The problem isn’t a lack of agility, says Andrew Knevitt, it’s a deeper understanding of what problem you’re trying to solve. Agile needs to come off its pedestal and be recognised as part of a richer toolkit for handling complex 21st century business challenges.

We used to work in this space where we had either simple technology or simple requirements. If a client wanted changes to SAP, while the requirements were complex, we knew SAP pretty well so were able to deliver fairly easily. Or a client might be looking at a few different technologies but have a standard process to work with.
More recently, however, client requirements have become increasingly complex. There’s no real clarity around what the problem is or how to solve it through technology, and there are dozens of possible technologies out there with no single solution to the problem. We really need to unpack what the problem is; we’ve got myriad technical options, a myriad of variabilities in the solution which could look 100 different ways. But there’s no one solution or one set of ideas that can be specified upfront.
So how do we build great solutions for customers in highly volatile, uncertain environments? Agile methodologies such as scrum and kanban help but in isolation won’t solve the challenges of becoming adaptive.


Embracing complexity and uncertainty

As organisations scale and the products they’re creating get more complex they usually need help with changing the way they work to embrace that complexity. This is because – counter-intuitively – as we start to learn more about things we can become more uncertain about them, rather than more certain because we learn more about what we don’t know rather than what we do know.
One of the uncertainties is around where the value lies. There are a lot of people competing for that little piece of value that’s not always obvious and we need to have models which allow us to test things with the customers to understand what’s valuable to them. Agile is a great tool when you have a degree of uncertainty, but when even the value is quite ambiguous there are a lot of other different means, such as lean startup. If you ignore systems thinking and complexity management, for example, and take a simplistic non-systematized view of the world you won’t see any impact on the system and you won’t realize the value you’re talking about.


Agility in leadership, not delivery

Business leaders need to understand that the problem isn’t about ‘being agile’; we have real business problems that we’re trying to solve using agility. And agility is holistically about the way that the organisation works and the way leaders behave. It should touch on all those aspects. The biggest obstacle to building adaptive enterprises isn’t the agility in delivery, it’s the agility in leadership.
We’re often asked to come into organisations that have implemented agile, have scrum teams, are doing sprints and ceremonies, but not demonstrating any nimble or adaptive characteristics. Management might intrinsically understand the need for the business to be adaptive, however, they’ve just applied a traditional management-specified view of the world to a different type of practice. In many cases, we see devastating effects of command and control approaches to agile delivery teams and it is not uncommon to see the flow of work almost cease.
When companies face complexity, more often than not the strategy is to employ more management in an effort to create order – which is possibly a big mistake. It can be quite effective at creating the ‘illusion of certainty’, but it’s the equivalent of a weatherman believing he can control mother nature. Complexity needs to embrace emergence, self-organisation and decision making where information is the richest (in the teams). Leadership needs to see hyper collaboration as a friend, be obsessive about customer centricity and bring an acknowledgment of many solutions to the same problem.


Future ways of working

Agile can help us with this, however, and it’s helping us understand what’s important in future ways of working. So for example the idea that waste is an evil thing needs to be challenged. Over the years, I’ve seen that by eliminating waste there’s a risk that we’ll eliminate or seriously hinder innovation and creativity. We need to not be scared to talk about why waste is potentially a friend, and agility is helping us have that conversation. Project managers often reference the number of in progress items they have as an asset to the organisation, whereas agility says that if it’s not done it’s a liability. Only done is an asset.
There is a lot of resistance to change in legacy organisations, regardless of what approach or methodology you’re using. Yet the reason we’re often bought in the first place is that executives are really scared about staying relevant. If there is sensitivity to change my suggestion is take a walk in the marketplace and look at what the competitors are doing. They’ll soon realise they need to get over their fear because they might not have a business in 12 months.