Agile is a mindset, not a religion

Agile is a mindset, not a religion

Quite a few organizations ‘preach’ agile. To be fair, results that have been achieved with agile – also at ING – speak for themselves. However, dogmatically sticking to agile rituals can backfire if it results in less flexibility. This is why we should occasionally ask ourselves the following question: why do we actually work agile?

At its core, agile is an organization method that should result in more agility, enabling us to respond faster and better to the latest market developments. For example, it has allowed ING to deal with relative ease with the Covid-19 pandemic in the Netherlands. Hybrid working, which is mainly managed on output (or rather: outcomes) instead of input, fits very well with agile. Many people at ING don’t even want to go back to the old situation of mandatory presence at the office and with fixed working hours. In addition, the output of many business units has increased dramatically.

Still, the question remains whether sticking too rigidly to agile is worth its while everywhere. What is, for example, the added value of a daily stand up in a sales department, where employees have to meet their sales targets? Or another example: the Agile Manifesto prefers ‘working software over comprehensive documentation’. Does that also apply to jobs where work must above all be transferable and manageable? Or take the Spotify Model: very popular in the agile work method as a scaling framework. A model created in response to a very specific situation at Spotify, ten years ago. It is tailored to a unique organization culture and context. Creators Henrik Kniberg and Anders Ivarsson have stated themselves several times: be inspired, but please do not copy blindly. Inspect, measure and adapt.

There is a number of things that in my experience work very well in an ever increasing complexity: visualizing and introducing a rhythm to utilize these visualizations to learn and improve based on facts.

The world has become VUCA

The founders of the Agile Manifesto – seventeen people including well-known names in the agile space such as Ken Schwaber, Martin Fowler and Alistair Cockburn – are anti-structuralists at heart. With the Manifesto they wanted to organize work differently. With more focus on people and how they can help each other to deliver better products. Human interaction is more important than tools, working software takes precedence over extensive documentation.

The world we live in has now become ‘VUCA’: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Agile not only has something to say about organizing processes but also about the way you lead. It is important to set down a clear vision, provide clarity and be a guide for your people.

We all know the well-known examples of companies where a lack of flexibility meant their downfall. Think of Nokia, who hesitated too long before joining the touchscreen phone game. Or Blackberry, who just couldn’t say goodbye to their physical keyboards. Recently I read a blog by development coach Sebastiaan van der Valk, in which he described the qualities that leaders in a ‘VUCA World’ should possess. One of these is an ‘immersive learning ability’: being able to learn from new situations again and again. You will never make the wrong choice, as long as you can adapt over and over again.

What value are you going to create?

In my opinion, three elements make agile very powerful. First, to build in short cyclical decision moments, so you can stop or adjust a project based on a continuous feedback loop. Second, motivating people to create a better product together. And third, combining insights, creating an ‘economy of scale’ with which you arrive at a winning solution. This is quite demanding for leadership. Leaders must be clear about their goals and vision and be able to motivate and enable their people. After all, people and the value they create remain crucial to agile. So to answer the initial question of this blog (‘why do we work agile?’): it is all about the value you are going to create with your team. So, my question to you is: what value and impact are you going to make?