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Is this why your boss wants to be Agile?

By January 30, 20124 Comments

There are 2 words in business more loaded with double meanings than an entire season of Benny Hill – agile, and lean.

No pointy headed boss worth their MBA (or salt) is going to ignore someone who says they would like to try to become more lean. That simply translates in their mind to ‘do more with less staff’, and focusing on cost reduction – ergo, more shareholder value and bigger bonus for the boss. If you’re not more explicit, they’ll be adjusting their Excel budget and 5 year plan PowerPoint while you’re still in their office explaining the actual guts of your idea being about changing work practices.

And in terms of agility, the PHB misinterpretation most common is that you will help them change direction in their strategy all the time. Agile = limber = flexible = ability to dance about randomly.

If you’re suffering from executive miscommunication over agile in particular, I suspect this article from the McKinsey Quarterly a few years ago (you’ll need a login to see it I’m afraid, but they’re free – search for ‘Building a nimble organization: a McKinsey Global Survey) might also be a contributor to your pain. Here’s the key issue of misinterpretation of ‘agility’ in a diagram:

Now, those things are all good, but the bottom of the ladder finishing spot of employee satisfaction and innovation is a disaster in understanding what and how agile really works. It works by creating a good system for people to work within. If you’re good at doing that, and learning in short cycles, then you might well see the benefits of higher revenues, customer satisfaction, market share and operational efficiency.

Bizarrely, if you built your organisation focusing on the stream of benefits being read in reverse order from the bottom up, I’m certain you’d have a good chance of winning. Yet these are the things CEO’s expect to be of least value in their lives.

A bad system will defeat a good employee every time. Focus on the system – people, machines, knowledge working in unison for end customers. Stop obsessing and reporting solely on revenue, efficiency and market share. They’re only a by-product of a great system.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • PM Hut says:

    Hi Nigel,

    In order to “sell” Agile, project managers promise management that it will increase ROI – the least thing that management cares is employee satisfaction. Its #1 priority is revenue and profitability.

    I have published a similar article on PM Hut a long time ago (can’t seem to find it though). Meanwhile, you may enjoy this one: Agile: Driving Value or Where’s the Beef?. Hope you’ll have the chance to read it.

  • Nigel Dalton says:

    Great site – and I especially like the game of ‘value poker’. My experience has been that discussing value is more difficult than estimating effort will ever be, and the participants far more reluctant to commit than developers chewing over “is this as big as that login page we did for x?” A recent discussion at a client project came up with 8 people thinking ‘value’ meant 8 different things to the company, and a paucity of focus on the end user customer’s judgement of value. Thanks for commenting and the great link.

  • Kelly Brough says:

    Nigel, great article. As I see the challenge of reading top down or bottom up on the list of benefits is a short term or long term focus. Most CEOs don’t expect to be in their jobs for long enough for the long term to matter. Those that hope for a long tenure are often in public companies where they must look to the short term to keep their jobs.

    One thing that I see consistently missing in agile programs is a fixed end poing (the long term strategy you mentioned) and the ability of the teams to coach management skeptics by providing some long term indicative estimates. I’d love to see a post on coaching senior management to manage in an agile environment. Those who can do so comfortably and successfully are few and far between.

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