Unlikely Origins

This content is syndicated from LeadingAnswers: Leadership and Agile Project Management Blog by Mike Griffiths. To view the original post in full, click here.

Agile ExceptionForbes ran a nice article a couple of weeks ago on how agile is the next big thing for management, but its unlikely origin in the software industry may hamper its adoption. The article provided some nice analogies: 1)    When the British government, in 1714, offered a prize for determining longitude at sea, of £20,000 (£3M in today’s money), a Yorkshire carpenter called John Harrison eventually solved it, but the scientific community refused to believe that a carpenter could have solved the problem that had thwarted the best scientific minds. In 1773, when John was 80 years old, he received an award of £8,750 but not the actual prize. A Yorkshire carpenter was the wrong person to have solved the problem. 2)    In 1865, Gregor Mendel, an unknown professor created a theory about gene inheritance after studying pea plants. It answered inheritance issues that had stumped the finest scientific minds. The paper was ignored by the scientific community for the next 35 years until people eventually realized that Mendel had indeed come up with the solution. His theory later became known as Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. His work had been ignored; a researcher on peas was the wrong person to have created the theory. 3)    In 1981, Barry Marshall, a pathologist in Perth, Australia, came up with a bizarre new theory that ulcers were caused by spiral bacteria. No one believed him so in 1984 he drank a batch of spiral bacteria and sure enough developed ulcers. Eventually in 2005 he received a Nobel prize for medicine for his work, but it took that long to be accepted. An unknown pathologist from Perth was the wrong person to have made the discovery. So then we come to agile; for decades management had struggled to balance execution with innovation. How do we simultaneously get work done yet still drive improvements without one factor stifling the other? Now we know agile methods do a great job of balancing delivery with improvement. Agile methods also provide a framework for sense-making and managing ambiguity when there are significant gaps in our understanding of requirements, approach, or technology. These uncertainties have a habit of stalling plan-driven approaches that struggle to reach escape velocity from the process of gathering requirements and planning. Agile methods instead choose to build what we know, evaluate, gain consensus on where to go next and iterate to a final solution. The credibility problem we have is that software people, those weird IT geeks with poor communication skills are the wrong people to have proceduralized a complex communication and collaboration process. It should have been some management professors at the Harvard Business Review or Sloan School of Management at MIT. How can that IT crowd, who some believe have trouble making eye contact and describing an issue without resorting to techy speak, have figured out a way to collaborate and communicate on unique problems with unprecedented solutions? That is as far as the Forbes article goes, and it is a great read that also recommends Mark Addleson’s “Beyond Management: Taking Charge at Work“ book as one of the few non-IT books to recognize the benefits of agile. Of course if we go digging into the origin of agile we do actually find some of those fancy HBR articles. Scrum for instance has its roots in the 1986 HBR paper “The New New Product Development Game” and my work on DSDM was influenced by Enid Mumford from UMIST. However it did get me thinking about the issue and reminded me of Toyota after WWII and how “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Faced with few resources after the war, Toyota had to figure out a whole new way of making cars if they were to compete with the West. If they had capacity to build vast stockpiles of parts, then lean manufacturing may never have happened. I feel a parallel with agile methods. Software projects populated by a majority of analytical engineers needed to communicate about a product that was invisible, intangible, and liable to change. Had software been easy to reference and stable then agile methods may never have happened because we could have got by with methods resembling physical design and manufacturing processes. Yet, faced with the high variability of evolving requirements and technologies, an incremental approach of building something, getting some feedback and moving from there was created to overcome the gulfs of understanding that exists between stakeholders. Through lists and feedback loops, the challenges of dealing with changing priorities and incomplete specifications were solved. We don’t need to know everything right now; we just need to know enough to move to a better viewpoint. The fact remains though, that software will be viewed by many as an unlikely source for new ways to manage the knowledge worker. Yet history repeats, and just as companies started touring Toyota plants to learn about the TPS, I am aware of several companies that have had business folks reusing their Kanban boards and stand-up meeting approach. What do you think? Is the software world the obvious place for new collaboration models to emerge, is there a Sinatra effect “if it works there it will work any where”? Have you had the business copying your agile methods? I’d like to hear from you.

Leave a Reply

What is 7 + 9 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
Please do this simple sum so I know you are human:)

There are 101 ways to approach anything.
To find the best way, sometimes you need expert help

What People Say

“Kelly revolutionised the way our digital department operated. A true advocate of agile principles, he quickly improved internal communication within our teams and our internal clients by aligning our business and creating a much enhanced sense of transparency in the decisions the business was making. Kelly also introduced a higher sense of empowerment to the development teams...”


“Kelly’s a leading program director with the ability to take charge from day one and keep strong momentum at both a program and project level driving prioritisation, resourcing and budgeting agendas. Kelly operates with an easy-going style and possesses a strong facilitation skill set. From my 5 months experience working with Kelly, I would recommend Kelly to program manage large scale, complex, cross company change programs both from a business and IT perspective.”


“Kelly is an extremely talented and visionary leader. As such he manages to inspire all around him to achieve their best. He is passionate about agile and has a wealth of experience to bring to bear in this area. If you're 'lucky' he might even tell you all about his agile blog. Above all this, Kelly is great fun to work with. He is always relaxed and never gets stressed - and trust me, he had plenty of opportunity here! If you get the chance to work with Kelly, don't pass it up.”


“Kelly is an Agile heavy-weight. He came in to assess my multi-million $ Agile development program which wasn’t delivering the right throughput. He interviewed most of the team and made some key recommendations that, when implemented, showed immediate results. I couldn’t ask for more than that except he’s a really nice guy as well.”


“Kelly and I worked together on a very large project trying to secure a new Insurer client. Kelly had fantastic commercial awareness as well as his technical expertise. Without him I would never had secured this client so I owe a lot to him. He is also a really great guy!”


“Kelly came to the department and has really made a huge impact on how the department communicates, collaborates and generally gets things done. We were already developing in an agile way, but Kelly has brought us even more into alignment with agile and scrum best practices, being eager to share information and willing to work with us to change our processes rather than dictate how things must be done. He is highly knowledgable about agile development (as his active blog proves) but his blog won't show what a friendly and knowledgeable guy he is. I highly recommend Kelly to anyone looking for a CTO or a seminar on agile/scrum practices - you won't be disappointed!”


“Kelly was a great colleague to work with - highly competent, trustworthy and generally a nice bloke.”


“Kelly was engaged as a Program Director on a complex business and technology transformation program for Suncorp Commercial Insurance. Kelly drew on his key capabilities and depth of experience to bring together disparate parties in a harmonised way, ensuring the initiate and concept phases of the program were understood and well formulated. Excellent outcome in a very short time frame. ”


“I worked with Kelly on many projects at IPC and I was always impressed with his approach to all of them, always ensuring the most commercially viable route was taken. He is great at managing relationships and it was always a pleasure working with him.”


“I worked with Kelly whilst at Thoughtworks and found him to be a most inspiring individual, his common-sense approach coupled with a deep understanding of Agile and business makes him an invaluable asset to any organisation. I can't recommend Kelly enough.”


“Kelly was a brilliant CTO and a great support to me in the time we worked together. I owe Kelly a great deal in terms of direction and how to get things done under sometimes difficult circumstances. Thanks Kelly.”