The Agile virus

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The thing we call Agile is a virus. It gets into organizations and disrupts the normal course of business. In the early days, say before 2010, the corporate anti-bodies could be counted on to root out and destroy the virus before too much damage was done.

But sometimes the anti-bodies didn’t work. As the old maxim says “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Sometimes agile made the organization stronger. Software development teams produced more stuff, they delivered on schedule, employees were happier, they had fewer bugs. In smaller, less established companies, the virus infected the company central nervous system, the operating system, and subverted it. Agile became natural.

Perhaps thats not so odd after all. Fighting infection is one of the ways bodies grow stronger. And some virus have positive effects – Friendly Viruses Protect Us Against Bacteria (Science Magazine),
‘Good viruses’ defend gut when bacteria are wiped out (New Scientist), 10 Viruses That Actually Help Humankind (ListVerse), and virus play a roll in evolution by removing the weaker of the species.

The problem is, once the virus is inside the organization/organism it wants to grow and expand. It you don’t kill it then it will infect more and more of the body. Hence, software teams that contracted the agile virus and found it beneficial were allowed to survive but at the same time the virus spread downstream to the requirements process. Business Analysts and Product Managers had to become agile too.

Once you are infected you start to see the world through infected eyes. Over time the project model looked increasingly counter productive. Growth of the agile virus lead to the #NoProjects movement as the virus started to change management models.

Similar things are happening in the accounting and budgeting field. As the agile virus takes hold, and especially once the #NoProjects mutation kicks in, the annual budget process looks crazy. Agile creates a force for more change, agile demands Beyond Budgetting. Sure you can do agile in a traditional budget environment but the more you do the more contradictions you see and the more problems you encounter.

Then there is “human resources” – or to give it a more humane name personnel. Traditional staff recruitment, line management, individual bonuses and retention polices start to look wrong when you are infected by agile. Forces grow to change things, the more the organization resists the virus the more those infected by the virus grow discontent and the more unbalanced things become.

It carries on. The more successful agile is the greater the forces pressing for more change.

While companies don’t recognise these forces they grow. Hierarchical organizations and cultures (like banks) have this really bad. At the highest level they have come to recognise the advantages of the agile virus but to embrace it entirely is to destroy the essence of the organization.

Countless companies try to contain the agile virus but to do so they need to exert more and more energy. Really they need to kill it or embrace it and accept the mutation that is the virus.

Ultimately it all comes down to forces. The forces of status quo and traditional working (Theory X) on one side against the forces of twenty-first century digital enabled millennial workforce (Theory Y) on the other. Victory for the virus is inevitable but that does not mean every organization will be victorious or even survive. Those who can harness the virus fastest stand to gain the most.

The virus has been released, putting the genie back in the bottle is going to be hard – although the paradox of digital technology is that while the digital elite stand to gain the digital underclass (think Amazon warehouse workers) stand to lose.

All companies need to try to embrace the virus, to not do so would be to condemn oneself. But not all will succeed, in fact most will fail trying. Their failures will allow space for new comers to succeed, that is the beauty of capitalism. Unfortunately that space might be also be grabbed by the winners, the companies that have let the virus take over the organization.


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