Beyond Agile? Some wild speculations

Agile is (almost) a commodity. Many young folks coming fresh from the university know nothing else than the agile way of working. Being agile is in many IT/Digital related areas the new normal. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it does not, but nobody who has got the taste of it wants to go back to the old ways of working.

Of course, Lean/Agile ways of thinking and collaborating are not an overall standard yet, and there is still a lot to do for consultants, coaches, or trainers. Therefore, it will even need more time until the Lean/Agile ways of working are a standard (in short: overcoming Taylorism) — it won’t happen overnight. I guess it is an evolutionary process which implies that the old has to die so that the new can establish itself — a typical S-curve. In my perception, we are in the middle of a transformation zone. Why do I claim that? As I stated above, I see „young“ folks, coming fresh from the university (or other education), which don’t know „the old way of working.“ For them, it is reasonable to use sprints, user stories, retros, or other typical agile events or artifacts – not to mention the understanding of agile roles like a Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Developers.

In my perception, some „street smart“ consultants already sense that this new normality will endanger their current business model. The next buzzword is already establishing itself, and its names are „beyond agile“ or „post agile.“ So apologies in advance, but I think this is total nonsense.

So what’s next? What comes (allegedly) after agile?

I see two main areas that will emerge in the next months or years – and it won’t be, of course, anything new. As always, a new „pig cycle“ will show up, and people will try to re-sell fundamental insights. This chart might explain to which phenomena I am referring to:

Hordes of external or internal consultants, consultants, and trainers always have, and will ever „invent“ new ways to sell their portfolio. This statement might sound like an accusation, but it is not. It is very much understandable if you take a closer look at the economic circumstances. It seems inevitable to create „new“ problems, to sell „new“ solutions because that’s the way to generate income. As Upton Sinclair said:

„It is hard to get a man’s understanding if his salary depends on not understanding it.“

So, which new trends do I foresee?

a) The re-discovery of creativity.

As agile methodologies have shown some impact, the slave-like following of given rules and specific procedures still does not deliver value. The dogmatic approach produced disappointed folks. Still, people struggle with the core of Lean/Agile, which is about understanding the principles and being able to apply them in a given context. Since cooking recipes and un-experienced consultants have not fulfilled the expectations of the business, there is a clear need for something „new.“ The „solution“: Creativity!

To me, this seems to be reasonable, since creativity is a universal skillset (basically analysis and synthesis, focus and de-focus). In other words: It is about the capability to solve wicked problems. The mix of artistic and scientific thinking at the same time!

Therefore, I predict the latest by [[June 1st, 2022]] new training and workshop offers will show up. I imagine slogans, which replace the term agile and will sound like this: „Tackle the XYZ crisis with creativity“ or „Empower people with creativity“. The worst-case will be slogans, which are stated as an imperative like „Be creative – in just one day“. Find here more than 1000 automatically generated slogans 😉

If my prediction comes true, it will be interesting to observe who uses this term and how it is interpreted. Will it be the good old innovation area, or will we see managers, playing with clay or drawing with crayons?

I admit that I am more than skeptical if this will be of any help. Will it have a long-term impact? My guess: A few people might discover their creative potential and keep working on it – the majority won’t. It will be the same as with all these agile courses. This guess should not sound elitist at all! But please prove me wrong that a one-time training generally has a lasting impact.

b) Flow

This term refers to many meanings. One intention could be the dissipation of impediments, hurdles, or constraints in an organization. Another one could see the effectiveness and efficiency of a process. It could be mixed with the idea of the ideal corridor of skill and problem level (a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). It will be a travesty of Lean/Agile – so again, it is nothing new, but just another name. I predict that quite soon, the concepts of Nonaka et al. will be (again) re-discovered by the mainstream. It is about all the topics which are already addressed by Lean/Agile principles, but this time under a new umbrella. At the very end, I expect that a process-oriented view of the world will come back – and that is, from my perspective, a good thing.

I do not want to complain if this term will become fashionable since it’s one of the essential pearls of wisdom of value creation. You always want to have a well-performing flow of information and material (or other types of business objects like source code) in the system. It’s a total no-brainer 😉

A graphic appeared in 2019, which shows the TFS, aka the Toyota Flow System. It is insofar interesting as it provides some sort of structure that could be interpreted as a framework. It incorporates three „genetic pillars“ into the Toyota Production System (TPS) house. One could conclude, it is just a collection of tools or methods, but this would be misleading. Of course, the whole is more (or something different!) than the sum of its parts.

Image Reference: ©2019 Nigel Thurlow, Professor John Turner, Brian Rivera. Offered under the Attribution license of Creative Commons 4.0, Found on Planet Lean

From the perspective of a [[Viable System Model]] (VSM) nerd, I have to say that the above graphic is still not sufficient. For me, it is a wild arrangement of topics, which could be much better understood with the VSM. My primary problem with this illustration: Even though it might be plausible (a fucking narrative!), it still does not explain how these aspects interact and, most importantly, how to apply these topics in everyday life.

Conclusions – some things that will NOT change in the future

The following topics are, of course, interconnected. So I do not even try to distinct them too much, but live with the overlaps.

Agile or Lean ways of thinking won’t disappear – as long as the principles and methodologies prove to deliver value for the customer! Correctly done, they do, because customer-centricity (e.g., market orientation, generating flow) is the heart of this philosophy. In short, customer-centricity is eternal. Never forget: The customer value is what the customer values. Of course, it is not easy to dance with the Ninja, called reality.

Knowledge Generating Company (or community). Closely related to the learning organization, dating back to the 80s and Donald Schön’s and Peter Senge’s work. This aspect dates even further back (e.g., Peter Drucker) and is probably a few thousand years old. I could write a whole book about it, but in this essay, I just want to point out one facette: Work with data! The reason for this imperative is simple: No data, no information, no knowledge – and at the very end, bad organizational reflexes to adapt to changing conditions.

Things Makers (from the Japanese word Monozukuri), are people who know their profession at its core. It is about people who want to build well-done things (products or services) because they know that quality will always win at the end. Therefore, the search for excellence is a way of living. This lifestyle implies that Things Makers, like artisans, don’t like unnecessary effort. Saying no to „nonsense“ (Muda) needs the courage to question the status quo. One wants to acquire the proper product design information and integrate it into your piece of work as fast as possible. Be one step ahead. Anticipate. Lastly, this lifestyle goes along with a modest attitude regarding profit expectations. It is more about having a good living, instead of looking always for the best margin.

Leadership: Of course, the standard topic that never dies. Indeed, there is always enough room for improvement, but the role of good shared leadership will stay the same: Connecting the right people, with the right competence, in the right moment and context, and let them (dis)solve a problem. This idea implies the everlasting activity to enhance the ability of „the people“ to make decisions by their authority. The old game of freedom and responsibility. The ideal state: Adaptive power structures which can make decisions, driven by competence. Yet one has to be prepared to make decisions (sometimes) without a team. Not as the lonesome hero, but with the deep understanding that it is part of the game (-> opportunities, threats, momentum).

Entrepreneurship – another classic topic, which is about taking the initiative and living with certain risks. Without any romanticism, it is an essential ingredient of the „organizational soup.“ For sure, it is about the delicate act of balancing exploitation and exploration activities. And it is about the structural advantages of corporations that can provide their members with enough freedom and (monetary) responsibility to act like an entrepreneur. Many have tried and failed to do it because they do not trust the abilities of the people. Therefore, it is hard-wired to leadership.

Strategy in its meaning of „laying course ahead.“ Or with the words of Henry Mintzberg: „Strategy is a pattern in a stream of actions.“ I am emphasizing this because Agile (and maybe also Lean) ways of working often lack coordinated strategies. For sure, Agile practices work well on an operational and tactical level. Sometimes they even do the job of maintaining the normative level with a strong vision or purpose statement. But … the strategical level is often only entertained by a roadmap or some guiding principles. Since aspects like an environment scan and the connection with innovation are lacking, an artifact like a roadmap is just the extension of tactical thinking. It is the difference between „doers“ and „builders.“ Nothing against „doing,“ but one should know what to build. Otherwise, it is just actionism without context. Strategy can provide it – but only if operational insights are actively incorporated -> Strategizing Agility.

Public Value, too, will be an essential factor. A company that does not considers this aspect might be successful for a while. But if you want to play indefinite games, one needs the societal license to operate. Smart companies try to incorporate a contribution to public value, because of the many advantages it provides (better coupling with the environment, lobby power, attractiveness as an employer, etc.).

Epistemology as a branch of philosophy about the nature of knowledge. It is related to the above aspect but focuses more on the individual level. Topics included are critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. In short: How do I know that I know? It goes IMHO deeper than so-called mindfulness.

System(s) Theories is the last point, and to me, the most significant. For sure, there is not the „one and only theory,“ and it depends heavily on the context, which one produces useable results. But a fundamental understanding of elements, connections, or feedback loops is essential. I really wish that the „belief system of economics“ would be replaced by some lessons about Control, 2nd Order Cybernetics, and of course, the Viable System Model 😉 That said, viability is the ultimate goal. For me, it is an „umbrella term“ and includes areas like presence and future, evolutionary development, or adaptiveness.

Which management fads will disappear?

At the end of this essay, I want to predict which management fads will slowly vanish in the next years. Or these terms will be charged with a different meaning, compared to how they are used nowadays. I will briefly explain why these terms will either vanish or change in the future:

New Work, as long as it is nothing more than a naive worldview that focuses solely on the individual being, embedded in a team, and its happiness.

Purpose, as long as it pretends that purpose itself solves all organizational problems. Therefore, when it is a mystifying endeavor and trying to be totally unique, it is an exercise of no value. Quick example: The purpose of a fire fighting unit is to rescue, help, and protect the community — nothing fancy, nothing that must be re-invented. It is pretty straight forward.

Assumption: Purpose is something for people, who struggle to find their meaning of life. It is more a personal therapy.

Mindfulness, if it only tries to optimize the individual worker, instead of solving structural problems of an organization. Often I perceive it as a kind of mental wellness and not a serious effort for personal introspection.