Why?

the underlying problem

The world is more complex and unpredictable than it appears, and that complexity and unpredictability is increasing steadily. In complex domains, plan-driven and prescriptive approaches to performing and managing work are inherently fragile.

Unpredictability

Increasing complexity driven by technical innovation is causing our world to become increasingly unpredictable. The rise of Amazon, Arab Spring, and the post-launch explosion of Pokémon Go are but a few examples of technology-catalyzed complexity and disruption.

Emerging technologies will create more and faster connections between us than we can imagine. The emergence of AI, quantum computing, and 5G will usher in a new era of innovation and opportunity, while simultaneously generating threats and disruption like we’ve never seen before.

The result? Organizations, people, plans, and systems unable to cope with high levels of unpredictability are becoming increasingly fragile, scrambling to stay relevant—and it’s only going to get harder.

Fragility

Fragile things “break” when exposed to disorder. Most human-designed systems, from jet engines to project plans, are fragile because they are composed of parts with rigid or hidden dependencies. When one or more of those dependencies is unsatisfied, these systems lose their integrity and cease to function.

Many of us share the experience when a single failed part lands our car at in the shop, or when weather somewhere delays a connecting flight stranding us in a musty motel room overnight. Less obvious are the broken dependencies that wreck strategies, project plans, or other initiatives.

But we usually do this to ourselves. Our successes in certain domains have spawned an overconfidence in our plans and grand designs.

Hubris

Most of the systems and processes we develop are fragile because we think we are better at seeing interdependencies and predicting events than we really are. Modern human achievements, particularly in the physical sciences, have made us believe that we can analyze, model, and predict virtually anything. This shift toward scientism, in business at least, began with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management.

Plans, designs, and roadmaps are models that, when applied to complex domains, fail to provide much predictive value. Understanding and modeling simple and direct cause and effect doesn’t translate to domains where the number of subtle immeasurable cause and effect relationships are many, linked by invisible feedback loops and time delays.

Ironically, Agile conferences are packed with sessions about analyzing and synthesizing agile workflows, distanced from Taylorism in name only. Most agile frameworks merely replace one form of fragility with another. 

Fragile Agile

“Agile” was a step in the right direction because it fought against certain types of rigid dependencies that made software delivery fragile. However, modern agile adoption usually abandons mastery of agile values and principles in favor of “agile frameworks”, recipes that you can essentially buy and follow. Good intentions, arrogance, and ignorance combined to produce agile frameworks that promise to “make you agile” for a price (and subject to the terms and condition in the fine print).

As pre-defined systems in their own right, frameworks are essentially complicated machines with some parts to be provided by you. Like any complicated machine, all the vital parts need to be in place and in good working condition for the machine to function. The problem is compounded when, even if you have all the pieces in place, the machine if forced into a culture for with it wasn’t designed.

A common example is the role of Product Owner (PO) in Scrum. An engaged, knowledgable, and empowered PO is a mandatory component in the Scrum machine. But what if your organization has a product management structure composed of functional business managers supported by Business Analysts without any real authority? Guess what? Even if you’ve done everything else right, until you figure out how to fill the Product Owner gap, you don’t get to be agile. Sorry.

Finally, even agile done well is a half-measure, and is relative. As sure as the sun will rise, your current level of agility will soon be the norm if it isn’t already. You will become fragile to the next wave, and it’s coming sooner than you think. What has emerged it a kind of organic agility, without the frameworks.

Fragile Teal

Attempts have been made to escape prediction-based organizations and prescriptive process frameworks in favor of emergent organizations called “teal organizations.” These organizations represent the shift from a command-and-control to a distributed governance model that responds rapidly to local conditions, significantly increasing their resilience. Teal organizations are a further step in the right direction but suffer from a couple significant challenges.

First, they are implemented using a framework of rules which constitutes a complicated, and therefore fragile, “machine.” So like complex agile frameworks, most organizations will fail to successfully get all the pieces mandated by the rulebook in place and functioning.

Second, although they can change rapidly in response to stressors, there is nothing to ensure the changes that they make are good ones because they are subject to the same influences and biases that already cause people to make bad decisions. So although they can move quickly, there is nothing inherent in their rules ensure that their movements are good.

What do we do about it?

Companies are closing their doors at an accelerating rate. Do we fall for another restatement of agile values and principles? Do we continue to chase one mechanistic management approach after the next? No—The answer lies in understanding and applying simple rules to counter the very nature of fragility itself.

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