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Agile Iron Chefs?

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Talk about tough-to-cross chasms …

How Great Entrepreneurs Think,” (Leigh Buchanan, Inc., 2/1/2011) describes seriously interesting research by Saras Sarasvathy on the difference between entrepreneurs and corporate managers.

Unlike the usual takes on the subject (this old column, for example), Sarasvathy spent hours with a statistically significant number of both in the context of solving typical business problems, comparing their verbalized thought processes to identify the differences.

Her conclusion: Entrepreneurs are “Iron Chefs” — improvisers who figure out how to make something terrific out of whatever is available at the moment. They “… constantly assess how to use their personal strengths and whatever resources they have at hand to develop goals on the fly, while creatively reacting to contingencies.”

Corporate managers, in contrast, are far more analytical. They start by defining goals, “planning the work and working the plan” to achieve them.

It’s a radical difference, which will, inevitably, lead to dramatically different organizational cultures that view each other with suspicion: Entrepreneurs generally consider corporate types to be paper-shuffling bureaucrats who, when Opportunity knocks, explain the procedure for requesting building access; while corporate managers see entrepreneurs as the dog from Up, able to hold an intelligent conversation, but only until … SQUIRREL![*]

It also explains why entrepreneurs generally value outstanding employees far more than corporate managers, who consider it horrifying that an employee might be irreplaceable or nearly so — a crisis demanding immediate attention.

And, by the way, as companies grow and succeed they usually must make the transition from one to the other. Sarasvathy’s research helps explain why this transition is so incredibly painful and difficult.

It also presents something of a paradox: Those of us who have spent time thinking about business tend to celebrate entrepreneurship as the engine that drives success, even as we promote organized, goal-driven planning as its transmission (to push a metaphor harder than a metaphor should ever be pushed).

It appears this thought process is just wrong. Entrepreneurship and goal-driven planning just might turn out to be fundamentally incompatible — different models for organizing a business that fit very different circumstances and not, as so many of us have been thinking, complementary.

Is this just interesting theory, or does it matter to those who toil in the trenches of information technology?

Oh, yes. It matters a lot, even beyond its obvious value in helping you understand the executives and managers you work with every day. That’s because this difference between entrepreneurs and corporate managers matches perfectly the difference between how Agile’s proponents and those who prefer Waterfall methodologies think.

Talk to a Waterfaller and the proposition sounds entirely logical: If you don’t know what you’re supposed to build, there’s no way to put a coherent plan together to build it. That way lies madness. Agile? Its proponents live in a world in which they’re surrounded by … SQUIRRELS!

Talk to an Agilite and it’s a very different conversation, all about how business users don’t really know what they want until they have something to react to … how software development is more a voyage of discovery than a movie shot from a finished script.

This divide between entrepreneurs and corporate managers explains why, when attempting to adopt Agile techniques, IT managers with a corporate perspective focus on Agile’s relatively unimportant procedural dimension while ignoring or minimizing its essence: Iteration coupled with high levels of informal interaction with business users and managers.

They ignore and minimize Agile’s essence, not because they’re dullards but because they’re literally unable to even have the conversation. Process is how work gets done. The more organized and well-defined the process is, the more likely it is that success will happen. Including “build trust with business users,” and “call them whenever you have something interesting to show them or when you need to understand something better” in a swim-lane diagram is a non-starter.

So if you’ve been running a traditional Waterfall shop and want to introduce Agile as a better way of getting software efforts done, you aren’t likely to succeed by sending a few managers to a three-day training class. You’re dealing with a deep and wide change in culture that has to be driven by a whole different thought process on the part of everyone involved.

To make it happen, you just might need different leaders — internal entrepreneurs who see planning, not as the foundation of catching dinner, but as a great way to hunt prey that aren’t actually there, while missing all of the … SQUIRRELS!

[*] Gag borrowed from Jon Stewart because it’s too perfect to pass up.

Comments (8)

  • Ah! The American way. Lay off your most expensive people to reduce the budget, then spread the work that was already late among the survivors. Then spend management resources in meetings to try to figure out why you are late, or the design does not meet specs/requirements/user needs.

    I knew the late Don Estridge at IBM even before he founded the PC team. He was a true entrepreneur, but IBM didn’t know what to do with him. In a year of indecision, Don founded and staffed the PC Division and launched product. When IBM’s manufacturing methods didn’t work, he invented new ones. He made do with as many parts of other IBM products as he could so he would not need to design them in the Division. Don did the unthinkable at IBM – he used a commercial microprocessor the Intel 8088.

    You captured the essence of this eternal conflict, not only between entrepreneurs and managers, but the whole “American Way.”

  • Interesting distinction. Now how does Agile/Entrepreneurial scale up? Is the transition to the Waterfall/Corporate model inevitable?

    I don’t think this is a good v. bad issue. The question is how can we leverage the creative and nimble qualities of Agile in large scale environments?

  • If the thesis is correct, that there is an uncrossable divide between “corporate” and non-corporate then the answer is easier than you make out. The process-driven will inevitably fail. Market shifts will change the environment, leaving the planner in the cold. If we must choose, then it is clear that the “waterfall” developer is horribly misguided and needs to be replaced. Only those who are connected with the market, and able to shift (to find the squirrels) will survive.

  • The engine and transmission metaphor was quite appropriate in my view.

    Do you think it is possible for a management team to have a mixture of Waterfall and Agile concepts that is a Goldilocks Mixture of “just right”?

    • Not sure. If you buy the premise of this article it’s less likely though, because when the two approaches call for different personalities, middle ground is going to be difficult to manage.

      On the other hand, there are plenty of entrepreneurs smart enough to hire Chief Operating Officers whose job is to impose some discipline on the organization, as a counterbalance to the entrepreneur.

  • There are people who can hold that balance – people who need to do disaster planning often need to have that capacity.

    And, unless people are very rigid (and a surprising number of Agile proponents ARE rigid), people with the different types of personalities can work together in really good partnership. Much like the entrepreneur who hires the organized COO.

    IT is a perfect example of where both types are needed. You can’t undertake projects that are expected to have a major impact on the organization by just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. If you do that, you are definitely going to miss something, and wind up with a structure that is fragile and hard to adapt down the road – and that’s if you are lucky. On the other hand, if you spend 6 months just on the specifications, then by the time you are done with phase 1, your project will probably be obsolete, and may very well be just as unadaptable as the the “just start with something approach.”

    Think about architecture (I mean brick and mortar, not electronic.) For really great buildings, you need to be creative, adaptable, able to recognize unique opportunities and willing to take advantage of them. They also need to be able to communicate well and understand others’ needs, rather than trying to impose their vision on the “user”. But, then they need to be able to put together a detailed plan – one that can – and SHOULD – be strictly followed. And, he needs to be able to do it in a reasonably short time frame. It’s a very similar set of issues. Maybe that’s a useful model to figure out how to get the best of both worlds.

  • Actually entrepreneurs are even more like MacGuyver than Iron Chefs. Iron Chefs have access to numerous high quality ingredients while MacGuyver used “ingredients” in his current location.

    A quote from your article “… constantly assess how to use their personal strengths and whatever resources they have at hand to develop goals on the fly, while creatively reacting to contingencies.”

  • @MarkCampbell… Actually I just left a situation where mgr spoke “agile” but managed their employees in a “waterfall” old-school fashion. The vision was great but the execution was horrible — total “corporate” management style in execution versus the entrepreneurial style. It was an absolute nightmare. Worst environment I’ve ever been associated with, and I’ve been around the block a few times.

    In general if you see or conceive of a “Frankenstein” that’s usually what you get. In the end, the “vision” (also known as “management speak”) doesn’t matter so much as what the actual day to day is. The actual day to day EXECUTION is really what you have. You can call it “agile” (and pat yourself on the back) if you want, but a philosophy is ultimately EXECUTED. All else is simply propaganda and marketing (at the very least — and usually a whole lot uglier).

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