to train. They often give scant attention to the First and
Third Laws—the Laws of the Customer and the Law of the Network.

It’s not that the Law of Small Team isn’t important. It is crucial. But it’s not
enough. Unless the firm moves on to implement the other two Laws, any gains
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from Agile teams are likely to evaporate and be swallowed up by the bureaucracy.

The other problem is that an emphasis on any particular variant of Agile as “the
answer” and the insistence on using the particular branded labels, processes and
terminology, tends to distract attention from the underlying substance of Agile as
a fundamentally different way of running an organization, a new kind of
management, not simply the wares of a particular consultant.

One can sympathize with the rant of Luke Halliwell some ten years ago.

“ I’m sick of it. I can’t wait for the day when everyone realizes how much of a
fad-diet, religious-cult-inspired, money-making exercise it is for a group of
consultants. I can’t wait for people to wake up to the fact that the only good
parts of Agile are just basic common sense and don’t need a ‘manifesto’ or
evangelists to support them."

The multiple forms of Branded Agile are confusing and can lead to the impression
that Agile itself may be confused. Overall, ‘Branded Agile’ includes some genuine
Agile and some fake Agile. The main caveat here is to beware of consultants and
trainers who insist that their branded version of Agile is “the one and only true
way.”

Scaling Frameworks: SAFe

A particularly unfortunate form of “branded Agile” concerns scaling frameworks.


These are schemes aimed at helping firms that have some teams implementing
Agile practices and want to resolve the tension between the Agile teams and the
back-office systems of the organization (such as strategy, planning, budget, HR,
Finance) which are typically monolithic and bureaucratic.

The challenge is usually presented as one of “scaling up agile.” The issue here is
that if the firm is thinking about " scaling up agile", it is already on the wrong
track. The challenge of genuine Agile is how to descale big monolithic, internally-
focused systems into tasks that can be run by small self-managing customer-
focused teams.

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Scaled Agile Framework SCALED AGILE INC

A particularly worrying variant is the Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe.


Essentially this is codified bureaucracy, in which the customer is almost totally
absent. It is now pervasive in large firms because it gives the management a
mandate to call themselves agile and keep doing what they have always done.
Essentially it subordinates the agile teams to the bureaucracy, rather than doing
what is necessary to achieve business agility, namely, namely, transform the big
monolithic internally-focused systems into arrangements where the budgets, HR,
Finance and so on are flexible and externally focused in support the Agile teams
in operations. The insignificant role of the customer in the chart above is
indicative of the problem.

There is a risk that SAFe is discrediting genuine Agile. It’s an illustration of


Gresham’s Law: bad money drives out the good. When this happens SAFe is the
epitome of “fake Agile.” It is possible that when SAFe is implemented by
managers with a genuine Agile mindset, its negative side effects can be mitigated.
My question would be: why would anyone with a genuine Agile mindset be using
SAFe in the first place?

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'Agile Lite'

Another worrying form of Agile that has started to appear is something called
“Agile-lite.” This appeared in a Harvard Business Review article last year in an
article that explained how some HR services were trying to find ways to become
agile. The article offered the headline, “HR Goes Agile.” But the text suggested
that “HR is going ‘agile lite’.” We learned that “HR is applying the general
principles of Agile without adopting all the tools and protocols from the tech
world.” Judging from the examples, it appears that “Agile lite” means the
adoption of tools and practices of Agile without necessarily deploying them with
an Agile mindset. Without an Agile mindset, Agile remains an inert, lifeless set of
ceremonies.

And read also:

Why Agile Is Eating The World

Making The Whole Firm Agile

Steve Denning’s most recent book is The Age of Agile (HarperCollins, 2018)

Steve Denning Senior Contributor

My new book, "The Age of Agile" was published by HarperCollins in 2018. I consult with
organizations around the world on leadership, innovation, management and business ...
Read More

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