Over the course of time, various methodologies to improve organisations have come and gone. ‘Magic cures’ or panaceas promised to solve our problems, but instead turned into fads and died, only to make way for the next wave of ‘new thinking’ and jargon. In this article, we investigate the limitations of ‘Agile’ methodologies and whether they are just another fad, or if there is a better way for organisations to achieve true agility?

When does a methodology turn into a fad?

A panacea or fad is a methodology that can be characterised using ‘Diffusion of Innovation (DOI) Theory’ developed by E.M. Rogers. The model indicates that the first group of people to embrace something new are called ‘Innovators’, followed by ‘Early Adopters’. Next, are the ‘Early Majority’ then ‘Late Majority’, with the last group to eventually adopt termed the ‘Laggards’.

Attached to each of these ‘adopter’ phases are belief systems that begin to develop around the ‘cure’. For example, when a new methodology is created, the ‘Innovators’ begin to use it. Next, the ‘Early adopters’ jump in, promoting the promise that this methodology is better than the last. Popularisation occurs in the ‘Early majority’ through promulgation by ‘thought-leaders’ who write books, articles, blogs, social media posts and give presentations at conferences. The big consultancies then enter and begin marketing and selling frameworks and solutions to the ‘Late majority’, and finally, the ‘Laggards’ catch up through the ‘fear of missing out (FOMO)’.

When the purported benefits of a methodology do not materialise or cannot be sustained, it is labelled a ‘fad’ and begins to lose favour and eventually starts to die out. However, even when there are numerous well-publicised failures; there will be those who remain loyal and believe that it would have worked, it’s just that ‘people didn’t do it properly’. The most common defence is to point to what has worked and ignore the rest. After all, ‘it works perfectly well if you do it right’, is the defenders retort.

The greatest irony though, is that as one methodology wanes, a new methodology appears to take its place – often the same methodology, but repackaged in new language. And then we are off again with Innovators, Early adopters… We call this the ‘Fad Lifecycle’.


Are ‘Agile’ methodologies a fad?

If you are involved in transformation today, then you will no doubt be aware of the term ‘Agile’. ‘Agile’ started as a manifesto to guide software development, but over the ensuing years it morphed into a methodology for project management. More recently, companies selling the ‘Agile’ solution actually recommend that it should be implemented across the entire organisation.

Certainly, an outstanding job has been done at marketing ‘Agile’ methodologies, so much so, that today, ‘Agile’ is in no doubt part of the mainstream lexicon, with both the ‘Late majority’ and ‘Laggards’ now embarking on transformations using ‘Agile ways of working’. ‘Agile’ has become trendy and is promoted as the real cure to outdated command-and-control styles of management, going way beyond the purpose for which it was created.

Unfortunately, as we have seen through the Fad Lifecycle, popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to results.  Experience is showing that ‘Agile’ methodologies are limited in what they can do in terms of transforming organisations, and they are at serious risk of joining their predecessors in the long procession of failed fads. Remember ‘Total Quality Management’, ‘Process Re-Engineering’, ‘Balanced Scorecard’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Self-Directed Teams’? Time has proven that they too were not the cure they claimed to be.

Even so, organisations have invested significant outlays on Agile transformation programs, but when these programs are studied to test their ability to influence and create a shift in organisational behaviour and leadership capability, all are found wanting.

When we work with organisations that are using ‘Agile’ methodologies, employees inform us that their organisation may appear agile but refer to it as ‘putting lipstick on a pig’. They cite, for example, that they may look agile with all the trademark symbols like post-its on the walls, stand-up meetings and new ways of working, but beyond this veneer, little of substance has really changed.  

‘Agile’ methodologies are limited. They all lack the practical method required to solve core issues hindering true agility such as: control from above; negative mythologies underpinning culture; stultifying systems and structure; quality of leadership; negative team behaviour; lack of clarity in role, accountability, authority, and working relationships.

Tellingly, ‘Agile’ methodologies ignore these core issues and instead focus on the low hanging fruit: the work and organisation of the work. The reason ‘Agile’ methodologies fall short is the lack of good organisational theory that addresses why people behave as they do and how to build a productive organisation. Through the lack of practical methods to solve core issues along with an absence of real knowledge and testable theory, potential benefits from introducing ‘Agile’ methodologies are predictably constrained and often not realised at all.

In light of ‘Agile’ methodology transformation failures, there are those that claim that newer ‘Agile’ methodologies – such as ‘DevOps’, ‘Modern Agile’, ‘The Spotify Way’ and ‘Strategic Agility’ – will ‘do it this time’. And here begins the first stage of the Fad Lifecycle again!

Making the potential of organisational agility a reality  

Progressive leaders are aware of the fad lifecycle and the trendy nature of ‘Agile’ methodologies. They recognise that ‘Agile ways of working’ and the like focus on the work and the organisation of work, which they understand is a good first step, but they also see the limitations in these approaches. They understand that these methodologies do not lead to the changes in systems and structure necessary to ensure lasting improvements in their organisations.

To realise the considerable potential of an ‘Agile’ organisation, progressive leaders recognise there first needs to be a reconceiving of the organisation’s core – one where sound organisational theory is used to create a productive organisation, which results in:

  • everybody having clarity of what they do, how well they are working, as an individual and as part of a team, and what authority they have to make decisions;
  • clear understanding of shared mythologies underpinning organisational culture;
  • productive social cohesion that enables people to work productively to their potential;
  • a structure that recognises work complexity to ensure everyone works on the right work, has the right authority, the right capability, and demonstrates positive behaviour;
  • quantitative measures that help understand if workloads are being managed effectively and customers are receiving value;
  • leaders continuously and systematically seeking to understand how people experience their work, their leader and the organisation;
  • clear understanding of all hierarchical and lateral working relationships; and
  • leaders at all levels consistently use positive leadership behaviour and symbolism to create effective ways for people to work together

 Our own recent experience provides a telling example of the contrast between implementing an ‘Agile’ methodology and adopting the above principles. A large Australian organisation had undertaken an Agile transformation. Nearly every workspace had post-its on the walls, stand-up meetings were occurring daily, and the organisation had been reorganised into Squads, Chapters, Tribes and Guilds using the ‘Spotify Model’. Training had been conducted throughout the organisation, and various ‘Agile’ coaches had been employed to facilitate learning and improvement.

Senior leaders, however, were disappointed with the results, and we were called into the organisation to help to identify and address what wasn’t working as it should be. We helped the organisation apply new principles to build leadership capability, create a productive organisation and create lasting positive change in people’s behaviour and culture. Once this organisational shift was made, the long sought after results began to be realised and recognised throughout the organisation as a successful transformation.

A highly regarded Agile practitioner, and one of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto, visited the organisation and was amazed by the new productive organisational design and the resulting change in behaviour.

Through the application of new thinking in an organisation, it is finally possible to achieve true agility and break free of the Fad Lifecycle.

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