Agile after Corona

The Company to Consumer model under threat
Originally I became interested in agile software development when I started to discover a pattern between great teamwork in yacht racing and teams that produced software.  Some of the greatest software teams that I worked with were people working together on open source projects. Thousands of people worked together in self-organizing teams throughout their technology stack, much as if they had belonged to a single organization.  Could that model work in more organizations?

There was an essential thing missing though - most of these teams were making things that were useful to themselves but not necessarily to a user who would be willing to pay.  Motivation was often very idealistic: working on free (as in liberty) software usually entailed working for free (as in beer).  Some projects became wildly successful, imagine a world without Linux, Wikipedia or Bitcoin.  But do you remember Joomla, Mutuala or Erpal? It was, and still is, a struggle to find a good earning model, even when your organization is constantly and fluidly adapting to its markets.

Open source communities didn´t however seem very susceptible to economic crises, surviving the .com bubble and the financial crisis without much trouble.  This was because they grew (or shrank) together with the needs for their product.  Where a traditional company has employees, owners and consumers; open source projects have all those roles mixed up inside them.  They know their consumers and their markets because they are suppliers to themselves.

In the meanwhile, the traditional company-consumer earning model was reaching incredible new heights.  If you could corner a market - search (Google), personalized advertising (Facebook), shopping (Amazon), you needed to grow, and grow quickly.  After a particularly bad non-earning spree, combined with not being able to devote all my waking time to working, I decided I would have to change direction and see if what I had learned in open source and startups would earn money with big corporates. 

Scaling Agile - making the most efficient organization

The first thing I noticed when I started consulting for large companies was that what I called agile, they called Agile.  What I meant by an agile organization was one that:
  • used self organization, 
  • to find and make valuable products 
  • together with its users and owners
  • whilst constantly learning from facts
 (Scaled) Agile, the thing that I was supposed to be selling as a consultant appeared to be:
  • a variant of the traditional hierarchical org structure
  • that had money-making projects
  • which were delivered to consumers
  • according to plans
The Scaled bit seemed to be the idea that if you had more people working on your product, you could make bigger products which would in turn make more money.  None of the companies I came to had tried growing like an open source project, instead opting to add more production capacity, resulting in more product, needing more layers to plan and control production.  This worked well if you just had to produce more and more of the same stuff for your consumers.

However, these large structures have a much lower surface area.  Where an open source project is in constant contact with its users and owners, in a large hierarchy, most employees never come into contact with the outside world of consumers or shareholders. 

Crisis Time!

Some companies I worked for tried pushing smaller 'tactical' decisions down to the production layer, leaving 'strategic' decisions at the top.  This 'water-scrum-fall' pattern, exemplified by SAFe, allows teams to do small optimizations to customer experience but makes large step innovation very difficult.  Other companies tried to 'flatten' the hierarchy by having more reports per manager and by having several hierarchies like tech, product and line hierarchies - the 'matrix' pattern.

Although these design patterns might be 'wrong' if you are trying to make an agile organization, they are perfectly suited to controllable, profitable, consumable mass production.  I doubt however that these characteristics are very suitable to adapting to a crisis.

So this is where we go from past experience to hopes for the future.  We're going into a period of turbulence: a climate crisis, an oil-price war, a trade war, a financial bubble, several related democratic crises and a global pandemic are making the future pretty unclear at the moment.  Where the most successful organizations were the ones that were the most efficient, the surviving organizations may now be the ones that are the most resilient. 

De-scaling Agile - making the most resilient organization

Don't waste a crisis - but do...

...Embrace Self-Organization

There are many ways for large organizations to shrink but how irreducible is your organization?  Consider how an ant-colony or an engine would react to being cut in half.  An ant-colony has many of everything, self-organizing fluidly: workers, queens, builders and soldiers.  It will hardly notice any disruption from being cut in half.  With an engine, there is almost no redundancy, you would have to be very careful about which components to remove - chopping it in half would completely stop it from working, instantly.

In Scrum, (combined with LeSS or Nexus), the organization is comprised of self-organizing teams or groups of teams around products.  Those products should be independently valuable - removing a product will have little effect on the other products. 

In a traditional waterfall organization, in SAFe or in a matrix organization like 'Spotify', this will be much less easy.  Each part of the organization and each part of the product is highly co-dependent on the rest.  Shrinking is going to be painful, perhaps even fatal.

The people who know how to survive and thrive in this crisis probably already work at your organization.  They need to be enabled to collaborate to try things until you find out what works. 

...Reconsider How You Create Value 

This time next year, your organization may not exist anymore.  Will anyone miss it?  My hope is that the disruption that has started will finally shake out the organizations that are only there to create value for their shareholders at the cost of their employees, customers, society and the environment.  But that hardly guarantees that this will happen.

However, the converse will apply: if you manage to strike a balance between your stakeholders, that each party is strengthened by the other, your organization's survival is much more likely.  Being valuable to someone is now so much more important than share price or profit!

...Learn Early

If your organization's strategy, plan and backlog have not changed drastically in the last few weeks, you are either a sitting duck or a soothsayer.  In all cases, how transparent you are and how good at inspecting and adapting to change, will be a major, if not the only factor in your organization's continued existence!


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