Do Agile Methods of Management Make Any Sense?

I recently responded to a question on Quora that asked “Do Agile Methods of Management Make Any Sense?”. I thought it was an interesting question so I decided to make a blog post out of my response.Do Agile methods of management make any sense?

The “Program Du Jour” Effect

Agile has a similar pattern to many other new management approaches that have come before it.  This is what I call “The Program Du Jour Effect”:

  • Initially, there’s a lot of “hype” behind any new management approach that is fueled by the many consultants and trainers who have jumped on the bandwagon and want to sell their services
  • People start to see it as a universal solution for any problem you might have and all other previous management approaches are regarded as obsolete and are no longer relevant at all
  • The implementation becomes very superficial because people are looking for quick results without necessarily putting the effort that might be needed into really understanding it and making it work

I’ve Seen This Pattern Before

I’ve seen a similar pattern with Business Process Reengineering and Six Sigma. When I published my first book on Business Excellence in 2003, Six Sigma was very hot and everyone wanted to jump on the Six Sigma bandwagon. When I did the research for my book, I found that:

  • A number of companies did Six Sigma superficially, there was a lot of “hoopla” about it (Black Belts, Green Belts, etc.). That kind of effort wasn’t very effective and didn’t last long – they quickly threw out Six Sigma when it didn’t deliver magical results as quickly as expected and waited for the next management fad to come along.
  • In other companies, Six SIgma was simply a tool (and only one of many tools) that might have been used for process improvement, they might not have even called it “Six Sigma”, and it was so well-integrated into the way they managed their company that it might not have even been obvious that it was Six Sigma at all

Here’s a quote that I really like that I used in my first book on Business Excellence:

“Americans are our own worst enemy when it comes to new business concepts. We love novelty and newness. We become so enamored with new ideas, we burn through them the way a child rips through toys on Christmas morning – squeals of delight, followed by three or four minutes of interest, then onto the next plaything. That is our pattern with new management techniques, too.”
(Barry Sheehy, Hyler Bracey, & Rick Frazier, Winning the Race for Value, American Management Association, 1996  Page:  104)

Do Agile Methods of Management Make Any Sense?

If you understand the essence of what Agile is all about and use it appropriately in the context of how it is intended to be used, it has enormous value and makes a lot of sense. The essence of Agile is in being flexible and adaptive in a highly-uncertain environment and emphasizing an appropriate level of creativity and innovation in new product development and not simply emphasizing planning and control.

The alternative is to force-fit everything to a heavily plan-driven approach to management that heavily emphasizes planning and control only. That approach is clearly appropriate in some situations and not in others.  The key message is that:

  • We live in a complex world today with lots of uncertainty and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to project management no longer works well
  • You have to fit the project management approach to the nature of the project and that takes a lot more skill.  It is not simply a matter of picking up a standardized project management template with fill-in-the-blanks documentation

It is also not a simple matter of a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between Agile and Waterfall as many people seem to think.  It is  a matter of learning to blend those two approaches (and others) in the right proportions to fit a given situation.