Steve Denning, Contributor
RADICAL MANAGEMENT: Rethinking leadership and innovation
In the annals of innovation, the Agile Manifesto stands out. In 2001, Jeff Sutherland, Ken Schwaber, Kent Beck and fourteen colleagues got together in Snowbird and drafted the Manifesto, which became a clarion call to software developers around the globe to pursue a radically different and more innovative type of management.
The Manifesto inspired thousands of high-performance teams in hundreds of companies all around the world to produce software in a way that was more responsive to customers’ needs, more productive for the organization and more satisfying for the people doing the work.
The Manifesto remains a landmark in software development and indeed, for management innovation more generally.
This year, on the tenth anniversary of the Manifesto, there is good deal of well-deserved celebration of the success of the Manifesto and some reflection on its implications. Given its historical status, there is a natural tendency to declare the Manifesto to be a timeless wonder.
Others have seen that it was a product of a particular time and place and have been willing apply the spirit of “inspect and adapt” to the Manifesto itself and explore ways in which it could be enhanced to reflect the realities of today’s marketplace in which “the customer is the boss”.
One such exploration is by Kent Beck in an entertaining talk entitled “To Agility and Beyond” captured on video here. His talk focuses on software startups, but his points are equally applicable to any organization starting a new line of business.
The Manifesto states the following:
We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.
Beck was present at the creation of the Manifesto in 2001, but confesses that for much of the meeting he was ill and suffering from the effects of a weird antibiotic and so he doesn’t remember much of what happened at the meeting. He credits Jim Highsmith and Martin Fowler for pulling the pieces together. He says that the Manifesto was the least common denominator of the people in the room: these were the things that everyone could agree on.
He notes that the participants wanted to make the principles attractive to people. They picked the word, “agile”, because everybody wanted to be agile. In retrospect, one can see that when you pick a name of something that everybody wants, everybody will claim that they are already that. The result has been that a great many of the so-called “agile implementations” around the world are only agile in name, or what has been called Half-Arsed Agile.
In looking back, Beck finds that while each segment of the Manifesto was a giant leap forward in 2001, the language no longer reflects the challenge of launching successful innovation in the marketplace of 2011.
Back in 2001, traditional management tended to think that if you had the right processes and tools, it wouldn’t matter who was executing. The idea that with the right processes and tools, you could have anyone writing the software and it would come out exactly the same turned out to be true, but the software produced in this way wasn’t very valuable.
In 2001, it was a big step forward in software development to realize that the people and how they interacted with each other mattered more than following some process. So the Manifesto declared that “individuals and interactions” were valued more than “processes and tools”.
Beck has found however that in developing software in new business lines, “individuals and interactions” are not enough. Each individual in a team in a startup needs to think, not about how good a job he or she can do, but rather, how good a job are we doing? The implications of that are sometime unattractive. This means that sometimes an individual may need to do less than what that individual thinks is the very best in order for the team to achieve more. So if the individual knows an esoteric technique that is objectively the best, but the rest of the team doesn’t understand it, that individual may need to set aside that technique so that the team as a whole can produce more.
Individuals interacting have a tendency to optimize their own performance. Beck believes that team vision and discipline goes beyond that to discover how are we going to make the most progress together. (16.00-19.11)
Back in 2001, traditional management had the idea that if everything was documented, things would work out fine. You wouldn’t have to talk to people. You could just open up the manual and read what needed to be done. The problem was that the documentation was always out of date. It was at best misleading, and often just wrong.
In 2001, the folks in Snowbird saw that working software should valued ahead of comprehensive documentation. Perfect documentation for a frozen system that solved a problem that nobody had any more is not as good as having some software that solved the real problems of now. In 2001, that was a big step forward.
Beck says that in a environment of a startup (or a new line of business), nine times out of ten, it’s not that you don’t know how to write the software. The central problem is almost always: how do you find customers who are going to pay for what you are building? Working software can be part of the way to answer that question but it isn’t necessarily the best way to answer it. The real challenge is to create an opportunity for learning by the organization as to what might satisfy or even delight customers so that they will pay for it.
As a result, Beck concludes that in 2011, in the world of startups (or establishing new lines of business), validated learning is to be valued ahead of both working software and comprehensive documentation. (19.25-22.35)
Traditional management tended to think that if you just had the right contract, everything would go smoothly. Equally, if you had the wrong contract, it didn’t matter what the software developers did: there was no way that the business could be successful. In a stable predictable environment, having a clear contract was generally a good idea.
It was a big step forward in 2001 to realize that in the rapidly changing and unpredictable world of software development, collaborating with customers was better than trying to nail down all the details of software development at the beginning.
But in a startup, or in a new line of business, collaboration with customers isn’t possible, because by definition, you don’t have any customers. In effect, you have to find out who your customer is.
Thus in a startup or a new line of business, customer discovery has precedence over both customer collaboration or contract negotiation. (22.35-24.05)
Traditional management tended to believe that the way to do software was to make a plan and then follow the plan. In 2001, recognizing that things change too much to be following a plan was a big step forward. Reality diverges from the plan. Reality is much less flexible than the plan. Reality bends a lot less than the plan bends. So the Manifesto recognized that responding to change was more important than following a plan.
But in a startup or a new line of business, nothing is changing. Nothing is moving. You have to establish momentum first. Development in a startup requires initiating change, not just responding to it.
This is where people’s anti-responsibility hackles start going up because people (and bureaucracies) don’t want to be responsible for risky endeavors. But there’s no choice. It’s up to you to initiate change because if you don’t initiate change, you don’t have anything. You are not even moving. This is where leadership comes into the picture: a leader stands up, assesses the potential and the risks and initiates change.
Beck notes that the military has the great concept of the initiative. One side has the initiative. That side is acting and the other side is reacting. Good leaders seize the initiative. You don’t wait for the other guy to smack you. When you have the initiative, you are exposed but you have the advantage that the other guy is busy worrying about you are going to do. He doesn’t have time to think about what he is going to do to you.
In the Civil War, a reporter asked General Grant what did he think Robert E. Lee was going to do next. Grant replied, “I don’t care what Lee is going to do next, I’m going to make him worry about what I’m going to do next.” That was when the Civil War turned around.
So in establishing new lines of business of the world of 2011, initiating change has to be valued ahead of responding to change or following a plan.
As a result Beck’s Beyond Agile Manifesto comprises:
Steve Denning’s most recent book is: The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace For the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2010).
Follow Steve Denning on Twitter @stevedenning