Explaining Agile To Your Boss? Here’s How

Business agility is a complex multidimensional concept, as shown in the table below. Explaining each dimension to a traditional boss is more likely to result in mental overload and frustration than comprehension, even if he listens to the whole explanation, which itself is unlikely. Can the magic of metaphor help?

The first impulse in searching for a metaphor is often to look for something agile like an acrobat, a ballet dancer or a squirrel. This usually doesn’t help because it gives no clue that the concept of the Agile enterprise has come to mean a great deal more than the English adjective, “agile.”

Nevertheless, metaphors can help to illuminate Agile’s key principles. Here are several possibilities. 

1. The Goal Of The Firm: A Copernican Revolution

In terms of the goal or ideology of the firm, business agility implies a shift from a focus on making money for the firm to a focus on delivering more value to customers.

It is akin to the Copernican Revolution in astronomy in which we realized, contrary to the evidence of our own eyes, that the Earth is revolving around the Sun, not vice versa. This changed not only astronomy but the society as a whole: social phenomena like the Divine Right of Kings and the Roman Catholic Church started to look implausible once we realized that the Earth is no more than a speck of dust in a much vaster universe. Everything began to look different.

Similarly the business agility revolution involves the realization that in a complex and rapidly changing world, the firm revolves around the customer, not vice versa. Everything the firm does now has to be viewed from how it affects the customer, not just whether it made money for the firm. “Delighting the customer” is no longer just a slogan: the whole organization needs to be mobilized in this cause.

Making money becomes the result of the firm’s activities. Happily though, as the experience of Agile firms like Amazon shows, delighting the customer makes more money for the firm and its shareholders than explicit efforts to make money off the customer.

2.    Architecture Of Work: U.S. Football Vs. Basketball

In terms of the architecture of work, business agility involves a shift from bureaucracy—i.e. individuals filling roles and reporting to bosses—to a mode of operation that draws on the full talents of staff, often through small self-organizing teams working in short cycles. This shift is similar in some ways to the difference between American football and basketball.

The 20th century corporation is in some ways like an American football team, which in the NFL is tightly controlled by a “coach” who makes all the decisions about strategy, about who will play, about how the players will play and about what specific plays they will make. In fact, play is stopped every few seconds to enable these top-down decisions to be communicated to the players.

By contrast, an Agile corporation is more like a basketball team in which the players play as a set of sub-teams (offense and defense) within an overall team. The coach is a real coach and stays off the field of play. Decisions about how to play and what specific moves to make are the responsibility of the players.

This in turn leads to a very significant difference in actual playing time. In basketball, a two-hour game has at least 60 minutes of playing time. By contrast, a 3-hour game of American NFL football has only 11 minutes of actual playing time.

This phenomenon closely resembles the difference between bureaucracy and agility. In a bureaucracy, often more than 50% of the time is spent reporting on work that has been done, is currently being done or will be done in the future, rather than actually doing work that adds value to some client. By contrast, in Agile enterprises, most teams have a clear line of sight to the customer; any work that is not adding value to a customer is questionable. As a result, real waste is systematically eliminated.

It also illustrates how identical words can have radically different meanings. For instance “coach” means something radically different. In soccer, a coach is actually a coach who sits on the sidelines and lets the players play, while in American football, a coach is a commander and controller who, though also sitting on the sidelines, is actively deciding every play—a quintessential micromanager.

In the same way, the term “manager” means something very different in a bureaucracy as compared to an Agile enterprise. Part of the transition from bureaucracy to business agility involves not only learning the new meanings of apparently familiar words but also changing the behaviors associated with those words. This obviously doesn’t happen overnight. As social theorist Thomas Kuhn suggested, it can be like “entering a new world.” The firm becomes much more productive because it is drawing on the full talents of those doing the work, and who are in constant contact with customers. In such firms, human beings are creating more value for other human beings.

3. The Firm’s Dynamic: PC Vs. iPhone Apps

In terms of the dynamic of the firm, a 20th Century firm is like a 20th century PC: its components operate separately as separate computer programs. To get anything done, you have to close one program and open another. The programs didn’t interact well with each other. The very structure of the system gets in the way of getting anything done.

Similarly the silos of a 20th century firm are often in competition with each other. As former general Stan McChrystal explains in his book, Team of Teams. I, there were “very provincial definitions of purpose: completing a mission or finishing intel analysis, rather than [winning]. To each unit, the piece of the war that really mattered was the piece inside their box on the org chart; they were fighting their own fights in their own silos. The specialization that allowed for breathtaking efficiency became a liability in the face of the unpredictability of the real world.”

By contrast, the dynamic of an Agile firm resembles the apps of an IPhone. The apps interact easily with each other as a result of predefined interfaces. The apps are “always on”and interact almost immediately.

In an Agile organization, the artificial barriers between different parts of the organization are eliminated. The firm operates as a network, where ideas and information can flow up or down or horizontally as needed, not just top-down. Instead of teams and units being at odds with each other, now the firm becomes a set of teams that interact with and collaborate with other teams with the same connectivity, interaction and passion as they do within their own small team. As a result, once the manager accepts the new way of doing things, there is much less pressure on the manager.