Agile is Dead – Long Live Agile

Over the last few years, and more loudly since the pandemic, thoughtful people have been declaring the death of Scrum, Agile, and Lean.

For the most part the critics and morticians are missing the real problem.

Are efforts at becoming Lean or Agile failing in most organizations? Yes.

But so are most efforts at increasing employee engagement or psychological safety. And I don’t read anyone suggesting the age of employee engagement or psychological safety are over.

Lean and Agile haven’t failed. Our manipulation of them has.

What is really going on?

The all-too-common failure of Lean and Agile are part of a pernicious pattern of co-option and technocracy that has been going on for at least two centuries.

To get into the depths of this, I strongly recommend reading Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards and Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society. But a quick summary would go like this: For the past couple of hundred years western civilization has tended increasingly towards a technocratic way of being. This has shown up in the rise of automation and mechanical augmentation on the ‘stuff’ side, and in the rise of a formal technocratic elite in institutions like the military, government, and business on the human side.

This technocratic way of being values abstract rationalism, absolutes, mechanical automation, averages and aggregates, and especially control and efficiency, above all other values.

Technocracy absorbs, like a good colonialist process, all other ways of being. It treats all humans as consumers and all reality as something to be consumed. It denies memory, connectedness, and humility.

The Distortion of A Culture

In the middle of the last century, Toyota in Japan came up with a humanistic rethink of collective work (called the Toyota Production System or TPS) that challenges ‘the Taylorist machine’ and its required compliance with abstract power. It suggests a meaningful shift in workplace culture. It works. It changed things for the better.

Our technocratic response? We cut it open, extract a methodology from it, give it a new name (Lean), and threw the messy human culture carcass on the garbage heap.

A few decades later, Agile sprouts up as an expression of TPS values in software development. It drives two important points: (1) highly-structured (‘waterfall’) planning on its own, lacks humility in the face of the unknown, and inevitably fails; and (2) a process that values systems and features over serving humans called customers, inevitably falls short.

But the story repeats itself: instead of centering on the spirit, the soul, of the Agile Manifesto we focus on the technique, the methodology, the mechanics.

Then, when its lifeless Frankenstein shell fails to excite any more, we declare it yesterday’s toy and throw it on the garbage pile as well.

Why do we do this? Why do we engage in this abstracting, technicizing, atomizing, reductionist behaviour? Are we that allergic to the difficult work of digging deeper? To complexity? To the messy and the unpredictable? Are we so bothered by the fact real puppies pee on the floor that we would rather cuddle up with a cold, bladder-free mechanical version at night? Are we that terrified by what we cannot control or consume?

The critics of Lean and Agile workplace formulations deride Ford and Taylor for being anti-human, when they themselves are just as obsessed with the minutiae of technique and language and KPIs and RKOs. Those things matter, but not to the extent that they are the only thing that matters. There is something deeper there, if we pause and look.

Let’s get back to basics

Maybe the ‘old’ language (“Lean”, “Agile”, etc.) has been so co-opted as to be useless. But described by old or new language it is time to call out this pattern of sucking the messy life out of something to make it safe; of replacing cultural complexity with technical efficiency.

Let’s get back to the things the Toyota Production System was always about: reducing waste by increasing autonomy and intelligence in work.

Let’s reclaim the spirit of being agile at work; increasing our responsiveness (in speed and quality) to all stakeholders in a VUCA world.

Let’s do that with this future in mind: replacing consumerism and infinite growth with sustainable value creation.

An Agile Lean Reformation

Not a revolution: a reformation. Let’s refocus on values over techniques (ultimately ethos over techne in the language of the ancient Greek philosophers). Here’s what recommitting to core Agile Lean values in our organizations might look like.

  1. People: The level of ownership – psychological and financial – in the work we do must increase. The idea that owners and shareholders are just renting bodies and minds as a resource, must end. Humans, and the environment that sustains us, must be at the center of the work. Agile Lean has already proposed this (see, for example: Andon Culture) . But we have largely ignored that and instead co-opted Agile Lean as a technique for increasing efficiency in the service of value extraction. Time to reverse that and put life back into the work.
  2. Connection: The connection between people and people, people and their work, and people and their organizations must improve. We have to rethink how organizations are constituted and scaled. Scale has come at unacceptable social and psychological costs – and costs in innovation – and must be rethought. Connected, collaborative, diverse thought is the only way forward. Our connections with the planet and the biosphere must be understood and recalibrated in order for us to stop behaving as homo parasiticus and earn legitimately the descriptor homo sapiens (which is a crown we put on our own head, Cartesian style, without merit).
  3. Questions: As a shout-out to the remarkable work of Edgar Schein, we must embrace – always – situational humility. We don’t know. We don’t know almost anything. Let’s proceed with more humility, with the iterative, experimental, humble steps that are at the core of Agile, or Lean approaches like the five whys. The question is the answer until we have the core answer.
  4. Data: Digital technologies are critical in our ability to evolve our understanding and our ability to create value. But as we seek to improve our organizations and our decisions and behaviours, digital data are not enough. We have to broaden our understanding of data in at least two dimensions: Data must help us ask better questions, not just increase efficiencies; data must also include the values of memory, stories, and common sense. The tendency of digital data to privilege the abstract and the efficient, and data technicians to privilege anti-human hyper-rationality (evidenced in the phrase “data-driven“) above all other values, will be the end of our civilization and our planet. Let’s change that.
  5. Stakeholder capitalism: Call it what you want, but whatever you call it, an alternative to shareholder capitalism and its apotheosis in the mindless and value-destroying dynamics of the secondary public markets, must be found. The current structure incentivizes short term value extraction over long term value creation, and I’ve seen no way to change that. The model has to be replaced.

Lean and Agile are at heart models of inquiry, human engagement, waste reduction, value creation, and continual improvement (which is not the same as continual growth), in response to an evolving universe and evolving understanding. They are effective tools in supporting the five areas of opportunity described above.

Maybe the names of Lean and Agile have too much baggage. Maybe they need to be reframed. But looking back at their histories, and looking into their core intentions, to dismiss them carries every risk of doing what we have done again and again: replace digging deep and doing the difficult work of seekers on a journey of mastery-through-humility, with facile work as cherry- picking consumers endlessly chasing the next shiny thing.

Thank you for reading.

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Clemens Rettich

About the Author

Clemens Rettich

I am an organizational consultant and educator with over 20 years of experience in supporting the improvement of organizations and organizational management across North America. I work at the intersection of people, systems, and change with a human-culture-first mindset that values joy, innovation, and collaboration. As a teaching professor at the University of Victoria's Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, I teach in the areas of leadership and organizational behaviour. In my work I explore the nature of the human organization in a post-colonial, post-technocratic society. I hold an MBA (Leadership and Organizations), and an undergraduate degree in music (Musicology, Performance). My areas of practice include management and leadership, organizational behaviour, process improvement, organizational change, and talent development and training.
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