Complex, Fast-Paced and Uncertain
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Agile isn’t a panacea or solution to every type of work you want to do in any situation. In fact, if you tried to run an agile approach in some contexts or environments, you’d probably just cause yourself a lot more work, create a lot more confusion and even put your delivery at risk. So I thought it was worth setting out what I see as the three key elements that need to exist in an organisation’s context or external environment that together make an agile approach more appropriate than any other approach.
The first is complexity, in the sense of is the context or environment in which you are operating complex. Now complex seems like a pretty simple word, but there’s actually a whole school of academic research looking into it as a concept. As a result, there isn’t a single way of defining when an environment is or isn’t complex. However, it’s generally felt that if there are a lot of different things going on in an environment, and they’re all interacting with each other in lots of different ways, then that is very likely a complex environment. There’s also something non-linear about complex environments, that the things that happen in them jump around and emerge in surprising, unpredictable ways. By these standards, it’s pretty clear that the Internet is a complex environment, so if you’re working in digital in any capacity, from marketing to software development, you’re almost certainly working in a complex environment.
As for fast paced, this one is more self-explanatory. Are things in the external environment changing so quickly that they’re hard to keep up with? A great example of this from the world of digital comms was the whole Meerkat / Periscope thing that happened in early 2015. One week, people started talking about Meerkat, a service for streaming video from your phone live on Twitter. Literally the next week, Twitter announced that it had bought (and so was backing) Periscope, a practically identical service. Meerkat went from being the next big thing people had to get their heads around to pretty much nothing at all within the space of a week. That’s a fast-paced environment.
Finally, the context or environment should be uncertain. This can mean a few different things. On the one hand, it could mean that you or your organisation isn’t certain about what’s going on out there, or the best way to handle it. Alternatively, it could mean that no-one, neither you nor your competitors, is certain about what’s going on, and are all muddling through as best you can. A third option is that you’re operating in a context or environment where certainty just isn’t possible. No matter how much research you did, no matter how many different things you tried out, not matter what success metrics you measured, you still couldn’t be certain about what’s going on. We don’t like to admit that this third option happens too often, but I suspect it happens more than we think.
To give some more context to the idea of complex, fast-paced and uncertain environments, let’s consider a project that isn’t operating in one of these. A good example of this would be a civil engineering project, say building a bridge. It’s not very likely to be complex, as there will only be a few different things going on that affect the project, such as the weather, the availability of external funding and a few different contractors and suppliers, ones you’ve probably worked with before if civil engineering is your thing. It’s not particularly fast-paced either. Sure, there will be a delivery deadline, but chances are no-one’s going to want to put the future integrity of the bridge and the safety of those using it at risk by trying to rush things. Finally, none of it is very uncertain either. You understand and can be certain about the basic laws of physics that will affect on the bridge once it’s built, as those laws aren’t going to change any time soon. You know how long things like concrete will take to set, and you know how much weight the bridge will be able to hold based on its specification. Trying to build a bridge using an agile approach would at best be a massive, confusing overhead, and at worst actively dangerous.
So then, that’s what I’m talking about when I say agile is best for working in complex, fast-paced and uncertain environments. Do you think I’ve got this right though? Are there any other elements of organisational contexts or environments you think should be included in this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.