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Book Review: Doing Agile Right - So It Doesn't Die On The Vine


Cover of Doing Agile Right by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve BerezI called up a friend of mine the other night. He’s in the C-suite of a big bank. Really big. I mainly called him so we could share with each other our sheer amazement at the jaw-dropping, world-changing, lethality, and fear we are all going through right now. 

We also talked about leadership. About how, in these times, it is more important than ever for leaders to be Agile. To be able to rapidly change course at the drop of a hat. The world changes fast. Always has. But now it’s faster. 

In that conversation, I shared with him some thoughts from Doing Agile Right, a new book co-authored by Darrell Rigby. He is a partner at Bain & Company. You can read a full excerpt here.

Darrell has been a mentor of mine for years and now he has written some of his wisdom and experience down. It’s required reading for any leader in this time of COVID. The book is not a book just extolling the power of Agility filled with just-so stories. It delves into real people and real problems.

Here’s how it often works: Top leaders plan the agile transformation for their subordinates, not for themselves. They create a high-powered program management office to drive the change. This office generates detailed budgets, milestones, and execution roadmaps, complete with Gantt charts and stoplight reporting systems, to ensure conformance to plans. It creates a slew of agile teams, typically led by Taylorists who are fresh from two days of training. When one of the teams registers a success, however tenuous, the program office broadcasts it, in hopes of convincing both internal and external audiences that the initiative is working precisely as planned. Meanwhile, the leadership team continues operating much as before, supervising and (often) micromanaging their subordinates, a group that now includes members of agile teams. These leaders frequently tell the teams not only what to do but how to do it. After all, isn’t that the job of an executive? 

But Agile dies on the vine when it is micromanaged from above All the agile language about self-management, testing, and learning, and so forth begins to feel like a sham. Anyway, the tools of topdown management don’t work in an agile environment. Benchmarks turn out to be worthless outside their unique contexts. Predictive plans are usually wrong because they fail to recognize or adapt to unpredictable system dynamics. We use a survey called the Bain Agility Quotient to diagnose the health and maturity of agile initiatives throughout an organization. Wherever the Taylorist approach thrives, the perception gaps between senior executives and team members are large. Senior executives describe the company’s agile initiatives as successful and satisfying. Team members, who are closer to the action, describe them as disappointing and frustrating, not much different from traditional task forces.

At first, we thought the executives must be lying, but we soon discovered they are merely out of touch. They are so distant from the agile work that they only know what subordinates tell them, and subordinates tell them only what they want to hear. To be sure, some agile teams have succeeded even in Taylorist enterprises. They stay under executives’ radar, and they thrive in spite of senior management rather than because of it. But a true agile transformation requires the active involvement and support of the company’s leaders. Senior executives who really want to scale agile will do better by showing others how to do it than by sending subordinates off to training seminars. They themselves must understand agile, love it, and use its methods in teams of their own. Gandhi famously said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” So it is with agile.

I love that line, “At first we thought the executives must be lying…” But it does show how easy it is to misread reality. Doing Agile Right is great, not because it points out the problems, but because it gives you solutions. Case studies, patterns, and ways of working that you can adopt into your organization. It really is a guide on how to do it right.

My friend and I hung up when the tugging of children and the call of dinner overcame our conversation. But we did agree on one thing. Agility is not simply a better way to compete. Now it’s a survival skill.


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