Agile arrogance: Part 2, do we understand the problems?

Photo by Graham Keen Last week I asked if we Agilistas were displaying arrogance when we sought to apply our wonderful techniques to our organisations as a whole. We look around, see problems, and apply our tools and techniques. But how often is Agile an appropriate solution?

When I look at big management failures I don’t often see problems that an Agile approach might have helped.

My favourite (because it saddens me the most) is the story of HP’s mishandling of Palm. Go and read Chris Ziegler’s enthralling tale of what went wrong and what jumps out is not over-planning, lack of teamwork and misreporting. Instead you will see clashing personalities, lost business opportunities, aggressive competitors, poor advertising, internal politics and a “toxic” CEO.

Or look at how Yahoo! mishandled Flickr for so many years. Again, you will see politics and a misalignment of values. Outside of the digital world we can see other failures. I remember Al Dunlap, whose story is told in (among others) Jon Roson’s The Psychopath Test. Dunlap drove his company, Sunbeam, into the ground through personal ruthlessness. His nickname of “Chainsaw Al” gives you a flavour. Or look at the failure of the General Motors 29 programme in the early 2000s, which was a collective management failure to understand the deeper psychological consequences of goal-setting.

Of course, few of us are in outright failing companies. But even if we’re in successful organisations it’s too easy to see problems. The grass always seems greener; we take the good things for granted and focus on the problems. Can you deliver software effectively? Yes, but it takes ages to agree anything. Can you make decisions quickly? Yes, but we never consider the long-term consequences. And so on.

Often the worst place to view an organisation is from one vantage point inside it. This is why external management consultants are often so effective. It’s not that they’re smarter than others in the company, it’s more that they have a free hand to roam widely and get a more balanced view of things. I know digital workers in newspapers who think their company should shut down their presses, the source of so much cost, whereas the CEO sees the print publications bringing in 50% of the revenue with a healthy yield. I know project managers who despair that 90% of their company’s projects lose money, while the programme manager takes a portfolio approach and knows that the 10% that succeed more than outweigh the losses.

Before we apply our Agile toolkit, we need to make sure we’ve looked at the problem from enough angles. And we need to establish that “it” really is a problem at all.

In the next part I’ll look at the tools we choose to use for problem-solving.