The Agile Executive

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Posts Tagged ‘Organizational Debt

The Friction of Agile

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Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen War… This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus incidents take place upon which it was impossible to calculate…

IMHO, this excerpt from On War applies exceptionally well to Agile roll-outs these days:

  • Simplicity: The four principles of the Agile Manifesto are intuitively compelling. You could (and probably should) use them as the core definition of what Agile is all about. Likewise, you do not need more than a single hand-drawn matrix to illustrate how WIP limits in Kanban work. In contrast to various other terms used in development and IT – e.g. SOA – the conceptual power of Agile methods is easy to grasp.
  • Friction: Assume you were building a company from scratch without any pre-conceived notions of the organizational constructs you would put in place. Assume as well that you were developing your organization with end-to-end Agile effectiveness in mind. You would probably devise a holistically integrated organization. For example, you might opt for an organizational design in which each level of the organization will include all functions relevant to Agile – R&D, IT, Marketing, Support, Sales etc. In other words, ideally you will not go for the traditional organizational design: a vertical R&D stove pipe, a vertical Marketing stove pipe, a vertical Sales stove pipe, etc.  As in reality you are unlikely to get the charter to start with a clean sheet of paper, the friction arises in each and every point in which your end-to-end organizational design for Agile deviates from the traditional organizational constructs your company uses.
  • Not concentrated: As Clausewitz points out, the friction of war is not mechanical friction – you can’t address it by pouring in a ‘organizational lubricant’ in just a few places. Flooding the whole organization with the lubricant is likely to create a morass in which all agility will be lost.

I recommend four principles to minimize the organizational friction of Agile, as follows:

  • Acknowledge you accrued organizational debt: It is conceptually quite similar to accruing technical debt – various organizational decisions and compromises taken along the way were rushed to the extent that they leave much to be desired. The organizational constructs and practices that sprang out of these decisions need to be refactored.
  • Carry out the organizational refactoring work from the outside to the inside:  A truly holistic Agile design will incorporate customers and partners. Start with the way you will integrate them, thence apply this very same way to the integration of  the organizational entities within your company.
  • Build on the strengths of your core corporate culture: As pointed out by Drucker:

… culture is singularly persistent… changing [organizational] behavior works only if it can be based on the existing ‘culture’… [Drucker, 1991]

Since the end of the Cold War, a fair amount of debate has taken place around the applicability of the friction of war principles to armed conflicts in the information age. The conclusion is of interest to both military personnel, Agile practitioners and IT professionals:

… while technological advances might temporarily mitigate general friction, they could neither eliminate it nor substantially reduce its potential magnitude.

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