Good Agile/Bad Agile: The Difference and Why It Matters

kernels and bugsThis post is an unapologetic riff on Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters. The book is a wonderful analysis of what makes a good strategy and how successful organisations use strategy effectively. I found that it reinforced my notion that Agility is a Strategy and so this is also a way to help me organise my thoughts about that from the book. 

Good and Bad Agile

Rumelt describes Bad Strategy as having four major hallmarks:

  • Fluff – meaningless words or platitudes.
  • Failure to face the challenge – not knowing what the problem or opportunity being faced is.
  • Mistaking goals for strategy – simply stating ambitions or wishful thinking.
  • Bad strategy objectives – big buckets which provide no focus and can be used to justify anything (otherwise known as “strategic horoscopes”).

These hallmarks can also describe Bad Agile. For example, when Agile is just used for the sake of it (Agile is the fluff). Or when Agile is just used to do “the wrong thing righter” (failing to face the challenge). Or when Agile is just used to “improve performance” (mistaking goals for strategy). Or when Agile is just part of a variety of initiatives (bad strategy objectives).

Rumelt goes on to describe a Good Strategy as having a kernel with three elements:

  • Diagnosis – understanding the critical challenge or opportunity being faced.
  • Guiding policy – the approach to addressing the challenge or opportunity.
  • Coherent actions – the work to implement the guiding policy.

Again, I believe this kernel can help identify Good Agile. When Agile works well, it should be easy to answer the following questions:

  • What diagnosis is Agile addressing for you? What is the critical challenge or opportunity you are facing?
  • What guiding policy does Agile relate to? How does it help you decide what you should or shouldn’t do?
  • What coherent actions you are taking that are Agile? How are they coordinated to support the strategy?

Sources of Power

Rumelt suggests that

“a good strategy works by harnessing power and applying it where it will have the greatest effect”.

He goes on to describe nine of these powers (although they are not limited to these nine) and it’s worth considering how Agile can enable them.

  • Leverage – the anticipation of what is most pivotal and concentrating effort. Good Agile will focus on identifying and implementing the smallest change (e.g. MVPs) which will result in largest gains.
  • Proximate objects – something close enough to be achievable. Good Agile will help identify clear, small, incremental and iterative releases which can be easily delivered by the organisation
  • Chain-link systems – systems where performance is limited by the weakest link.  Good Agile will address the constraint in the organisation. Understanding chain-link systems is effectively the same as applying Theory of Constraints. 
  • Design – how all the elements of an organisation and its strategy fit together and are co-ordinated to support each other. Good Agile will be part of a larger design, or value stream, and not simply a local team optimisation. Using design is effectively the same as applying Systems Thinking. 
  • Focus – concentrating effort on achieving a breakthrough for a single goal. Good Agile limits work in process in order to help concentrate effort on that single goal to create the breakthrough.
  • Growth – the outcome of growing demand for special capabilities, superior products and skills. Good Agile helps build both the people and products which will result in growth.
  • Advantage – the unique differences and asymmetries which can be exploited to increase value. Good Agile helps exploit, protect or increase demand to gain a competitive advantage. In fact Good Agile can itself be an advantage.
  • Dynamics – anticipating and riding a wave of change. Good Agile helps explore new and different changes and opportunities, and then exploits them.
  • Inertia and Entropy – the resistance to change, and decline into disorder. Good Agile helps organisations overcome their own inertia and entropy, and take advantage of competitors’ inertia and entropy. In effect, having less inertia and entropy than your competition means having a tighter OODA loop.

In general, we can say that Good Agile “works by harnessing power and applying it where it will have the greatest effect”, and it should be possible to answer the following question:

  • What sources of power is your strategy harnessing, and how does Agile help apply it?

Thinking like an Agilist

Rumelt concludes with some thoughts on creating strategy, and what he suggests is

“the most useful shift in viewpoint: thinking about your own thinking”.

He describes this shift from the following perspectives:

  • The Science of Strategy – strategy as a scientific hypothesis rather than a predictable plan.
  • Using Your Head – expanding the scanning horizon for ideas rather than settling on the first idea.
  • Keeping Your Head – using independent judgement to decide the best approach rather than following the crowd.

This is where I see a connection between Good Strategy and Strategy Deployment, which is an approach to testing hypotheses (science as strategy), deliberately exploring multiple options (using your head), and discovering an appropriate, contextual solution (keeping your head).

In summary, Good Agile is deployed strategically by being part of a kernel, with a diagnosis of the critical problem or opportunity being faced, guiding policy which harnesses a source of power, and coherent actions that are evolved through experimenting as opposed to being instantiated by copying.

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