Agile By Heart Not By McKinsey PowerPoint

Over the last couple of years, 17 years after its birth in the manifesto, it seems that Agile as a concept is finally coming of age as a philosophy and way of thinking in lieu of being seen as a mere set of practices and a project management methodology.

More is being written about the role of Agile outside of software development and into management practices, more voices discuss it as a way of thinking and not a mere way of working, its long term future and its central position in the future of work debated more hotly.

There are, of course, voices that are adamantly against using Agile as a cure-all for the organization but at times those objections are to using it as a template of practices not against using its spirit of open, intelligent flexibility, nonetheless, the distinction often gets lost in the noise. Over the next few years, we will likely see a much cleaner discourse as to how Agile is a state of mind, not a way to move post-its around.

One of the key reasons why the conversation has heated up is that the results obtained by companies who are truly Agile are undeniable. Famously, these results were coming exclusively from tech giants out of Silicon Valey but increasingly, other big organizations in far more obscure industries are joining the party. These companies have either created or transformed an internal culture of innovation that sees them ahead of their competitors in vying for the attention of their end consumers chiefly by employing Agile across the board, in a way that resonates with most every employee.

If we look at the companies doing well traveling on a path of building a truly Agile organization we can almost always trace it to an internal impetus to deeply change and achieve more. Despite how fundamental of a shift this is, and despite how traditionally, companies only undertake fundamental shifts if some big strategy house designs them or, at the very least sanctions them with the board, it seems that, for the most part, the organizations succeeding with Agile, are a lot more self-made in their desire for transformation than consultancy-led.

As compared to the “legacy shift” or the “digital transformation” programmes that have been initiated by heavy decks paraded to boards, Agile seems a lot more greenfield in origin. It has come about as a solution of what is effective and works, first in software development in particular and then project management in general, and is now starting to thankfully seep into any other function that requires fast, reiterative, execution and at that, it has spread silently and unofficially which is a tremendous shift from the model above and consultancies are more running fast to catch a wagon to jump on than they are driving this train.

This also explains why their attempts at showing they understand Agile “best practices” are modest and reactionary and reduced to a certain portion of their efforts whereas the majority of buzz-word-bingo is still firmly hinging on discussing “digital”.

Most consultancies insist that digital transformation is the higher concept – the be-all-end-all goal, whereas Agile takes a backseat as the execution piece of that transformation but is that right? Agile as a way of thinking can arguably be seen as the higher concept as it is going to remain long past completed legacy or digital transformations which are just hygiene for this moment in time. 

Looking at the frontrunners in Agile – Google, Spotify, GM or Amazon – none of the Big 4 consultancies can say “yes, that’s me, I wrote this magical 50M- strategy-deck as usual, gave these guys the blueprint of how to become Agile to the core, and here they are, they’ve done it and look at their success story”.

Some claim that the examples of best practices to build Agile organizations at leadership level such as these “5 Trademarks of Agile Organizations” by McKinsey or this piece on Agile at scale from Bain are so modest of efforts, that devious commercial motives can be attached to their reluctance to pull the  leader aside to say “look, no one needs to know but let me show you what this is all about, 3 columns, to do, doing, done, let’s spend the day falling in love with Agile -or Scrum, Kanban, DevOps or simply mental flexibility and never being done, ok?”.

The malevolence would be that, while they haven’t designed and conducted the Agile transformation, the consultancies have quickly recognised the transformative potential and the enormous impact the gap in understanding between the various layers of the organization will have, and have decided to protect the dysfunction for commercial reasons in order to be able to keep selling their traditional model of bums on seats, this time in the armies of agile coaches they provide to each organization. 

While when it comes to software development, industries are slowly moving away from the warm bodies consultancy framework and demanding a lot more success based models, when it comes to cultural change, strategy houses everywhere with few exceptions, haven’t yet found a formula to work for them to charge for changing the DNA of an organization to where it becomes intensely open, flexible and human and they don’t yet know how to charge for stimulating a company’s (or even a leadership team’s) sense of purpose, unconventional knowledge, appetite for continuous learning and passion so as a result, they don’t know how to charge for making them truly Agile in their hearts of hearts.

If they won’t figure it out fast, chances are, the future belongs to organizations who will become Agile with the use of a mirror and a Google show-and-tell not a consultancy’s overpriced strategy deck.

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