The big value of Agile ways of working

Dennis Hambeukers
Product Owner Notebook

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For about 8 years, I believed that Agile was only valuable in innovation, in context with a lot of uncertainty and fast moving requirements. I know the exact date because I still have a picture of the moment I heard this idea. It was at a talk at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven where Jürgen Tanghe showed this slide:

Jürgen Tanghe on 2016.06.05 at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven: rowing or rafting?

The image of rowing versus rafting at the time felt like the perfect explanation of when to use Agile ways of working. The story was that if you know exactly what to do, if there are few uncertainties, Agile is not very useful and is only complicating things. Agile is only useful in V.U.C.A. (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity en Ambiguity) situations. The short iterations, the quick learning that is required in uncertain situations like innovation made it worthwhile to adopt the Agile ways of working.

That is still true today. Agile still is a valuable way of working in innovation projects, for innovative products. But today, I also see that the value of Agile ways of working is much bigger, much broader. The way I see it, Agile brings together two big movements in the world today:

  1. The rise of the Learning Organization
  2. The rise of new leadership models

The rise of the Learning Organization

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about how the ideas about the Learning Organization of Peter Senge align perfectly with the ideas on Design Thinking, Agile and Lean Startup:

In short, the Learning Organization needs five skills (disciplines):

  1. Personal mastery
  2. Team learning
  3. See mental models
  4. Shared vision
  5. Systems thinking

Agile ways of working are a perfect platform to develop these skills.

  • Because Agile puts people over processes and tools, because Agile works in small teams of T-shaped people, and because Agile give the mandate about the how to the team, it create space to develop personal mastery.
  • Because and Agile team refines the stories together, because the team holds retrospectives to constantly improve the team collaboration, and because the team fails fast with frequent releases, the team is empowered to learn.
  • Because the team works so closely together in dailies, refinements, retro’s, the team members see the mental models of the people who are from another discipline.
  • Because the product vision is in contant development based on learnings from releases and is the guide for the direction, vision becomes a practical tool and not some abstract idea that sits in a drawer somewhere or hangs on a wall.
  • Because the Agile team works in small iterations and is constantly learning, it is able to navigate the complexity of the context it works in instead of trying to simplify everything. This enables the team to learn to see how the complexity of the system works, what its parts are, what its behavior is, and how it can be nudged. That is systems thinking.

The rise of new leadership models

The leadership model that is dominant today is based on the 19th century ideas of Frederick Taylor and the Scientific Management movement that it created. It a hierarchical model in which the manager’s opinion is more valuable than that of others, in which the people are controlled. The main premise that it created in the working world is that people are intrinsically lazy and stupid and need to be told what to do and incentivized to actually do a good job. There is no trust, people need to obey. It is one of the most important inventions of the modern age. It has brought us unimaginable progress in all areas ranging from health to wealth. But like all systems, it also has its flaws. It reduces people to human resources. It worked for a long time but today it is creating burn-outs, quiet quitting, stress of all sorts. At the time Taylor introduced this model, he was sued for crimes against humanity for reducing workers to resources. He wasn’t convicted but the flaw in his system was seen from the very beginning. But because it generated so much profit, and increased productivity so dramatically, it became a huge success and the mental model of most organizations today.

This century asks for a different type of leadership. A model of leadership that is based on trust instead of obedience. A model of leadership that is based on empowerment instead of the limitations of roles and titles. A model of leadership that is based on coaching instead of telling people what to do. Teams need trust, vision and coaching from a leader. And that is exactly what an Agile way of working promotes. Because the Product Owner is responsible for the what but leaves the how up to the development team, the team is trusted to do the right thing. Because the Product Owner is responsible for the product vision but co-creates that with the team and stakeholders, the vision becomes shared and practical. Because the role of the Scrum Master is to coach the team to become better each increment, the coaching mindset is at the heart of Agile. Agile is a great platform to deliver the trust, vision and coaching people need.

“Teams need trust, vision and coaching from a leader and Agile is a great platform to deliver these things.”

The big value Agile ways of working bring

Today, I see that Agile ways of working are meeting two goals:

  1. Reducing risk for the business by releasing small increments
  2. Making it easier for the business to adjust to the change technology brings by releasing small increments
  3. Empower people with trust, vision and coaching

This is valuable for more than only teams working on innovative products. The leadership model it is biased towards is pointing us to the future of leadership models. Not just in digital product development but everywhere. And the reduction of risk by making small improvements is not just a good way to reduce the uncertainty of investments but also a good way to let the organization adjust to the change technology brings. Technology develops in a faster pace than the minds of people. In any organization where technology brings about change, people in the organization need to adjust to that change. And this works better in small steps than big bangs. By releasing small features, MVP’s, and small improvements, people can adjust to these small changes which is much easier than if you implement a new system with a big bang.

The way I see it, the value Agile brings goes far beyond a project management method for innovative projects. Agile is a place where new leadership models can grow. It is good that it entered the world through its value in innovation projects but by now its effect is spreading way beyond that into the rest of the world.

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Dennis Hambeukers
Product Owner Notebook

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner, Chaos Pilot, Humble Warrior