Rethinking Agile

Whilst in search of excellence I discovered quality and in a zen-like process of discovery I reengineered my approach to projects and to work, eventually emerging out of the crisis, and discovering a new economics.

Actually, the journey was longer than that and started with Business Process Reengineering (BPR). My employer at the time (RNZ) was in the process of restructuring, and was using BPR, led by consultants from Ernst and Young (EY). The process seemed to be putting the organisation through a lot of pain, so I thought I’ll do my own research on BPR to see if it was actually a valid approach. I read the Michael Hammer’s books on the subject, which led me to books by other business thinkers, Phil Crosby, Joseph Duran, Homer Sarasohn, Peter SengePeter Drucker, and W. Edwards Deming to name of few of the stand-outs. As part of this journey I wrote a thesis looking at the impact of that restructuring and measuring it against BPR’s best practices. That paper is another story in itself.

Anyway, I ended up going down the lean branch of management theory and this has continued to have an influence on my thinking, even as I have explored other approaches.

At RNZ, up until about March 2016, I used forms of Kanban and Kaizen for developing the website, after a waterfall project for initial launch. I’d also used waterfall for a large technology upgrade project (12 months to execute) in the late 90s, and for some smaller projects.

Also in the mix has been exposure to chaos, waterfall-masquerading-as-agile and ‘scrum’. Don’t ask. 😉

Most recently I was a digital product owner on a formal Agile/Scrum team at Te Papa, working with a very experienced Scrum Master. I learnt a lot there.

So, I have had a broad exposure to different approaches to getting work done – both in technical and non-technical fields.

I have watched with interest as Agile has taken hold, and like a lot of others I’ve watched as companies failed to reap the advertised benefits of this ‘new’ thinking. Just like many previous management theories.

Based on observation, it feels like processes have replaced principles, and dogma has replaced evolutionary learning. (Note: this is not a commentary on my past role – these are just general observations.)

Here are some links to resources that’ve influenced my rethinking of Agile.

1. Martin Fowler’s recent Agile Australia Keynote.

2. David J. Anderson’s talk, The Alternative Path to Enterprise Agility.

3. The Principles of Lean Product Flow, by Donald G. Reinertsen, applies thinking from other domains and takes an empirical and economic approach (Video).

4. Johanna Rothman talks about the problem with our old ideas of ‘resource efficiency’ – and why ‘flow efficiency’ is more useful (Audio).

5. Dom Price, from Atlassian, sees an unsettling trend: a celebration of Agile teams who do all the right things but don’t get any of the value (Audio: Agile is a Philosophy, Not a Compliance Regime).

6. Kent Beck reflects on his time at Facebook (Audio).

Some Take-aways

  • Agile (and Lean) are still viable models.
  • One size does not fit all. Different situations may require a different approach to the one you used last time. If you only have a hammer
  • There is no such thing as instant pudding. You cannot copy what someone else does exactly, and expect it to work in your context.
  • It is important to keep learning new things from new fields of thought, and apply what works. Don Reinertsen’s book (above) is a good example.
  • Work-practices should evolve and improve based on feedback loops, and so should your management theory. Adopt continual improvement, using the Deming Cycle.
  • Always refer back to the 12 Principles.

It was very hard to pack my entire journey into this post, and the links above may very well set you in a different (and equally valid path). Good luck!

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Agile

  1. I get Agile. How it can work for development. I can even see why companies like to pick up on its ideas for broader application. There are some loose parallels with how newsrooms operate. That’s where I spent most of my working life. But I can’t see how a large, multifacted organisation can be fully ‘Agile’ in the same sense. What do you think?


    1. Anyone can adopt Agile practices. Many do. A lot fail. What is missing is agile principles, and lean thinking. Newsrooms could adopt agile principles for sure. I’ve heard of kanban being used successfully at scale (look up videos by David J. Anderson). I think the key is that you don’t just switch – it is an evolutionary process. The problem today is everyone wants instant results. Look at Toyota as an example. Improving incrementally for decades, adjusting to the market. Companies that are forced to make a sudden change, I say that is a failure of management. They were asleep at the wheel, in most cases (there are outliers).


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