Why Agile is the most important social technology of this decade

Written in Co-authorship with Nienke van de Hoef

Only four years ago — when we explained what we do at birthday parties — only people in IT understood what we meant by Scrum and Agile. Nowadays the use of ‘Agile’ has become a commodity. So much in fact, that it is rapidly starting to become mis- and over-used. The result is an increasing amount of skepticism and the designation of Agile as a hype. The most prominent misconception towards Agile is that it is a method — a trick even — that requires simple application, rather than a fundamental cultural and organizational transformation.

Agile is coming of age

Over the past few years Agile has come of age. This has become highly visible in the way organizations adopt Agile. The software world has been working with Agile since the late eighties, while non-software Agile projects have only been around for four years. Last year has seen a massive increase in full scale Agile enterprise transformations. It has evolved from an ‘IT-only’ party, to a way to tackle complex projects in all sorts of environments, and finally the focus has recently shifted towards full scale ‘enterprise agility’. Not only is the way we adopt Agile changing, the pace at which these changes are happening, is also accelerating.

The rise of Agile

By enterprise agility we refer to the adoption of Agile and its underlying principles and values at all organizational levels. This implies a different way of steering from strategy to operations, and setting up multidisciplinary teams rather than working in isolated pockets. This development involves a fundamental change in the way we lead organizations as well as a cultural shift: it is in fact a paradigm shift.

A set of guiding principles and a corresponding philosophy are an effective way to cooperate in large scale organizations. Such a universally applicable way of thinking, working and organizing is what we call a social technology. Social technologies are a response to the (digital) technological disruptions in our way of working, organizing and even life. Other examples of social technologies include holacracy and sociocracy 3.0.

Taylorism and Agile are cousins

Agile has become nothing short of the most fundamental social technology since Taylorism. Don’t worry, this won’t be an academic treatise on the merits of different management theories. Rather we believe it is important to understand and evaluate where we come from, in order to decide where it is we should be going.

In 1911 Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced his theory of scientific management. He introduced it with the aim of controlling every work activity, from the simplest to the most complicated. Taylor’s argument was that only by doing so, management could have the desired control over productivity and quality by focusing on the most efficient way to do each task.

We can still see the echoes of his theory in many aspects of modern day organizations. One of the most poignant examples is the way how many organizations treat call centres and call centre agents. Rather than focusing on the best outcome for customers (solving their problems), they obsessively measure and focus on things like call-length and number of calls processed per hour (for an example of the right way to do it, consider this). Not only are we sometimes focused on optimizing the wrong things, this has also created a culture in which we have taught employees to no longer think for themselves. Make no mistake, we are not out to bash Taylorism or a drive towards increased efficiency. Quite simply, we believe focussing on effectiveness, rather than efficiency, yields better results and also makes best use of employees and everything they bring to the table. In our opinion, this is the best way to delight customers. Not to mention it makes work considerately more fun.

Focus on effectiveness — rather than efficiency

Four parallels cause us to classify both Taylorism and Agile as social technologies:

  1. Like Taylorism, Agile is based on a set of underlying principles that guide the way we organize and work. The principles offer guidelines for processes, practices, governance and leadership.
  2. Both combine methodology and mindset. Taylor: ‘The really great problem of the change consists in a complete revolution in the mental attitude and the habits of all of those engaged in the management as well as the workmen’. While we don’t subscribe to Taylor’s strict division between workmen and management, experience has shown that social technologies affect all those in the organization. Not only the business but also the leaders and staff departments need a fundamentally different paradigm.
  3. Technological revolutions were the main driver behind the development of both Taylorism and Agile. While Taylorism was the result of industrialization, Agile was devised as a response to the new possibilities offered by the software and internet revolutions.
  4. Finally, both sets of principles are universally applicable. Agile has taken hold from Australia to Brazil and South Africa to Scandinavia.

Mindset beats method every time

The rise of technologies such as personal computers, the internet and smartphones has radically impacted our lives and the way we do business. We are convinced we are at the dawn of a new era of social technology. As we speak we can see a rapid development in fields such as blockchain, AR/VR, IoT (Internet of Things) and Artificial Intelligence, the true impact of these is yet to be fully revealed. As the pace of technological change accelerates we will also see a rapidly accelerating pace in the development of social technologies such as Agile.

The human mind is ill-equipped to deal with exponential growth. For an example of what that truly means consider the infographic below:

Source: https://medium.com/ai-revolution/how-long-until-computers-have-the-same-power-as-the-human-brain-c1e9741c12de

Principles on how to work and organize can only be effective when combined with a corresponding mindset. When using Agile as method rather than a mindset the long term benefits of using Agile dwindle down to zero. How many times have you seen a team become fully energized when starting out with Scrum only to regress into old habits over time. This is a clear symptom of implementing Agile as a system, rather than fully embracing the philosophy , investing in behavioral change and receiving the full long term benefits. Internalizing such a mindset takes time, coaching, and the willingness to open up and expose yourself to feedback. Teams that fail to do so become demotivated and often abandon Agile altogether, claiming ‘Agile does not work for us’.

Putting the social back into social technologies

For too long the focus in Agile has been on the technical aspects. It is time to put the social back into social technology.

Lasting Agile organizational change is commonly frustrated by the lack of a lasting change in behavior and mindset. All too often Agile transformations are initiated by rolling out a standard blueprint for an Agile organization and simply copying a ‘model’ that has been successful elsewhere. During such transformations the focus is on implementing standard ways of working and associated technical platforms. Rather than focusing on the human aspect, the focus is on systems, processes and technologies. An Agile transformation cannot truly succeed without striking a careful equilibrium between frameworks, technology, and the softer human side, including leadership.

In this context do not take softer to mean inexact, fuzzy or unbusinesslike. Rather it means to act upon drivers fundamental to human nature in order to maximize team effectiveness. Robust enterprise agility cannot be achieved without some form of effective Agile scaling. However, the multidisciplinary team, that works in short cycles on customer delight in a highly visual and transparent way remains the core organizational Agile unit. To ignore the human side of Agile is to ignore at least half of what needs to be done to make your change lasting and successful.

Key to successfully dealing with the human side of Agile is understanding that every team and organization has two basic goals. A team seeks to attain a certain result, but also instinctively works to maintain the status quo in team dynamics. A similar thing happens at the organizational level. Change is resisted as a threat to the very survival of the team.

The true power of Agile is in the undercurrent

We find the ‘softer’ side of Agile is often ignored. Many teams and Agile consultants tend to focus on more visible aspects, such as practices and tools. In these situations a major aspect of the way teams works remains undiscussed, but strongly impacts the way the team works and is felt by all. We call this the undercurrent. The undercurrent in your organization is agnostic, meaning it is neither good nor bad. Yes, a negative undercurrent can ruin a team, but a positive undercurrent is just as likely to make your team fly. Friendship for example is an undercurrent that helps the team perform: there’s laughter and affection that makes working together fun.

Source: Handboek Teamcoaching, Martijn Vroemen, 2018

A negative undercurrent can always be traced back to four basic interpersonal needs:

  • Inclusion: membership and team boundaries. Do I belong?
  • Influence: Who is in charge? Is my voice heard?
  • Intimacy: Do I dare to be vulnerable in this group?
  • Inspiration: Fulfillment. Does what I do matter?

‘Inspiration’ is key. However much you work on inclusion, influence and intimacy, if a team lacks inspiration, all your other efforts will be futile. All interpersonal needs have many different ways they can manifest themselves. Structurally being late might be a symptom of disengagement, and therefore a lack of inspiration. It is the Agile Coach’s job to investigate and diagnose what is behind such symptoms, and apply the right intervention. Only then can we start to make lasting changes.

Don’t imagine the undercurrent as a problem that can simply be solved. It is a bottomless well that requires constant attention. Problems arising from negative undercurrents might distract you from being aware what is truly going on in the surroundings of the organization. As the tribe struggles internally, it fails to notice the tiger in the bushes. While you are struggling with team issues instead of serving the customers needs, you are losing your competitive position.

The only way to deal with the undercurrent is to bring issues to the surface and discuss them. Agile is uniquely suited to rapidly bringing these tensions to the surface. The Agile creed ‘transparency — inspect — adapt’ engrains a process of continuous discussion about results, team culture and collaboration in an organization. By doing so we turn these tensions into fuel for transformation and lay the foundations for the right culture and mindset in an organization. This mindset is not only key to reaping the full benefits of Agile and becoming a high performance organization, but also readies us for whatever social technology comes next.


The biggest challenge the future holds is that we simply have to deal with it. Whatever comes next will require us to have a structure and mindset in place that allows us to deal with massive social and technological change. Agile is the most important social technology of this decade because it is uniquely suited to preparing us for the next (unknown) revolution. Considering the rapid evolution of Agile and disruptive technologies, becoming truly Agile is now more urgent than ever before.