Unorthodox, Unconventional and the Next Decade of Agile

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Paul Farmer was an unconventional doctor. Tracy Kidder (in Mountains Beyond Mountains) describes Farmer’s Haitian clinic, located in the difficult to access highlands, where Farmer often hiked hours to see a single patient or treated multiple antibiotic resistant tuberculosis patients with expensive new drugs. Farmer didn’t follow the typical public health cost-benefit approach; he treated individuals and riled that very public health community with his unconventional approach. In bringing medical services to the desperately poor, he changed health care delivery on three continents.

In Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon, writes about “succeeding in a world where conformity reigns but exceptions rule.” Product differentiation, sustainable differentiation, she says, “is rarely a function of well-roundedness; it is typically a function of lopsidedness.”

Recently, well known blogger Seth Godin wrote about unreasonableness examples: “It’s unreasonable to start a new company without the reassurance venture money can bring. It’s unreasonable to devote years of your life making a product that most people will never appreciate.” But, he notes in his final comment, you have to compete against companies that are unreasonable.

Walk through your neighborhood grocery and look at hand soap—hundreds of variations, little differentiation. Innovation requires stepping out of comfort zones and being different from others. I know one IT organization that has figured out how to capitalize over 90% of their software development expense by looking beyond tradition. I know another IT organization that has eschewed the common off-shoring wisdom, keeping development onshore and outperforming their competitors.

Ten years ago, in February 2001, a group of 17 unconventional, unorthodox, and ok—sometimes really strange—individuals got together, wrote the Agile Manifesto and launched the Agile movement. In the last 10 years Agile delivery has often moved from the unconventional to the conventional, from the maverick to the conformist. So, what now?

The roots of agility are in complex adaptive systems and the notion of operating at the edge-of-chaos, that knife-edged balancing point between chaos and stifling structure. As we move into the second decade (wow!) of the Agile movement, we can’t forget that agility isn’t about structure, practices, and conventions. Agility is ultimately about living on the edge, of pushing the envelope, of standing out in a crowd, of being lopsided in a world of conformity.

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