Agility Means Effectiveness

Agility is often associated with speed and efficiency. In fact, agility accelerates learning in uncertain and complex environments, but not the delivery of a well-planned scope.

The increas­ing hype about agili­ty leads to much igno­rance and mis­un­der­stand­ings. One basic evil is the assump­tion that agili­ty, like a kind of con­cen­trat­ed feed, increas­es employ­ee per­for­mance. Book titles such as “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Suther­land (a book worth read­ing by the way) quick­ly leads the inclined man­ag­er, who because of his “busy­ness” could only read the title and the blurb, to this wrong con­clu­sion. And after all, Scrum talks about sprints for a rea­son, right? 

There is sure­ly noth­ing quite so use­less as doing with great effi­cien­cy what should not be done at all.

Peter F. Druck­er, 1963. “Man­ag­ing for Busi­ness Effec­tive­ness.Har­vard Busi­ness Review.

But employ­ees are no cows and agili­ty is no con­cen­trat­ed feed. Agili­ty aims at effec­tive­ness and not effi­cien­cy. In this respect, Peter F. Druck­er was an “agilist” from the very begin­ning. It is about doing the right thing in an uncer­tain and com­plex envi­ron­ment and not so much about pro­cess­ing a known and planned scope in slices as ele­phant carpac­cio more efficiently.

The essence of agility is about short feedback cycles
Source: Hen­rik Kniberg

This pic­ture by Hen­rik Kniberg is an excel­lent illus­tra­tion of what agili­ty is real­ly all about: In quick suc­ces­sion, real inter­me­di­ate prod­ucts are cre­at­ed and the knowl­edge gained from their use then deter­mines the next steps. That’s why the low­er sequence in the pic­ture shows a con­vert­ible and not a sedan as in the upper sequence, because it was learned along the way that the cus­tomer loves fresh air. So agili­ty accel­er­ates the learn­ing, not the execution!

These short learn­ing loops are use­ful and nec­es­sary when the goal is blurred and the way to get there is unclear. Agili­ty always has some­thing to do with uncer­tain­ty and com­plex­i­ty and, as a result, the desire for more flex­i­bil­i­ty and adapt­abil­i­ty. If the aim is only to achieve a known and well-planned result more effi­cient­ly, agili­ty is inap­pro­pri­ate. The most effi­cient way to build a con­vert­ible is cer­tain­ly not to build a skate­board, a scoot­er, a bicy­cle and a motor­cy­cle as inter­me­di­ate steps.

How­ev­er, this only holds true if the ini­tial assump­tions made about the mar­ket and cus­tomers were cor­rect. Whether this is the case is unfor­tu­nate­ly only revealed at the very end of the devel­op­ment process in the usu­al water­fall approach. And then changes are expen­sive or impossible.

If the lad­der is not lean­ing against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.

Steven R. Cov­ey, 2004. “The 7 Habits of High­ly Effec­tive People.” 

Artillery and bal­lis­tic mis­siles are also cheap­er than self-guid­ed cruise mis­siles. With good vis­i­bil­i­ty, no wind, short dis­tances and immo­bile tar­gets, with enough prac­tice there is a jus­ti­fied hope of hit­ting the tar­get with them quite well. How­ev­er, for mov­ing tar­gets, con­stant­ly chang­ing winds or greater dis­tances, cruise mis­siles that auto­mat­i­cal­ly adapt their tra­jec­to­ry to the tar­get and chang­ing influ­ences are much more effective.

The sit­u­a­tion is sim­i­lar with agili­ty. It increas­es accu­ra­cy, but not for free and cer­tain­ly not with a gain in effi­cien­cy — except in the sense that expen­sive rework is avoid­ed. But that is exact­ly what effec­tive­ness and accu­ra­cy mean.

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