A sweet spot exists between the intensive, top-down planning of larger businesses and the bottoms-up, reactive execution of smaller grass-roots efforts. The former often produces plans that are grand in scope and detail, but too unwieldy to accomplish ends while they still matter. Yet, swift actions are of little use when not consistently focused on essential outcomes.
To excel, organizations must find that sweet spot. This is why we coach leaders to embrace change and focus on what matters most. We teach them to be agile.
This was the problem to be solved in 2001 when leading software development minds gathered to produce the Agile Software Development Manifesto -- a set of values and principles for delivering greater value through software in the face of ever-changing business needs.
"But, I'm not developing software," you might say. Yet, these same values, principles, and practices are being applied increasingly outside the technical realm to solve a variety of business problems. Organizations are embracing the underlying mindset as a way of clarifying critical outcomes, fostering collaboration, and improving speed to market.
Agile is an alternative to traditional "waterfall" methods which presume requirements can be exhaustively defined and implemented through meticulous designs and detailed, stepwise planning. With a history of disappointed stakeholders, costly rework, and chronic inability to achieve business benefits, persisting with a waterfall approach is the essence of what we mean by treading water. Project or program managers in a waterfall approach see change as something to be managed. They implement rigorous control around requirements and designs, allowing projects to complete on schedule -- but with results falling well short of business needs. Or, they accept an endless litany of new and changing requirements, while never managing to deliver an end product. In either case, intended outcomes are not achieved and stakeholders lose faith in the process and the players.
Agile is a Breathe Water approach, embracinging change as an integral part of the process. Agile methods rely on clearly establishing required business outcomes and empowering small teams of motivated individuals to collaborate and create the most critical capabilities through iteratively developed prototypes delivered in small increments. While planning is still essential, it is ongoing, collaborative, and attuned to evolving business needs.
There's a reason businesses are making Agile part of their fabric and not just a software method. In every facet of modern life, demands, expectations, and pace of change are accelerating. For businesses large and small, clients, suppliers, partners, shareholders, and employees demand more -- and they want it yesterday! It's a pressure everyone should recognize.
Consultant Mike Richardson called this stressful dynamic the "agility gap" in his 2011 talk at TEDxLaJolla, accurately describing the "chaos and crises" that "bubble up" when businesses are unable to keep pace with demand.
Agile thinking and practices are creeping into many facets of modern life. In the next post, we'll discuss one of these major trends -- Tactical Urbanism -- which is changing how city planners, policy makers, and citizens detect and respond to current and future community needs.