This is a big topic. Be prepared for installments. Also sweeping generalisations about large organisations, for which there are a number (small) of very good counter-examples.
Webster’s describes someone who is agile as being: “marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace; having a quick resourceful and adaptable character”.
The Agile Manifesto offers these priorities for Agile software development:
Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools
Working Software over comprehensive documentation
Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to Change over following a plan
And Dilbert describes it this way:
“That means no more planning and no more documentation. Just start writing code and complaining.” and
“Agile programming doesn’t just mean doing more work with fewer people.”
Webster’s defintion would be a good place to start; the Agile Manifesto offers some very applicable wisdom, and is underpinned by some quality thinking on good principles. Guess which one of the three definitions is the one you’ll come across most often?
“Doing more work with fewer people, no planning, no documentation” (and often: no requirements, no engagement from the business, but still the expectation that the documentation turns up and you can tell 6 months ahead what you’ll deliver then…)
To understand the reason why this happens, we have to consider what most corporate psyches value. The vast majority of large organisations you will work for (whether as a permanent worker or a consultant/freelance) are listed on some kind of stock market, and it is important to understand how this influences corporate culture and psychology. Stock markets value one thing more than its true value, and to the exclusion of valuing at times the more obvious things. I am not talking of profit. I am not talking of long-term shareholder value. I am talking of predictability.
When working in a number of large organisations it has become clear to me that the ability to disrupt expectations – even by delivering value early, or cheaply – is not valued in relation to its contribution to the short or long term value of the business; large organisations complain that they are unable to be truly innovative (which by observation I would say is often true), and instead spend large sums of money investing in, and purchasing, solutions from the truly innovative, smaller organisations; or outright buying those smaller organisations. Large organisations often have organisational units devoted to innovation (which in itself tells us a lot about the culture they have vis-a-vis innovation), and talk a good talk about disrupting the market; but fail to recognise that it is their own culture which is stifling innovation, and it is apart from anything else this drive for predictability which has its hands firmly clutched around the throat of anything new.
Explicity: I believe a predictable failure is often more palatable than an unexpected success.
To realise the full value of the kind of change which Agile working can bring, there are an army of obstacles which need to be overcome. The predictability culture is one, and it casts a shadow downwards from the CEO or the CFO across the whole organisation, until it reaches a level where the conscious understanding of the need for it has evaporated, and has been replaced by a cultural, reactive, instinctive mistrust of the unpredictable. This inflexibility is characterised by the lack of responsiveness to opportunities, as well as the squashing of innovation. It is most frustrating when exhibited without explanation or conscious knowledge by the low-end of senior management.
So when large organisations talk about becoming more agile, they aren’t always saying what they mean. They don’t truly believe they can or should become capable of turning around new product development within a shorter period than ever before, truly responsive to the market place, and bringing unexpected new value to their bottom line. They mean instead an incremental adjustment to average project life cycle with attendant cost benefits. They mean the same old thing, but a bit slicker. They mean the Dilbert definition.
The good news for those organisations is that it is almost certainly possible for them to do more with less, and without the difficulties that adopting a truly Agile approach across the whole organisation would bring. The bad news for them is that sooner or later, another, more disruptive and innovative organisation is going to eat their lunch. (And to be clear, I don’t think the adoption of Agile development or Agile delivery replacing waterfall project delivery is the key reason why. It is instead the very wise saying: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, attributed to Peter Drucker and Mark Fields variously, hits the nail on the head.)