Agile Management – Flash in the pan or paradigm shift?

Paul Fegan is a certified Scaled Agile Practitioner and Head of Pathfinder’s Programme Execution Practice. This is part 1 of a 3 part opinion series.

Agile Management has its roots in Lean Manufacturing and TQM, but only really started to build acceptance in the software development industry back in 2001 with the publication of the Agile Manifesto.  The last 5 years or so have seen the principles of Agile Management spreading outside of software to more general business practices and there are significant beachheads of Agile in many traditional, non-software organisations.

But many are blithely unaware of this evolution or feel it doesn’t apply to them – like the mythical frog in the pot of water that is gently heating, soon it may be too late to jump to safety.  So, is Agile Management’s move out of software into wider management the start of something radically different or just another management fad?

In his book “The Age of Agile”[1], Steve Denning compares the shift in management practice underway at present to the shift the Copernican theory brought to our view of the universe.  Copernicus suggested that, contrary to common sense at the time, the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than being at the centre of the universe. To many, especially those in positions of power based on the status quo (i.e. the church and European royalty), this notion was patently ridiculous, and despite mounting evidence, the new ideas were resisted for many years[2].

Denning suggests that companies and their relentless search for investor returns are no longer the centre of the capitalist model.  In a connected, digital world the customer is now at the centre of this universe and companies must take their place in orbit around the customer.

To those in a position of power supported by the old way of thinking (mainly senior management, executive committees and so on) this new theory of management is at best extremely challenging and at worst an existential threat to their very way of being.

Changes to common sense do not just rely on a linear accumulation of new knowledge but must be supported by the weight of consensus of the community. Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[3] coined the phrase “paradigm shifts” to describe the process of how the consensus moves from the previously accepted common sense to the new world view.  From a practical point of view, I am beginning to see such a consensus shift in management.  Our clients, all so-called traditional companies, are starting to explore agile techniques and are experimenting with some of agile principles leading me to wholeheartedly agree with Steve Denning in describing Agile Management as just such a paradigm shift.  As with every such change in thinking, this shift is going through a set of stages of acceptance:

1.    Complacency/Marginalisation: At first, new ideas are seen as off-the-wall ideas that are quaint but don’t threaten the dominant view.  As a result, most people will not pay too much attention to the idea when it first comes out. “Agile Management is only applicable to software development, it is a niche technique in an area that is anti-management to start with.”

2.  Ridicule: Complacency fades as the new ideas refuse to die which results in people ridiculing the new idea as it is inconsistent with what they hold to be true.  “Agile advocates are fundamentalists and can’t apply their ideas to “real world” business problems.”  “Prove to me how Agile can support our existing processes”

3.  Criticism: As the new idea gains acceptance, people who have held conflicting views take off their gloves.  Those whose reputations are invested in the ‘old’ paradigm begin to sharpen their criticism through accusatory language and emotional feedback.  Agile would lead to chaos in our organisation.  If we applied it to our business, we would have anarchy.  Or we tried it as a pilot and didn’t get any benefit, as we thought it is a flash in the pan.”

4.  Acceptance: The new paradigm gains both intellectual and psychological acceptance as enough people make the leap; those who understand the new ideas are no longer alone. Maybe we need to commit to this and put our best efforts into making it work for our company….”

From experience with our clients I believe agile management is at the stage of serious criticism, bordering on acceptance and the continual development of proven case studies across a variety of industries and business size is building a track record that is more and more difficult to refute.  Agile Management is now on the verge of gaining widespread acceptance as the defining management technique of the digital century.

I for one already see it as the new common sense and wonder how anyone ever thought the sun revolved around the earth!

Paul Fegan is a certified Scaled Agile Practitioner and Head of Pathfinder’s Program Execution Practice.  If you want to learn more about how an Agile mindset can deliver greater value for your customers contact Paul directly on .

Part 2 & 3 of our opinion series are available here:

2.) Agile Management – A Definition?

3.) Agile Management – Where to start?

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