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Agile Admissions

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

Stephen Denning Reveals Agile’s “Dark Secret”

“Strategic Agility is the next frontier of agile management”…“This is the dark secret of the agile management revolution; the major financial gains will come from [this add-on] “Strategic Agility” - namely, through mastering market-creating innovation.”

Happy end of summer Humantific readers. Hope everyone had a good one out there. We don't typically do book reviews, and we are not about to formally engage in one here but considering the massive interest and equally massive hype around the subject of Agile we are in this week’s post taking a few minutes to point out to our readers a rather astonishing methodology related admission that we noticed inside Stephen Denning’s popular book “The Age of Agile”.

Since many of our Humantific readers are already steeped in adaptive innovation methods beyond Agile it seems likely that some of you might have noticed the admission certainly visible in plain sight.

In general we find it useful to have a robust sense of humor when reading Agile related material as the genre tends to be over-loaded with seriously over-the-top proclamations often unconnected to the realities of the marketplace. Often the Agile folks seem to be talking to themselves.

Today with hundreds of online discussion groups related to the subject of innovation it’s an oddity of the network era that often cross-community awareness/perspective is lacking and thus many repeating starting point initiatives get created within discipline siloes. For seasoned veterans of the innovation business working across discipline communities the repetition and unacknowledged overlaps can become rather tedious..:-)

What gets a little confusing about the case for Agile being made in the book; “The Age of Agile” is the oddly toned cascading tripartite set up by the author that begins with a general trashing of a straw-man, ancient picture of management depicted as “twentieth century management,” that then leads to the heroic arrival of Agile and oddly ends with the astonishing admission that present state Agile is an engine running on one cylinder. It’s a strange cascade that would probably perplex some readers and piss-off many Agile advocates.

Depicting Organizational Leaders:

“Twentieth century firms had gotten used to the notion that they could exploit and manipulate customers.”

“At the heart of Twentieth century management thinking is the notion of a corporation as an efficient steady-state machine aimed at exploiting its existing business model.”

“Twentieth century managers had learned to parrot phases like “the customer is number one” while continuing to run the organization as an internally focused, top down bureaucracy interested in delivering value to share-holders.”

“Trying to exploit technology and data with management practices that are still pervasive in many big corporations today is like driving a horse and buggy on the freeway.”

“Where-as the language of twentieth-century team initiatives was romantic, the language of Agile teams is down-to-earth and pragmatic.”

You get the picture. On and on it goes with that tonality. Apart from all the mud-slinging at an ancient depiction of what the author thinks “management” is and does we noticed no mention that many organizations already struggled with an over-emphasis on efficiency prior to the arrival of Agile! Ooops! Whether this was omission by design or by lack of knowledge is unclear.

Depicting Heroic Agile:

“An unstoppable revolution is now underway in our society, affecting almost everyone.

It's a revolution in how organizations are being run.”

“It was the Agile Movement that figured out how to create an environment that fostered consistent high performance in teams.”

“If there were a Nobel prize for management, which there isn’t, and if there were any justice in the world, which there isn’t, the creators of Agile would be Nobel Laureates.”

You get the picture. The heights of some of the hyperbolics are quite breathtaking..:-)

Agile Admissions:

The sucker punch for dutiful Agile followers arrives in the form of the last chapter of the tripartite depiction. Having just described Agile as a must-have, unstoppable revolution the author candidly lifts the spin curtain enough to point out to readers that the “Agile revolution” has always been an efficiency play in need of a significant overhauling redesign if it is to meet the already known needs of organizational innovation today. It is a rather startling admission considering the ‘revolutionary” picture painted earlier in the book.

“Don't get me wrong operational agility [existing Agile] is a good thing…but in a marketplace where competitors are often quick to match improvements to existing products and services and where power in the marketplace has decisively shifted to customers, it can be difficult for firms to monetize those improvements.”

“Efficiency gains, time savings and quality improvements [existing Agile] operate within a limited frame.”

“Market creating innovations usually don’t come from resolving customer complaints or asking existing customers what they want [existing Agile].”

“Market creating innovations [outside of existing Agile] are where major revenue growth comes from.”

Image Source: "The Age of Agile", Stephen Denning

Behold a remarkable Agile moment: Ten+ years out from the launch of Agile and with millions of dollars invested by organizations in "Agile training" the admission that there is a gaping hole in the Agile approach is tabled in this book!

Humantific readers, let’s stop for a moment and reflect on what this means. :-)

Of course the misstep of focusing on efficiency, assuming that alone is going to be the silver bullet has been a lesson learned and relearned by generation after generation of organizational leaders since the 1950s. No big news there. (Remember Six Sigma?) Described in this Agile depiction seems to be the author becoming aware of this well-known phenomenon and then presenting this as a news bulletin to the Agile community. It's a perplexing picture to say the very least.

The real mindbender in this depiction of Agile is not the late arriving realization that efficiency is not a silver organizational innovation bullet but rather that the author does not seem to realize that his model for a redesigned Agile, now incorporating not only “efficiency/quality improvements” but also “market creating innovation” maps directly to a well-known innovation approach already in the marketplace known as Ambidexterity.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific

Somewhat hilariously, what gets revealed in “The Age of Agile” is that when finally made whole, redesigned Agile is essentially Ambidexterity! in The Age of Ambidexterity…:-)

There is no awareness or acknowledgement of the overlap of an already existing approach in the book but for many professionals already active in the Ambidexterity enabling community of practice that would be rather obvious. The implications of the AmbidexAgile redesign shift being suggested could probably not be overstated. 99% of the known implications are not mentioned in the book.

For those who might not know: Ambidexterity is the practical application of the two engine vision that many CEO's and leadership teams seek to operationalize today and to do so requires more than a simple one channel focus on efficiency.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific

As a subject Organizational Ambidexterity has a considerable history, body of research and literature that many savvy organizational leaders have been aware of for some time. In our Humantific workshops and practice we teach how to operationalize Ambidexterity so we are well aware of its practical applications. At Humantific we have been operating an experiential skill-building program based on Ambidex innovation objectives for a decade...:-)

Suffice it to say that enabling “market creating innovation” along with optimization involves an entirely different set of meta skills, guidelines, behaviors and values than enabling efficiency alone. The news flash there would be: This has been known for several decades…:-)

The Ambidexterity practice community, of which Humantific is part, contains vast knowledge regarding multi-disciplinary team oriented innovation, none of which appears in “The Age of Agile”.

Image Source: Building Cognitively Inclusive Cultures, 2010-2019, Humantific

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific

Since it is already well understood in the Ambidexterity community that effective, happy, sustainable and cognitively diverse multi-disciplinary teams don't come from forcing everyone to consider efficiency the highest form of value it is inevitable that the suggested redesign of Agile seen in “The Age of Agile” will have far reaching consequences for traditional Agile practitioners.

Get ready for a steep unlearning/relearning curve and lots of “Agile” culture change ahead. Bye-bye single focus Agile. Hello Organizational Ambidexterity.

“The Age of Agile” closes with numerous thought provoking statements:

“If the emerging age is to prevail, it will require seeing the truth squarely and being fully committed to its values.”

“The broad direction forward [ Ambidexterity not Operational Agile ] is now clear.”

Seeing the truth: What a great idea!

Of course being aware of, committed to and leading from the objectives and values of Operational Agile and those of Organizational Ambidexterity are two very different things.

This seems to be a clarity that is arriving rather late to the Agile community but is well known elsewhere in the innovation enabling marketplace.

Good luck to all.



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