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How to be more agile than Agile

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Businesses that adopt Agile often miss out.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m all in favor of Agile development, although I’m less than sanguine about its ongoing evolution from simplicity and charm to complexity and excessive proceduralization.

But the missing out comes from a failure to recognize what Agile isn’t, namely, it isn’t limited to application development. Agile is a way of thinking, not a series of steps. And its way of thinking applies to any situation where an organization needs to address some set of problems and opportunities with a design and a plan, but the problems and opportunities are deeply fluid.

And oh, by the way, those whose opinions about the problems and solutions govern decisions are in flux as well.

Start by imagining, just hypothetically you understand, your boss calls on you to charter and launch a new department. It will be called the Math Department and its purpose is to solve math problems for the rest of the enterprise.

Any and all math problems.

Tell her when you’ve finished the assignment.

Hoo Hah! Say what?

Further imagine your professional career began in IT, where you were schooled in Waterfall methodologies.

And … you’re doomed.

To design the Math Department you need to understand Math. Which you start out to do, reading everything you can get your hands on about Math.

But the more you learn about Math, the more branches of mathematics you learn about. The subject is, as Einstein … using math, by the way … pointed out about the universe, finite but unbounded. So you go back to your manager, explain the impossibility of carrying out your assignment, polish your resume, and don’t look back.

Or, you could apply Agile methods.

You’d start with a few Epics … say, basic arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry. These would comprise your initial Backlog.

You’d then take the simplest and, happily, most needed of the Epics from the Backlog … arithmetic … write user stories (yes, you could turn story problems into user stories), and write a position description to hire someone who can solve all the user stories. Which is how you come to hire Michael Vincent Peterson. You nickname him MVP (did I really need to spell this out?) and the Math Department is off and running.

Well, walking anyway.

Once Arithmetic Services is stable (are stable? No, it’s a thing — “is stable”) you follow the same pattern for algebra, and follow that pattern for trig.

It’s right about here you discover that just having experts isn’t enough. The Math Department has become popular enough that it needs some level of management — enough to decide how to process requests and set priorities. How should you handle this?

The same way: You add an Epic to the Backlog, this one for designing and implementing Mathmanagement (catchy, eh?), just as you’d do if one of your executives came along to tell you he needs the Math Department to handle differential calculus.

If you boil Agile down to its essentials, you’ll find principles you can apply to a whole lot more than application development, for example, the principle that there’s little point spending time designing solutions you won’t be in a position to implement before they become irrelevant.

So the moral of this story is that more often than not, businesses can achieve important large-scale change one small change increment at a time. And they can do so with far less disruption and risk than trying to design a comprehensive solution.

Which gets us to two consequential and immutable universal laws. The first, articulated by my college roommate Jack Buckmiller states, “If a meal takes longer to cook than it takes to eat, you’ve done something terribly wrong.”

Add Lewis’s corollary: “Buckmiller’s Law only counts the time I spend cooking a meal, not the time someone else spends making one for me.”

I’m pretty sure these are relevant to the subject at hand. You’re welcome to disagree.

In any event, a second, contemporaneous but somewhat better known rule is Gall’s Law: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.” (John Gall, Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail (1975))

To which I suppose we should add one more non-business-derived business principle. It’s something I learned in Driver’s Ed: Don’t over-drive your lights.

Comments (3)

  • It’s not often that I find such an excellent explanation for why things fail. Thanks. Every time I hear the term ‘comprehensive’ solution, I can be certain of a sub-optimal result.

  • Clearly, Jack doesn’t enjoy cooking ;^)

  • I particularly appreciate Gall’s Law this week. It sounds very much like a quote from systems expert Peter Pronovost, MD: “Complex systems… are breeding grounds for errors.” Gonna get those embroidered on a lumbar cushion for the office.

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