"Agility / Agile is not an end in itself."
It's a phrase I often read or hear, in discussions, blog posts and lectures. For a while, I agreed wholeheartedly with this maxim, but then I started to have doubts. It may surprise you to know that, generally speaking, it's during the discovery phase that we tend to see agility as a panacea, a miracle formula to be applied to the letter.
But that's not the point. In this article, I'll try to explain why, in my opinion, agility is more than just a means to an end... and why it's also tricky to consider it as an end in itself.
To complement this article, you can find on YouTube the recording of the interactive conference I gave on the subject at the Agile Tour Montpellier 2021. Two years later, my point of view on the subject has evolved: the article and the video won't tell exactly the same story.
Adaptation, the key to survival
I began the conference by recounting four short, seemingly unrelated stories. In summary, they evoked :
- The disappearance of the dinosaurs, the most powerful form of animal life on the planet for over 180 million years. They were unable to adapt to living conditions on Earth, which changed as a result of various cataclysms;
- Many people in France (and elsewhere) are victims of the "digital divide". They are unable, or simply unwilling, to adapt to the evolution of technologies and their associated uses;
- The bankruptcy of Kodak in 2012, a flagship of American industry until then, but which failed to seize the opportunity of digital photography (invented by one of its engineers, Steven Sasson, in 1975), and then failed to adapt to market changes and catch up with its competitors;
- The fresh dismissal of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, coach of my favourite soccer team from 2018 to 2021. His fault: being incapable of adapting his tactics during the course of a match in a number of awkward situations, and watching his team sink, looking haggard, when they would have expected some proof of leadership from him.
What do they have in common? As you've no doubt read in each of the descriptions, adaptation, or rather the lack of it in this case, is the key to each of these stories. And their outcome is, each time, tragic: the disappearance of a species, the marginalization of a part of the population, the end of a flourishing business, the ousting of a young manager.
The inability to adapt, in the case of the dinosaurs, or the refusal to adapt, in the case of Kodak, revealed a major risk, perhaps the greatest of all: that of not surviving.
Do we really need to adapt?
It's a safe bet, however, that the dinosaurs adapted during the 180 million years of their reign. When we consider the extent to which human beings have evolved since Lucy, 3 million years ago and counting, and the immense variety of species that make up this biological order, it's impossible to imagine that our reptile friends didn't change, and didn't adapt, over such a long period.
As for Kodak... Quasi-monopoly in the 20th century, bankruptcy in the 21st: I find it hard to believe that the same shareholders and managers who rejected Sasson's idea would make the same mistake again, had they known the rest of the story. It's probably not for nothing that Kodak's story is studied in business schools today. There's a lesson to be learned here.
In the case of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the question is whether it was a case of inability or refusal. Locked into the same systems of play, with the same players, unable to react during a match. He was coach of his beloved club, he didn't want to leave, but he couldn't find the right answers. Refusal or inability, fear of change or its consequences, poor assessment of the situation... The result was what we all know. Even if we need to put this into perspective, since we're talking here about "survival" as " maintaining an activity, a process beyond a point where it risks coming to a halt ".
Finally, when it comes to people suffering from the digital divide, you might say that making the link between the digital divide and people's ability to survive is a bit rich... The fact remains that, by deliberately accentuating this divide (compulsory double authentication by smartphone, end of paper-based procedures...), many private and public organizations are choosing to deprive their customers, members or administrators of what represents, for them, ways of staying connected to the world to which we belong.s, members or constituents of what represents, for them, ways of remaining connected to the world to which we belong. In a sense, to exist.
What does this have to do with agility?
I simply believe that agility is the ability to adapt. More precisely, if I take the dictionary definition, it's "lightness, suppleness of movement [of the body], intellectual alertness". It's a characteristic a product (which can be developed quickly and easily), a person, a team, an organization. A species, a group of individuals, a company, a soccer coach.
This position is supported by that of Martin Fowler, a software developer for forty years and co-author in 2001 of the manifesto for Agile software development. In this 2006 article, Martin explains how he and his colleagues came up with the title of the manifesto. In particular, how they came to use the word "agile".
"We considered quite a few names, and finally agreed on the word 'agile', as we felt it captured well the notions of adaptability and response to change that were so important in our approach."
I regularly hear people talking about "Agile", with a capital A. And this even among people whom I deeply esteem and know to be well-intentioned and highly competent.
Now, in the manifesto, we can legitimately think that "agile" is an adjective, applied to the common noun "development". So it's the development that's agile, not the manifesto: it's not called the "agile manifesto", despite what we hear and read here and there (and what I myself may have conveyed in the past). Nor is it called the "Agile manifesto", putting an end to any desire to consider "Agile" as a name, common or proper.
But talking about "Agile" as a (proper?) name gives the impression that it's at best a working method, at worst a cult. And I really think, having put down my consultant/coach suitcase left and right and having talked to quite a few people, that there's a real confusion surrounding this subject. This confusion is fuelled by people who are ill-informed ("Agile is the new thing that works every time"), resistant ("Agile is a fad, it'll go away"), or who want to make a business out of it, by making people think it's an impassable mountain without a Sherpa... among others.
Agility, in its simplest sense, is a key to success
I think a very important step in our progress towards greater agility is, to begin with, to play down the notion of agility.
As soon as you stop thinking of it as something fundamentally new, different, a leap into the unknown, and remember that agility is our ability to evolve and adapt to continue to live, and thus deliver the value expected by our users, there may not be that much difference from the way you've always operated.
From the moment we understand that there isn't one method, "Agile", that tells us what to do, when and how, an imposition of practices, tools and artifacts, it opens up an insane number of doors that it's up to us to open to explore what lies behind.
All we have to do is check out how generic and easy to understand the twelve principles underlying the manifesto are, imagine the range of possibilities behind our reading of each of them, but also remember that all of us have already taken one or more steps in the right direction, even before hearing the word "agile" ring in our ears.
Secondly, we need to understand that agility, which is ultimately simple to grasp, is an important success factor, and it's up to us to put it into practice.
A few weeks before giving my talk, I attended a feedback session given by a well-known software publisher. Among the "existential questions" (sic) asked by this organization were: "How can we reduce time to market on a large-scale project?", and "How can we retain the benefits of agility in an organization of several hundred people? And, at the very end of the slide, "How can we be more agile than our competitors?
Before crossing out the latter. Their explanation: " Being agile is not an end in itself, so there's no point in being more agile than the competition ".
This reminded me of a coaching mission I carried out for a telecommunications group a few years ago. During a presentation given by the company's French management, who wanted to push the new agile approaches that were going to be "deployed" in the teams, the message had been clear. In essence, it was: "Even if we are a group of tens of thousands of people, we are not invincible. We are in competition with other behemoths, but also with emerging companies, start-ups, that can come and disrupt our market overnight, or almost."
Nobody wants to be the next Kodak. Nobody wants to see their company go under, their job called into question. Airbnb and Booking have challenged the hotel model, Uber the cab model, Amazon the bookstore model and... every retailer thereafter.In a competitive sector, being more agile than competitors is a key to success. And in a non-competitive sector (are there any left?), being agile, at all, is also.
But is agility an end in itself?
If agility is the ability to adapt, and if increasing one's ability to adapt increases one's chances of survival, then, logically, I'd say thatincreasing one's agility is increasing one's chances of survival.
Being agile therefore seems to me essential if we are to continue to be, at all. To continue to exist, to endure, to subsist.
But is agility an end in itself, or a means to an end?
As I wrote earlier, I had my doubts. In view of what I wrote just before, I found the voices that were being raised to relegate agility to the rank of means to be very reductive. I didn't think this did justice to the importance of agility in a personal or professional, individual or collective capacity. And not the importance it has for me, but the importance it should have for any organization seeking to continue to exist and evolve.
However, if we go back to basics :
- " Means, masc. - That which makes it possible to achieve one's goal."
- " End in itself - An end that has a universal and absolute value. By extension, an end sought for its own sake."
The notion of goal is present in both definitions, and we can clearly see the difference between the goal itself, and what enables it to be achieved. But the goal is not agility, not even in the sense of "being agile". The goal is to continue to exist, and ideally, to improve every day. Agility will help us to do just that. And we all have a role to play in becoming more agile, whether at individual, team or organizational level.
I'd like to end this article with some feedback from the Agile Tour Montpellier 2021 conference, which resonated with me more than the others.
It's worth noting that in the conference, I concluded that, for me, agility was an end in itself, and therefore the goal we were aiming for. Indeed, I argued that, considering the concept of survival instinct, if survival is an end in itself, then agility should, by extension, be an end in itself too, as it has a direct impact on achieving this goal.
The feedback was, verbatim:
One "problem" though with the term "survive"
Is it really an end in itself if it's at the expense of what's around us or what we should be doing?
But maybe that's just wording 🤔
I can only agree with the author of this comment. Is survival an end in itself? And if so, can we say that the end justifies any means?
In this case, the approach we're proposing seems quite harmless, not to say virtuous, so the question can be asked lightly. But a misinterpretation or misapplication of agile principles, considering "Agile" as the solution to all problems and to be applied to the letter (but which one?), can have disastrous impacts on an individual, a team or an organization. Particularly when, beyond ignorance, it's the pursuit of objectives that I find less honourable (going ever faster, doing more in quantity with fewer resources, starting to produce without an overall vision...) that pushes some people to choose agility.
This brings us back to what I wrote earlier... Let's demystify agility. Let's understand it in its simplest sense: the ability to adapt. From there, let's wisely apply what seems most relevant to our needs and ambitions, far from dogmas and supposedly magical solutions.
I remain convinced that by taking this path, agility can be a winning bet for all of us, and undoubtedly a key to our survival in a more virtuous approach. For us as human beings, and for the world around us.